A Beginner's Guide to Sparkling Wine

While wine enthusiasts have often looked down upon all bubblies other than Champagne, occasional wine drinkers aren't aware of the other sparkling wines produced across the globe. Well, there's more to the world of effervescent wines than Champagne. Let's take a look at it in this beginner's guide to sparkling wine.
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Types of sparkling wine
As the saying goes ...

All that glitters is not gold, and not all sparkling wines are Champagne.
Nothing beats a glass of bubbly to celebrate an event, milestone, or even a festive occasion. Effervescent wines have always been associated with festivities and joyous occasions. The sight of tall, thin flutes filled with fizz and finesse have always managed to spearhead excitement and cheer.

Sparkling wine is a type of wine (comes in red, white, and rosé), that stands out because of its fizz (carbon dioxide) content. As the name suggests, this wine contains bubbles or fizz, due to the double fermentation it has undergone during its production.

There are different methods by which sparkling wine can be made, and based on the region where they are produced and the preparation method used in their production, sparkling wines can be classified into various types. Let's take a look.

Different Types of Sparkling Wines

Champagne

Fizzy Champagne is a well-known 'celebratory and celebrity' drink, that is also known for its exorbitant prices. Technically, Champagne is sparkling wine, because it contains fizz; however, only those sparkling wines hailing from the 'Champagne' region in France are allowed to be called Champagne by law. But, why all this fuss about this particular region in France? Well, the weather in Champagne is unique, chilly, and perfect for the yield of premium quality grapes to make premium Champagne.

True Champagne is prepared from three grape varieties―Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, or Pinot Meunier, either individually or in a combination of 2 or 3. Once the grapes are hand picked, they are turned into wine via a process called Méthode Champenoise, which involves a double fermentation process that results in fizz formation. This double fermentation takes place in the bottle itself, and as the sugar and yeast react, carbon dioxide gets collected in the bottle.

However, even if this technique of preparation is duplicated to a tee, it cannot be termed Champagne, simply because the grapes used are grown under unique climatic conditions of the region Champagne. Thus, what makes Champagne special is the geographical region, rather than a particular preparation technique. Since you cannot duplicate a region, Champagne cannot be duplicated as well.

Other Sparkling Wines

Champagne often seems to overshadow the other sparklers prepared across the globe, even though some are exceptionally good value for the money. While their flavor cannot be compared to that of Champagne, their distinctive flavors are quite remarkable and unique in their own sense. Most of us can't associate non-champagne sparklers with finesse and complexity; however, there are some really good ones out there.

French Crémant

While the Champagne region in France is authorized to produce and sell authentic Champagne, other wine regions in the country are also devoted to producing sparkling wines using the same classic Méthode Champenoise. These wines are often made from the same three grapes like Champagne, but, may include other grape varieties like Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, or Riesling as well. However, since they cannot label it as Champagne by the law, it is sold under the name Cremant. Nevertheless, these French cousins hail from various wine-producing regions like Alsace, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Jura, Loire Valley (Anjou-Saumur and Touraine), etc.

These wines taste great (although not as heavenly as authentic Champagne), and are not exorbitantly priced. In terms of flavor, those produced in northeastern France as considered to be better than the rest, mainly because the natural climatic conditions are similar to that of the Champagne region. This results in similar grape yield and a sparkler with a flavor similar to that of their exorbitant cousin. Cremants from Alsace (cool climate like Champagne region) are considered to be the best with regards to crispness and freshness, and are actually pretty inexpensive alternatives to Champagne. Those from Burgundy are also considered good options and are valued for their creamy texture. Having said this, not all French sparklers are Cremants, so be wary of the cheap, sour and insipid bubblies from France.

Spanish Cava

Mostly made in Catalonia and Barcelona region of Spain, Cava is a sparkling wine that is the most popular effervescent wine in the affordable category. Prepared from grapes indigenous to Spain―Xarello, and Parellada, which may be used individually or as a combination of 2 or 3―this wine is a pretty good rival to Champagne. Moreover, it's also prepared by the same method as champagne is made, but as per international trademark rights, it cannot be called Champagne because it's not produced in the Champagne region of France.

However, it is also important to note that cava can be made by methods other than the champagne method. Thus, only cavas labeled as Cava DO are those which have been made by the authentic champagne method. Besides Catalonia and Barcelona, other wine-producing regions like Rioja, Badajoz, Aragón, and Valencia are also known to produce these bubblies. Cavas are further classified on the basis of their residual sugar, with brut nature being the least sweetest with no added sugar to dulce, which is the sweetest. The drier the cava, the more expensive the wine, and the sweeter the cava, the cheaper the wine.

Italian Prosecco

Word is that Prosecco is a rival to Champagne, with its sales surpassing that of the French King of bubblies these days. With the economic downturn affecting the masses, more and more people are turning to this bubbly to satisfy their quench for effervescent wines. Made from Glera grapes that are indigenous to the Veneto region in Italy, this off-dry, light-bodied Italian sparkler is also protected by the law. This means only bubblies produced in this region from their indigenous grapes can be labeled as Prosecco.

Unlike Champagne, Crémant, or even Cava, Prosecco is made by the Charmat method, which does not involve fermenting in the bottles, but goes through double fermentation is large pressurized tanks that bring about the required fizz in the wine. However, the flavor and quality differs because of this difference, nevertheless many find its flavor profile interestingly refreshing and light. Their affordable prices makes it a wonderful alternative to Champagne. For premium and guaranteed quality, look for the DOC' or 'DOCG' status on the label.

Italian Asti

Besides the popular Prosecco, the land of pizza and romance is also known for another sparkler called Asti. Formerly referred to as Asti Spumante, this slightly sweet, delicate, white sparkling wine is made from Moscato Bianco grapes, in Piedmont, northern Italy. Like Prosecco, Asti does not undergo second fermentation in the bottle, but instead large steel pressurized tanks are used as vessels to hold the wine during fizz formation (although some Asti producers are using Méthode Champenoise to prepare it).

Asti is a light, crisp, and slightly off-dry wine, with a natural acidity that balances the sweetness of the grapes. However, many wine aficionados find this bubbly too sweet for their liking, which is why it isn't a sought-after sparkling wine. This Italian sparkler has yet another variation called Moscato d'Asti, which although made from the same Moscato grapes is less bubbly (semi-sparkling wine) and lower in alcohol content compared to Asti. As compared to its bubblier cousin, this wine is less sweet, with a more complex flavor and aroma, which is why it is preferred much more. Both these types have to be had young, usually within a couple of years after bottling.

German Sekt

The sparkling wine produced in Germany is called 'sekt', with over half a million of these bottles being produced in the country on a yearly basis. However, most of the sekt produced in Germany is actually made from cheaper base wines produced in other parts of the world like Spain, France, Italy, etc. Only 10-15% of the German sekt market corresponds to pure sekt made from German base wines. These wines are labeled Deutscher Sekt, which indicates that the grapes used are from Germany.

These wines are made by the Charmat method, wherein double fermentation takes place in pressurized tanks. Rieslings are used to make this sparkling wine, giving this bubbly a different feel on the palate. While many wine experts don't think much of sekt, Deutscher sekt is definitely worth trying. Although it cannot be compared to Champagne, it has an interesting flavor profile of its own. In fact, the Germans are quite satisfied with their bubbly, with the per capita consumption corresponding to 5 and a half bottles per year.

California Sparkling Wine

California champagnes or California sparkling wines are bubblies produced in the state of California in the United States, and are commonly referred to as the New World sparkling wines. But, how come they use the term 'champagne' on the label, if it's legally not allowed? Well, according to the U.S. Code, if the place of origin is mentioned on the label, the word 'champagne' can follow. This privilege is only given to special wineries in the U.S., nevertheless many Californian bubblies are produced by the non-traditional method as well.

In terms of flavor, good Californian sparklers taste wonderful and their complexity is worth noting. Wine makers like Domaine Chandon, Mumm Napa, J vineyards, etc., use the same grape varieties used in the production of Champagne (although Pinot blanc, Chenin blanc, and French Colombard may also be used). Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grow well in California's climate, which is why the eagerness to prepare a rival to Champagne was born. However, because California's climate differs from Champagne in France, the grape yield also differs in flavor, and so also the final sparkling wine.

Australian Sparkling Shiraz

All the other sparkling wine categories were confined to white or rose wines, this particular bubbly is prepared from Australian red wine―Shiraz . While this effervescent wine is mostly made from Australia's most widely planted shiraz grapes, it is also prepared from other reds like Cabernet and Merlot. The same method that is used to make Champagne is used to make this wine, thus, the quality of the final product is good.

However, Australian red sparkling wines aren't everybody's cup of tea. Some find it really difficult to accept a deep-red bubbly. These deep, burgundy reds with magenta bubbles adorning it, are slightly on the denser and sweeter side, which is why many wine enthusiasts across the globe seem to think less of it. However, Australian sparkling red wine is prized by the Aussies, who seems to savor it for special occasions, and simply relish its dense, oak flavor that is enveloped in a lot of fizz. Besides these red bubblies, the Australian continent also produces various white sparklers from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Portuguese Espumante

Another country known for its wineries is Portugal. Although not popular for their sparkling wine as they are for their port, this country does dole out some interesting bubblies. The Vinho Verde regions of Portugal are known to produce some of the best Espumantes, although decent wines are produced all across the country. These wines are produced from grapes like red Baga, Touriga Nacional grapes, Arinto ,etc.

Their Bairrada sparkling wine is known for its premium and fine quality. However, if you're looking for these good quality wines, you will need to ensure it has the DOC Bairrada certification on the label, which certifies that the wine has been made by the traditional Champagne-producing method. So, if you haven't tried out Portugal wines other than the famous Port, make sure you try out Bairrada's Espumante.

England's Sparkling Wine

Although sparkling wines from England aren't given much credit, their sparkling wines from southern regions of the country are doing well for themselves. Slowly, people are learning to set their preconceived notions aside and give these bubblies a chance to prove themselves. England's limestone soil favors the growth of premium quality grapes used in the production of Champagne.

So, with similar quality grapes and the same Méthode Champenoise, the English are able to dole out some pretty good quality sparkling wines. Chapel Down, England's largest wine producer is well-known for its excellent sparkling wines. In fact, their wine was chosen by the Royal Family to be served at Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding. The English sparkling wine industry seems pretty promising and is sure to gain worldwide recognition for its premium quality within a matter of a decade.

Important Tip
Even world-renowned Champagne comes in different qualities, so be wary of the kind of sparkler you are purchasing. While there are many noteworthy effervescent wines out there, there are many cheap ones that simply ruin the reputation of sparkling wines. While choosing a sparkling wine, stick to wines produced by the famous wine-producing regions and you'll play safe.

Besides the different types of sparkling wines mentioned above, there are several other New World sparkling wines from countries like Romania, Hungary, New Zealand, Argentina, etc., that are also producing some good stuff. If you haven't given them a shot, it's time you step out of Champagne land and pop these bottles of bubblies that will satiate your pallet as well as your wallet.
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Published: February 28, 2014
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