Seasonal Spotlight - Comprehensive Guide To Champagne & Other Sparklers

Champagne Popping

3 Types of Sparkling Wines

Different sparkling winemaking techniques emerged thanks to technology and popularity at their respective times in history. Each offers up a unique style of tasting adventure. Traditional Method, so named because it became the norm; Pétillant Naturel, often shortened to “Pét-Nat”; And Tank Method, sometimes called “Charmat Method” which originated in France and Italy.

 

The Traditional Method – the Rise of Champagne

The method is a specific series of steps that involve making a base wine, adding sugar and yeast to that wine in a bottle, which creates a second fermentation inside the bottle – this is what gives Champagne its frothy bubbles.

Once the yeast has eaten all the sugar in the bottle, the wine is dry, and the carbon dioxide (CO2) is stuck in the bottle, meaning when you open it, it will be bubbly. However, that yeast, with no food left, dies and creates a cloudy wine. We call these dead yeast “lees.”

If we leave the wine in contact with the lees for a long time, we get toasty, bready, and nutty aromas. That’s what makes Traditional Method sparkling wines so unique. When the winemaker decides the wine has spent enough time on the lees, they remove them, using a method called “disgorgement.”

 

What Do Traditional Method Wines Taste Like?

Traditional method sparkling wines spend time on lees, which causes “autolytic” aromas – these smell like bread, biscuit, brioche, and dough flavors. The longer they spend, the more of these aromas they have and the more expensive they tend to be.

Some premium cuvée examples are on lees a very long time, sometimes 10+ years! Which drives up the cost as time equals money. However, if you know what to look for, you can find amazing deals. Let’s see what we need to know.

 

French Crémant

There are many regions within France, but outside Champagne, producing great sparkling wine using the same grapes and method. Look for “Crémant” on the label in regions like Burgundy, Alsace, Limoux, and the Loire to find some great deals.

 

Spanish Cava

Cava in Spain also follows the traditional method and can offer some amazing value for wines that have that doughy, bready complexity. For some exceptional examples, look for “Reserva,” “Gran Reserva,” or “Paraje” on the label. They use indigenous grape varieties such as Xarello, Macabeo, and Parellada, instead of the traditional Champagne grapes of Pinot Noir, Meunier, and Chardonnay, which tend to give a lovely earthy richness to the wines not seen anywhere else.

 

Italian Metodo Classico

Check out Franciacorta and Trento DOC in Northern Italy to find that intense doughy goodness and nuttiness alongside sharp freshness and apple notes. These are based on the traditional Champagne grapes of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

These traditional method sparkling wines are often overlooked but can offer some delicious alternatives to Champagne. For the finest examples, look for “Riserva” on the label. That means aging for 3 years for the Trento wines and 5.5 years on the lees for Franciacorta (wow!).

 

South African Cap Classique

Based on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but also using Chenin Blanc, these racy and age-worthy wines can offer out-of-this-world value. Look for “Cap Classique” on the label for the real deal.

 

Californian Sparkling Wine

Some Champagne houses set up shop throughout coastal California when they saw how amazing the wines could be from this great state. Blending Champagne know-how with Californian terroir has created real knockout examples, many of which are hard to tell, nay impossible, from Champagne in a blind tasting.

 

German Sekt

Germany produces a lot of sparkling wine, which they call “Sekt”. Only a small percentage of winemakers use the Traditional labor-intensive process, using grapes like Riesling, Silvaner, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Look for one of the following to find some: Traditionelle, Klassische Flaschengärung, or Winzersekt.

 

The Time before Champagne – Pét-Nat

Did you know people were making sparkling wine before Champagne? It’s true!

We all think about wine always coming in a bottle, but centuries ago, even up to the mid-1800s, wines were often kept in barrels, and then someone called a “bottler,” which became butler, would move wine from the barrel to the bottles for dinner time.

How does this relate to sparkling wine? Well, as early as the 1500s, people noticed that if they put their partly fermented wine into a bottle, rather than a barrel, and then sealed it, the resulting wine would be sparkling after a few months, as if by magic!

We now know (thanks, science!) that the yeast fermenting the juice was still working, eating sugar, and creating carbon dioxide (CO2). When they do this in a sealed bottle that CO2 gets trapped and creates a sparkling wine.

A lot of pressure builds up, so early bottles often exploded, but if you were lucky enough, you’d end up with a “Pétillant Naturel” or naturally sparkling wine. This method is also called “Méthode Ancestrale.”

 

What Do Pét-Nat Wines Taste Like?

These wines vary a lot in flavor because they are made with many different types of grape varieties! You can have a mixture of fresh and fruity, to doughy and brioche, to funky, depending on the producer. Because these wines aren’t disgorged (the lees taken out) Pét-Nat wines will be a bit cloudy. Don’t worry, it’s safe to drink!

 

These tend to be artisanal and natural wines, with really small production, so the costs and quality tend to be a bit higher than your average sparkling wine. But they’re a great way to experiment with new and funky flavors.

 

What To Look For In Pét-Nat Wines

“Pét-Nat” or Méthode Ancestrale are some key words. They normally have pretty funky labels, and they’ll be cloudy or hazy too. You’ll probably find them in wine focused restaurants and bars, but also independent small wine merchants too. They’re often bottled with a crown cap (the same one you find on beer bottles).

Some areas producing lots of fun and funky Pét-Nat are Austria, Spain, France, California, and Australia.

 

The Tank Method

Back in the late 1800’s people were looking for a smarter, faster, more efficient way of making sparkling wine without losing quality.

Two enologists in different countries, Charmat in France and Martinotti in Italy, came up with a solution: Instead of having a second fermentation in a bottle, why don’t we do it in a large, pressurized tank? It saves time and is more efficient.

 

What Do Tank Method Wines Taste Like?

These wines don’t spend time on their lees (dead yeast), so they don’t have those “autolytic” bready, brioche notes. But that’s not a bad thing!

Sometimes you have a grape variety, like Glera in Prosecco or Moscato in Asti, that you wouldn’t want to cover up with those aromas. When you want your varietal characteristics like fruit and floral notes to shine bright, Tank Method is a great choice.

 

Prosecco

Prosecco is the best-known Tank Method wine. That’s why you find such amazing floral and peach aromas without interference from biscuit and brioche notes. To find excellent Prosecco, look for “DOCG” on the label and “Valdobbiadene,” and for really exceptional Prosecco, there’s the crème de la crème: “Cartizze.”

 

Red and Sweet Sparkling Wines

Other great examples of tank method wines from Italy make sure to try Lambrusco (a red sparkling!) and Asti, a sweet sparkling wine made from Moscato grapes.

 

Sweetness Levels

Knowing how much sugar is in a sparkling wine can be tough – if you like dry wines (that don’t taste sweet) you can look for the following terms (no matter what sparkling wine you have).

 

Brut Nature / Zero Dosage

Extra Brut

Brut

Secco (Italian for Dry)

Anything other than those will mean the wine has a perceptible amount of sugar. For example, Extra Dry has more sugar than a wine labeled Brut and has a slight sweetness. If you’re looking for sweeter sparkling wines, look for Doux.

 

Grape Varieties

Most traditional-method sparkling wines look to Champagne for inspiration. Therefore, many of these wines use Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Some key terms can tell you what’s in the bottle:

Blanc de Blancs: This means “white from white” – so white wine made from white grapes, and in the case of Champagne and most other traditional method wines, this means 100% Chardonnay. They tend to be quite austere but can age a very long time.

Blanc de Noirs: This means “white from black” – these are white sparkling wines made from black grapes (mind blown!). They only use Pinot Noir or Meunier, or both, to make the wine, which means you’ll have a bit more of a fruity note and less austere than Blanc de Blancs.

 

$0–$10 – Mass Consumption

So, you’re buying for a crowd. Or maybe you’re switching out your PBR for something a little more special. Or maybe you just need to bring something.

I’m not going to lie; it’s not easy to find quality in this price range! When you do find bubbly in this price range, frequently, it’s the sweeter kind. The kind that causes a headache.

Still, there are a few affordable gems from lesser-known regions and producers who have mastered efficiency and flavor. The first to come to mind: Spain and their lean and lively version of bubbly, Cava.

 

What To Seek Out: Cava, Prosecco, Domestic Sparklers

 

Some Helpful Tips

When in doubt, go with Cava for an excellent quality-to-value pick.

Make sure the wine is Brut or Extra Brut to avoid headaches (unless it’s Prosecco).

Keep in mind that wines made with the tank method (like Prosecco) are significantly less bubbly than real Champagne—by 3-4 atmospheres of pressure.

Look to regions not named Champagne, but still producing wine through the same method. Look for labels that have Traditional Method, Metodo Classico, Méthode Champenoise, or Méthode Classique on them.

Love Prosecco? Great! Base model Prosecco shouldn’t be more than $12.

 

A Few Examples:

Jaume Serra Cristalino Brut Cava

Paul Cheneau “Lady of Spain” Brut Cava

Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut Washington Sparkling Wine

Riondo “Spago Nero” Extra Dry Prosecco

Lunetta by Cavit Brut Prosecco

 

$10–$20 – Basic, But Still Good

Now we’re closer to the great champagne. If you’re looking for a good sparkler for a good price, this is your sweet spot. You’ve found a crowd-pleaser – a drink you’ll toast to and want to keep in your mouth. You bring this to share with your friends, and it shows you care. Who’s the MVP of the party? You are (or at least you will be.) No, you won’t find any real Champagne here. Not the biscuity, nutty, rich, or aged flavors that come with extended aging.

What you will get are outstanding fresh, fruity, drink-now sparklers that pair with a surprising number of bites. Though, if you play it smart, you might find a decent “Reserva” Cava or creamy South African or domestic bubbly that will surprise you!

What You Get: Crémant (Good), Prosecco (Good), Domestic Sparklers (Good), Cap Classique (Good), Cava Reserva (Good-Great), Sekt (Decent)

 

Some Helpful Tips:

Great finds abound in lesser-known regions. (Cap Classique from South Africa; Sekt from Germany/Austria; Cava from Spain).

Crémant is the more gentle, affordable French alternative to Champagne. Learn more about Crémant.

Like it sweet and fruity? Look for Rosé, Cap Classique, Prosecco, or the term “Extra-Dry.”

Sweet and fruity wines are great for stand-alone drinking, toasts, and as an apéritif.

Like it lean and dry? Go with Brut, Extra Brut, and Brut Nature styles or Cava.

Dry styles are great for pairing with foods.

 

A Few Examples:

Treveri Brut “Blanc de Blancs” Washington Sparkling Wine

Gruet “Blanc de Noirs” Brut New Mexico Sparkling Wine

Gloria Ferrer “Blanc de Noirs” Carneros Sparkling Wine

Graham Beck Brut Cap Classique

Antech Brut Crémant de Limoux

Louis Bouillot “Perle d’Aurore” Brut Rosé Crémant de Bourgogne

Lucien Albrecht Brut Rose Crémant d’Alsace

Chateau Gaudrelle Brut Crémant d’Loire

Sorelle Bronca Extra Dry Prosecco di Valdobbiadene

Ca’ Furlan Extra Dry Prosecco

Rotari Brut Trento DOC

Juve Y Camps “Reserva Famillia” Brut Nature Cava

Avinyo Reserva Brut Cava

Castellroig Brut Cava

 

$20–$30 – Getting Sophisticated

What does $10 more get you? About as close as you get to Champagne’s quality without paying for it. As this is a step up, these wines are for events where you just need that. An impressive wine that impresses. Perfect for your boss’ place, a fancy dinner party, or a sophisticated shindig where seemingly everyone knows something about wine.

What You Get: Domestic Sparklers (Good), Reserva or Gran Reserva Cava (Excellent), Crémant (Excellent), Franciacorta (Good), Blanc de Blanc (Great), Sekt (Good)

 

Some Helpful Tips

Wine is aged on the lees, and age is a pretty good indication of quality. For example, vintage Champagne must be aged a minimum of 36 months.

Try the Italian Champagne alternatives, including Franciacorta DOCG or Trento DOC. Both are Chardonnay-based sparklers from Italy.

Look up the varieties used to get a better idea of the taste profile you’re getting.

Blanc de Blancs or Chardonnay-dominant? Expect more apples, starfruit, beeswax, and honeycomb.

Blanc de Noirs or Pinot-dominant? Expect white cherry, white raspberry, mushroom, and a touch more funk.

Macabeo, Xarello, or Parellada? These wines are typically leaner with quince, lime, and green apple notes.

 

A Few Examples:

Roederer Estate Anderson Valley Brut Sparkling Wine

Scharffenberger “Excellence” Mendocino County Brut Sparkling Wine

Domaine Carneros Brut California Sparkling Wine

Schramsberg “Mirabelle” California Brut Rosé Sparkling Wine

Ferrari Brut Trento DOC

Bellavista “Alma Cuvée” Brut Franciacorta DOCG

Loxarel MM Gran Reserva Brut Nature Cava

Nicolas Feuillatte “Réserve” Brut Champagne

 

$30–$50 – Brand-Name Champagne

Welcome to the big leagues. Base-model, non-vintage Champagnes from the classic houses (such as Veuve Clicquot, Moët & Chandon, Taittinger, and Piper-Heidsieck) are now available to you. However, if you stick to non-Champagne regions, you’re in for a real treat: top-quality, single-vintage, extended tirage wines that are truly transcendent.

There are also some domestic sparklers at this price-point and they are top-notch. These wines are not just for anyone. They’re for people you care about: partners, parents, siblings, and good friends.

 

What You Get: Champagne (Base-Model, Non-Vintage), Gran Reserva Cava (Top-Tier), Domestic Sparklers (Excellent), Franciacorta (Excellent), Trento (Excellent)

 

Some Helpful Tips

Not sure where to begin? Here are profiles of the biggest Champagne houses:

Veuve Clicquot: Signature ripe, rich baked apple flavors.

Moët & Chandon: Fruity, sweetish baked apple, and lemon flavors.

Taittinger: Refined and lean yellow plum, white cherry, and bready notes.

Piper-Heidsieck: Lean, salty, smoky and clean.

Deutz: Rich, buttery, marzipan-like flavors.

Even though you can get good Champagne at this level, Italian Methodo Classico wines from the Italian Alps easily stand up to the big names. Look for Franciacorta from Lombardy or Trento from Trentino-Alto Adige.

We could go on about Cava (and will), but at this range, you can get top-tier Gran Reserva and all its baked almond and apple-flavored glory.

Up-and-coming Champagne region to investigate for value: Côte des Bar / Aube

 

A Few Examples:

Taittinger “Reserve” Brut Champagne

Deutz “Classic” Brut Champagne

Louis Roederer Brut “Premier” Champagne

Moët & Chandon Impérial Brut Champagne

Ca’ del Bosco “Cuvée Prestige” Franciacorta

Schramsberg “Blanc de Blancs” Brut North Coast Sparkling Wine

Altemasi “Pas Dosé” Brut Nature Trento DOC

Ferrari “Perlé” Trento DOC

 

$50–$100 – Vintage Territory

We’ve arrived at the best champagne. The wine for husbands and wives…for births, milestones, and moments. If people don’t understand the magnitude of what they’re drinking, it’s your sworn duty to tell them. If you have dear friends who know their wine, break it out. These aren’t wines you drink so much as the ones you think about and remember. Not only do you start finding vintage champagne in this price range, you also get access to some fantastic growers of Champagne and amazing non-vintage and rosé Champagne examples. If you have any one of these bottles on hand, life is very good for you and you should take a minute to acknowledge that.

 

What You Get: Vintage Champagne (Great to Excellent), Non-Vintage Champagne (Excellent), Blanc de Blancs (Excellent), Blanc de Noirs (Excellent), Grower Champagne (Varies), Premier Cru and Grand Cru Champagne (Site Specific Champagne)

 

Some Helpful Tips

Independent research is crucial at this point. Good places to read free reviews include Decanter and Wine Enthusiast Magazine.

Depending on the regions in Champagne, there are different styles.

Montagne de Reims – Classic, rich blends with lots of tertiary notes.

Côte des Blancs – Home to the top Grand Cru Chardonnay vineyard sites in all of Champagne.

Vallée de la Marne – Pinot Noir/Meunier dominant region with a funky, mushroom-forward personality. Great for wine geeks.

 

A Few Examples:

Bollinger “Special Cuvée” Brut Champagne

Pol Roger Brut Champagne

Ruinart “Blanc de Blancs” Brut Champagne

Tarlant “Cuvée Louis” Brut Champagne

Hervieux Dumez “Blanc de Blancs” Brut Champagne

Egly-Ouriet “Tradition” Grand Cru Brut Champagne

 

$100+ – Prestige

You did really good this year, or so far in this life, and it’s time to take a moment to taste success. Or, at least drink like you’re going to die tomorrow… These are the wines that kings and queens drink. Literally.

In Champagne, they call them “tête de cuvée” or “top of the batch.” They are the most obsessively conceived wines the chef de cave makes. Some producers, like Krug or Salon, only make a tête de cuvée, aging them on tirage (the dead yeast particles called “lees”) up to seven years before they launch in the market. All that time waiting in the cellar is part of the reason these wines are so expensive.

The style of top-dollar Champagnes is often rich, fruity, creamy, and nutty all at once. Of course, you don’t always get this style at this price. Most of the large brands will indeed opt for a toasty, biscuity style, but many smaller producers choose to champion the fruit of their Grand Cru vineyard with a leaner Champagne.

So again, read the tasting notes. To give you a leg up, since I know you’ll ask, here are a few Champagne brands that consistently deliver an oxidative, lees-like, aged Champagne at this price:

 

A Few Examples:

Veuve Clicquot “La Grande Dame” Brut Champagne

Billecart-Salmon “Cuvée Nicolas François Billecart” Brut Champagne

Laurent-Perrier “Grand Siècle” Vintage Brut Champagne

Piper-Heidsieck “Cuvée Rare” Vintage Brut Champagne

Nicolas Feuillatte Cuvee Palmes d’Or Vintage Brut Champagne

Perrier Jouët “Belle Epoque” Brut Champagne

Cristal by Louis Roederer Vintage Brut Champagne

Dom Pérignon by Moët & Chandon Vintage Brut Champagne

Pol Roger “Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill” Vintage Brut Champagne

Krug Vintage Brut Champagne

Jacques Selosse “Substance” Blanc de Blancs Vintage Champagne

Salon Blanc de Blancs Vintage Brut Champagne

 

Cheers,

Michael Nagy

Wine Educator

WSET Level 3 Advanced Certification