It is our belief that as women over 60, a glass of bubbly should be our go-to for all occasions. But with several billions of bottles of sparkling wine landing in our local wine stores every year, how is one to choose? Price point usually is the first thing that comes to mind. There are other factors to consider, as well. The grape that’s used will influence the taste. The production method will dictate the quality of the bubbles. And whether it ages for a few months or a few years will determine the complexity.
Champagne, Cava, and Prosecco are all popular sparkling wines, but the similarity ends there. Let’s go exploring.
Sparkling wine basics
Do you wonder why Champagne can cost into the hundreds of dollars yet another sparkling wine can be had for less than 30?
There is no simple answer, but a few of the factors are the grape(s) used, terroir (land, climate) in which the grapes are grown, and method of production, which might have the greatest effect on quality and price.
Understanding how the sparkling part is done.
Most of the sparkling wines you see on the market today are produced by one of two methods: the Traditional Method (champagne method) and the Charmat Method (tank method).
The main difference between the Traditional Method and the Charmat Method is the vessel used for secondary fermentation. Traditional Method bubbles go through secondary fermentation in the bottle (e.g. Champagne), while in Charmat Method, secondary fermentation occurs in a tank.
The first, which produces Champagne’s delicate, but abundant, effervescence and complex flavor profile is the methode champenoise. Methode champenoise involves about twelve phases. After grapes are picked their juice is poured into temperature-controlled stainless-steel tanks or oak barrels and fermented for several weeks at 64-68°F.
During fermentation, the natural sugar in the juice chemically breaks down to create an acidic still wine. A second fermentation takes place in the bottle, the same bottle as the one the customer purchases.
Researchers estimate that each glass of Champagne possesses the potential to create one million bubbles — if you leave it untouched.
Methode champenoise is a designation only for wines made within the Champagne DOC region. When this method is used in other grape growing regions in and outside of France it is called methode traditionale.
On the other hand, the Tank/Charmat method uses tanks for both phases of fermentation. It is generally used for a fresh, fruity style of sparkling wine, especially with grape varieties that aren’t candidates for the complex traditional method. This method produces larger, coarser bubbles.
Impact on quality, price
A bottle of champagne requires at least 15 months of aging for non-vintage and three years for vintage wines. Around 300 million bottles are made each year. On the other hand, the tank method takes 30-80 days, but several more months of stabilization before going to market. In total the world produces 2.5 billion bottles of sparkling wine yearly, according to Forbes.
Now that you understand how sparkling wine is made, let’s look at the choices you’ll likely find at your wine store and which one is the most desirable for you—whether it’s a treat for yourself or a special event.
Champagne: the drink of kings and revelers
True champagne can only come from grapes grown and processed in the Champagne region of France and by following a very strict process (mèthode champenois). Champagne is the grande dame of sparkling wines, used to celebrate the coronation of kings and the end of wars. The méthode champenois gives champagne its signature fine bubbles and complex flavor profile.
- Where: Champagne, Northeast France
- Grapes: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay
- Production: Méthode Champenoise
- Flavor profile: Complex; crisp acidity, creamy texture, and notes of citrus, apple, and brioche; extra fine bubbles. Variations come from the grape or combination of grapes used and the winemaker’s formula during the fermentation process.
- Sweetness: From sweetest to driest, Champagne doux, demi-sec, sec, extra dry, and brut. Most popular are brut and extra dry
- Best for: Coronations, surrenders, and other very special occasions
- How to serve: Use a tulip shaped glass of highest quality. For a fizzier experience serve Champagne warmer than usual.
- Food pairings: Champagne is an excellent match for rich and fatty foods such as caviar, foie gras, and fried chicken. It also goes well with seafood, especially oysters, shrimp, and lobster. For a more substantial meal, try pairing Champagne with roast chicken, pork, or veal. The bubbles in Champagne cut through the richness of these dishes and help cleanse the palate between bites.
Cava: nipping at Champagne’s heels
Cava is a popular, affordable sparkling wine from Spain that is experiencing a renaissance. Artisan producers are crafting beautifully aged bottles with delicate, complex flavors and aromas. Cava is produced using the mètode tradicional, similar to methode champenois. It is often compared with Champagne but is made with a blend of local grape varieties and is typically less expensive.
- Where: Catalonia, Northeast Spain
- Grapes: Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarel-lo
- Production: Traditional
- Flavor profile: Rich nutty brioche notes, subtle fruity flavors, floral aromas, minerality, feathery bubbles.
- Sweetness: The driest is Brut Nature, with no added sugars. In increasing order of sweetness are Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Secco, Seco, Semi Seco, and Dulce; with 50 grams of sugar per liter it results in more than 7.5 teaspoons of sugar per bottle.
- Best for: Celebrations and casual gatherings
- How to serve: Use a crystal tulip glass. Young Cavas will be fresh and vibrant when served chilled to around 46°F. To release their aromas and bouquet Reserva and Gran Reserva Cavas should be served chilled to about 50ºF.
- Food pairings: Cava’s high minerality pairs well with seafood, especially grilled fish and shellfish. For a more substantial meal, try pairing cava with paella, a Spanish rice dish that is often made with seafood, chicken, and vegetables. Pair the sweeter ones with desserts or spicy foods (the sweetness calms the burn, according to some).
Prosecco: when the occasion is Wednesday
Prosecco is the most popular wine in the world. It is produced in the Veneto region of Italy. Unlike Champagne and Cava, Prosecco is made using the Charmat method, which involves a secondary fermentation in a tank rather than in the bottle. It produces a lighter, fruitier wine with larger bubbles. While prosecco is often the most affordable option of the three, it may not be as complex as Champagne or Cava.
Almost 500 million bottles of Prosecco are made each year. The large denomination Prosecco DOC accounts for the majority of these bottles.
- Where: Veneto, Northeast Italy
- Grape: Glera, blended with small amounts of other local grapes
- Production: Tank/Charmat
- Flavor profile: Aromatic and crisp, yellow apple, pear, white peach, and apricot. Meant to taste fresh, light and comparatively simple.
- Sweetness: Driest are labelled Brut, followed in order of sweetness by Extra Dry and Dry. Extra-Dry has been the dominant style made, but the amount of Brut is now increasing.
- Best for: In Italy, Prosecco is a ubiquitously used wine. Outside Italy, it is most often enjoyed as an apéritif. it also appears in several mixed drinks. It is the main ingredient in the original Bellini and Spritz Veneziano cocktails and can be used for Mimosas.
- How to serve: Prosecco should be served in a stemmed, “diamond shaped” glass. Drink it young, preferably within three years of its vintage, and chilled between 40 and 45℉.
- Food pairings: Prosecco pairs well with light and fresh foods such as salads, vegetables, and seafood. Prosecco also goes well with spicy foods such as Thai and Indian cuisine. The bubbles in prosecco help to cool the palate and balance out the heat of the spices. It also complements the richness of pasta dishes without overwhelming the flavors.
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