There’s nothing like a glass of bubbly to mark a joyful occasion – whether it’s to ring in the New Year in January, or to toast a happy couple at a summer wedding – or just to chink glasses with an old friend.
But what is a sparkling wine, and how do they put the bubbles in? Is champagne a sparkling wine, and is all sparkling wine champagne? We answer these questions and more in our Ultimate Guide to Sparkling Wine…
What is Sparkling Wine?
Sparkling wine contains carbon dioxide bubbles, which make that lovely fizz. This carbonation happens in a second fermentation process that can either be done once the wine is in the bottle, or in a large vat before bottling.
The best-known (and perhaps most glamorous?) sparkling wine is, of course, Champagne, which is produced in the Champagne region of France; but there are many other sparkling wine varieties produced in different regions of the world. Prosecco comes from Italy, Cava from Spain, and the US, Australia, South Africa and even the UK also produce their own sparkling wine varieties. Crémant is the name given to French sparkling wine that is produced outside the Champagne region and rules.
Unlike still wine, sparkling is classified from dry to sweet: brut nature, brut, extra dry, dry, demi-sec, doux. The broad majority are white and are usually best served chilled, but red and rose sparkling varieties are produced too.
The history of sparkling wine dates back several centuries and involves various regions and winemaking techniques. The ancient Romans and Greeks were familiar with effervescent wines, but considered them faulty and undesirable, because it was usually an unwanted side effect from an uncontrolled production process.
In the 17th century, winemakers in Champagne started to notice that a secondary fermentation happened in the bottle during the colder winter months, resulting in bubbles. Again this was initially seen as a flaw, but before long (and no doubt some very enjoyable sampling!) the deliberate production of sparkling wines began, and the spread to other regions in Europe and around the world followed on.
How is Sparkling Wine Made?
Champagne is only made using the traditional method, also known as méthode champenoise or méthode traditionnelle. The secondary fermentation process takes place in the bottle, with yeast and sugar added to the still wine, producing carbon dioxide and creating the bubbles.
The Charmat method of second fermentation originates in Italy in the production of Prosecco, and traps the bubbles while the still wine is in large steel tanks, prior to bottling. This is also known as Metodo Italiano, the Marinotti method, the tank method, or Cuve Close: “sealed tank,” from the French word cuvée meaning “vat”.
The méthode traditionelle requires the wine to stay in the bottle longer, exposing it for longer to the dead yeast cells(lees) which can give the wine a nuttier, more mature flavour. The process of disgorging removes the lees from the bottle before the cork is inserted. Charmat method wines are bottled straight after the secondary fermentation in the vat, so the flavours are often fresher and fruitier, keeping more of the grapes’ aroma.
The carbonation process using the Charmat method also uses a lower level of pressure, which gives a slightly softer fizz effect. The wines are also filtered, which leaves them clear and sediment-free.
Italy’s Prosecco, Lambrusco, and Asti Spumante are typically produced via the Charmat method, as are German sparkling wines and many from the USA.
Grapes in Sparkling Wine
Rosé Champagnes are made using Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and the black-skinned grapes are softened (or macerated) until gives the final pinkish rosé effect is produced.
Glera grapes chiefly make up a bottle of Prosecco, and there are rules on the proportions for it to be classified as Prosecco – more on this later. Spanish Cava is made up of Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada grape varieties.
Pinot Grigio and Glera, both highly aromatic grape varieties, give a fruity flavour to the sparkling wines they produce. These wines often originate in warmer growing regions, such as Italy and California.
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which are less aromatic, give a drier, zestier flavour to the wines they produce, and are also likely to come from cooler wine regions.
Sweeter sparkling wines are made with aromatic grapes like Muscat (or Moscato), or can also be sweetened during production.
Different Types of Sparkling Wine
Champagne: Region, rules, flavour profiles
The production of champagne follows specific rules and regulations set by the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) regulations in France, to ensure its quality and authenticity – and a sparkling wine cannot be labelled as “champagne” unless it meets all the criteria. In brief, this is what’s required:
Geographic Origin: it must be produced in the Champagne region of France, located northeast of Paris.
Grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier must be the primary grapes. Other grape varieties are permitted in blends, but in much smaller quantities.
Harvesting: Grapes for champagne must be hand-picked.
Fermentation: The extracted juice, also known as the “must,” undergoes primary fermentation in vats or barrels.
Blending: Most champagnes are made by blending different wines, and these are restricted to achieve a consistent style and flavour profile.
Secondary Fermentation: the carbonation is achieved in-bottle, using the méthode champenoise.
Aging: After secondary fermentation, the bottles are stored horizontally in cellars to undergo aging on the lees (the dead yeast cells). Non-vintage champagnes are typically aged for at least 15 months, while vintage champagnes require a minimum of 3 years.
Champagne’s flavour can vary, depending on the grape variety, aging and the containers used; but all champagnes tend to have fruity, citrusy notes and older ones can taste quite nutty.
Prosecco: Region, rules, flavour profiles
Prosecco is primarily produced in the Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia regions of Italy. Its production rules are less strict than those for champagne, and are governed by the Prosecco DOC and Prosecco DOCG regulations.
Geographic Origin: Prosecco must be produced in specific designated regions of northeastern Italy, primarily the Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia regions.
Grape Varieties: the Glera grape variety must comprise at least 85% of the wine.
Fermentation: this is done in stainless steel tanks using the Charmat method.
Aging: minimum aging requirements for Prosecco DOCG are 30 days, while Prosecco DOC requires a minimum of 20 days.
Bottling: After fermentation and aging, Prosecco is bottled under pressure to maintain its effervescence. It is usually bottled in the traditional champagne-style bottles with cork and wire cage.
Prosecco can also come in different styles: Prosecco Spumante (fully sparkling), Prosecco Frizzante (lightly sparkling), and Prosecco Tranquillo (still). Each style has its specific production and labelling requirements.
Proseccos also vary in flavour, but often share tropical, vanilla and hazelnut tones.
Cava: Region, rules, flavour profiles
Cava is produced primarily the Catalonia region of Spain, although it can also be made in other specific regions. The production of Cava follows specific regulations established by the Regulatory Board of the Designation of Origin (DO) Cava.
Geographic Origin: Cava must be produced in designated regions, primarily in Catalonia, which includes Penedès, Tarragona, and Barcelona. Valencia, La Rioja, and Extremadura are also authorised.
Grape Varieties: Cava can be made from several grape varieties, both white and red. The main varieties include Macabeo (Viura), Xarel·lo, and Parellada.
Fermentation: usually done using the Charmat method, in stainless steel vats – although some producers do also follow the methode traditionelle.
Aging: The bottles are stored horizontally in cellars for a minimum period. The time requirements depend on the style:
– Non-vintage: minimum 9 months.
– Cava Reserva: minimum 15 months.
– Cava Gran Reserva: minimum of 30 months.
Sweetening: a small mix of wine and sugar is added to adjust the sweetness level of the Cava. The dosage determines the final sweetness level of the Cava, ranging from Brut Nature (no added sugar) to Sweet.
Cava usually carries citrus flavours, with hints of almond and apple.
Crémant: Region, rules, flavour profiles
Crémant wines are produced in various French regions, including Alsace, Bourgogne (Burgundy), Jura, Limoux, Loire Valley, and Savoie. Each region has its own specific regulations for producing Crémant.
The grape varieties used in Crémant production vary depending on the region. For example:
- Crémant d’Alsace: Mainly made from Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Chardonnay.
- Crémant de Bourgogne: Primarily made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with some other grape varieties allowed, such as Gamay and Aligoté.
- Crémant de Loire: Utilizes a range of grape varieties, including Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, and others.
Crémant wines are made using the méthode traditionnelle, and are often a more affordable alternative to champagne.
Pears, apples, grapefruits and almonds are the predominant crémant flavours.
English Sparkling Wine: Region, rules, flavour profiles
The majority of English-made wines are sparkling, and they come chiefly from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Precoce, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris grapes. Most producers follow the méthode traditionnelle for creating the fizz, rather than the Charmat method. There are no set rules for English sparkling wine production, and due to the English climate, most vineyards are found in the south east and south west.
English sparkling wine flavours have typically English fruit influences – gooseberry, elderflower, and red apples.
How to Choose a Quality Sparkling Wine
Choosing a quality sparkling wine involves a few key factors. Here are some tips to help you select a great bottle.
Understanding the Label
Label requirements vary between countries of origin and their individual requirements, but broadly speaking, you will find the following information on your bottle:
Appellation: this tells you where it’s from. Champagne must be from Champagne, and Cava and Prosecco have origin rules as well so you can be assured of the quality.
The Producer: the name of the establishment that turned the grapes into the wine within.
The Vintage: the year of production, or NV (Non-Vintage) if it’s a blend of years
Dryness / Sweetness (dosage):
Brut Nature: no sugar is added and it contains less than 3 grams of sugar per litre (g/l)
Extra Brut: 0 to 6 g/l
Brut: less than 12 g/l
Extra Dry: between 12 and 17 g/l
Dry: between 17 and 32 g/l
Demi-Sec: between 32 and 50 g/l
Doux: more than 50 g/l
Alcohol Content and bottle size will usually appear at the bottom corners.
On champagne bottles, you will also see the blend and colour of grape varieties – blanc de blanc (all Chardonnay), blanc de noirs (Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier). It will also have the village it came from, and sometimes the exact address!
Choosing a good-quality bottle of sparkling wine
Check to see if the label states a vintage year, or if it says NV (non-vintage). Vintage sparkling wines are made from grapes harvested in a specific year and are generally considered higher in quality. Non-vintage wines are blends from multiple years, but can still be excellent.
Sparkling wines can vary significantly in price depending on their age and origin, so consider your budget beforehand as this will help you narrow the choices down. Higher price tends to mean higher quality – but that’s not to say you won’t enjoy one at the bottom of the table, either!
Food Pairings with Sparkling Wine
Pairing food with sparkling wine can enhance your dining experience by complementing and contrasting flavours, in the same way as still wine. When deciding on a pairing, consider the intensity of flavours, acidity, and texture of both the wine and the food – but it’s always fun to experiment and discover new combinations that suit your palate.
Some sparkling wine and food pairing suggestions that can work well together:
- Dry Sparkling Wine (e.g., Champagne, Cava, Brut, Extra Brut):
– Starters: Oysters, prawn cocktail, smoked salmon, sushi, bruschetta, light cheeses
– Main Courses: Light seafood (grilled fish, scallops), roast chicken, salads with vinaigrette dressings, lightly creamy pasta dishes
– Cheese: Fresh goat’s cheese, Camembert, Gruyère.
- Rosé Sparkling Wine:
– Starters: Charcuterie, smoked salmon, watermelon and feta salad, tomato bruschetta.
– Main Courses: Grilled chicken or pork, roast turkey, salmon, vegetable risotto.
– Cheese: Soft and creamy cheeses (Brie, Camembert), mild cheddar.
- Sweet/Off-Dry Sparkling Wine (e.g., Asti, Moscato d’Asti):
– Starters: Fresh fruit platters, fruit tarts, foie gras.
– Main Courses: Spicy dishes (curries, stir-fries), Thai and Indian cuisine, roast duck, spicy barbecue.
– Cheese: Blue cheese, aged Gouda, Roquefort.
Serving Sparkling Wine
Almost all sparkling wines are best served chilled – the best temperature is up to 6-8 °C.
Choosing the right glasses for sparkling wine can make all the difference in how you enjoy its aromas, bubbles, and flavours. Here are three popular glass options for serving sparkling wine:
- Champagne Flutes: the classic choice. These tall, narrow glasses preserve the wine’s bubbles and focus the aromas towards your nose. The slim opening directs the wine to the front of your palate, emphasising its crispness. However, the small surface area can limit the wine’s interaction with air, reducing flavour development.
- Wine Tulip or White Wine Glasses: these have a wider bowl and are slightly tapered. This design allows more room for aromas to develop, letting you fully appreciate the wine’s complexity. The broader opening also means the wine touches more of your taste buds.
- Champagne Saucers: a vintage option. These shallow, wide glasses allow for more surface area, which can quickly release bubbles and aromas. They’re not the best for preserving effervescence, but they do allow you to experience a broader range of flavours. They’re also great for aesthetic appeal, adding a touch of glamour to your wine experience.
Why not try all three and see which one you prefer for different styles of sparkling wine?
How to open and pour your sparkling wine:
- Remove the foil that covers the wire cage.
- Untwist the wire while keeping hold of the cork.
- Grip the cork with the palm of your hand, and hold the bottom of the bottle in your other palm.
- Point the top away from yourself (and anyone else).
- Begin gently twisting the bottom of the bottle, which should result in a little hiss as the cork eases out.
- Pour the wine slowly over the side of the glass at a 45-degree angle, periodically allowing the bubbles to settle.
Opening a champagne bottle with a sword is known as “sabrage” and it’s certainly a flamboyant way to celebrate a special occasion – but it can be very dangerous if not done correctly, so perhaps this is best left to the professionals!
Spotlight on Handpicked Sparkling Wines
The history of sparkling wine is full of innovation, discoveries, and an unusual shift in perception from bubbles that were was once considered a defect, to some of the most prized and expensive wine in the world.
Perfect for so many occasions, it’s well worth trying different sparkling wines from various regions and producers. Each bottle offers a different experience, and exploring the options can help you discover your favourites. Browse the Handpicked Wine Box collection of sparkling wines that come to you from all over the world…