Sparkling wine is typically a welcomed addition to any holiday event. In the U.S., it is often synonymous with celebrations, festivities and good times. With New Year’s Eve around the corner, there are plenty of reasons to have a few bottles of your favorite on hand. But to think of sparkling wine as coming only from Champagne, is to limit the options and joys of this sparkler. Different sparkling wines pair perfectly with a variety of dishes and there’s no reason not to enjoy it on any occasion.
Sparkling Wine Verses Champagne
Terminology is important, and one of the big misconceptions in the United States is that any wine with carbonation is called “Champagne.” Champagne refers to a specific region of France and the wine (sparkling or still) that comes from that region. In the European Union, Champagne has Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), meaning that only wines from this region of France, produced in the traditional method, can use the word “Champagne” on the label. Sparkling wine is the broader term and several other wine regions produce more specifically titled sparkling wines based on the regions they come from, the grapes used, and the wine making style. In short, while commonly done, if you’re drinking a sparkling wine made in the United States or another country, it should not be referred to as Champagne.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that you still won’t often hear people call sparkling wine Champagne and there’s no rule that says you have to correct them. But with the understanding that sparkling wines can vary from country to country, let’s review a few of the more popular types that you might dress up your holiday dinner table with this season or have ready to open on New Year’s Eve.
Clearly the best known of sparkling wines, Champagne, comes from France’s Champagne region located southeast of Paris on the Marne River. One of the most northern wine regions in Europe, Champagne has an unusually cool and relatively moist climate for quality wine grapes. And what grapes! Most regions of France have legal limitations on the grapes that they can grow and produce into wine and Champagne has two of the most noble, the red grape, pinot noir and the white grape, chardonnay. Champagne also allows the red grape, pinot meunier when blending Champagne (both of the red grapes are pressed without their skins, therefore making white wine). All sparkling wine produced in Champagne uses the traditional méthode champenoise, or traditional method, in which the secondary fermentation occurs in the individual bottles.
While Champagne has a range of flavors that play off the typically robust acidity in the wine, the noticeable quality of Champagne comes from the traditional method, which produces extremely fine bubbles. True Champagne has a smooth, mousse-like mouth feel that makes it worth the extra money for special occasions. But if Champagne is not in the budget for every celebration during the holidays, branch out to a few of the other sparkling wines, beginning with vouvray, which is also produced in France.
Vouvray is an appellation in France’s Loire Valley. In Vouvray, the popular grape is chenin blanc, and it is used to make both still and sparkling wine. As with most French wine, the wine is named for the region, not the grape, and both still and sparkling wines from Vouvray will be called Vouvray on the label. Vouvray rarely uses oak for their wines, giving them a crispness that distinguishes them from some of the other French regions. Sparkling wines here, like Champagne, are also made by the traditional method, however, chenin blanc’s high acidity can make these excellent sparkling wines for spicy dishes and various ethnic foods. Being much less known in the United States than Champagne, Vouvray can also cost a good deal less, making it an ideal purchase for larger gatherings. Ask your local wine store specifically for sparkling Vouvray and you may discover your new favorite wine.
Americans love Italian wines and outside of wines from California, we drink more Italian wine than from any other region. Italy produces several sparkling wines that are food-friendly and good for conversation and three of the most popular are prosecco, lambrusco and asti. Prosecco is all the rage right now and this typically dry, white sparkling wine comes from the northeast part of the country in Veneto. Made from glera grapes, prosecco is made by the charmant method which completes the secondary fermentation in large stainless steel tanks (rather than in the bottle as in the traditional method), making the wine less expensive to produce. This method, also called the Italian method, has created quality sparkling wines at affordable prices. Compared to Champagne, expect prosecco to have a crisper, more direct flavor with stronger aromas. This forwardness makes it an excellent stand-alone drink for casual socializing or a very appropriate pairing with light snacks and bold cheeses.
Another Italian favorite is lambrusco, but don’t let the image of cheap, fizzy red wine from the 1970’s scare you into not buying this one. Lambrusco, often produced as a lightly sparkling wine, is made from the red grape of the same name. The color can liven up your dinner table and the fresh, fruity flavor goes well with an array of hard-to-pair holiday sides from vegetables to cranberry sauce. Italian lambrusco comes from the Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna regions in the central north of the country and like prosecco, can be a bargain when compared to more expensive French wines. While many people prefer dry wines, lambrusco will also give you an excuse to serve something a little sweeter if that’s your taste preference.
People love to say “Asti.” It just sounds like something you’d want to drink and as the Piedmont region’s preferred sparkling wine, there are plenty of Asti bottlings available in the U.S. market. Made from the muscato bianco grape, like most sparkling wines, asti is best consumed when young. The flavors of asti contrast with other sparkling wines in that they are typically fruitier, almost to the point of being sweet, with a distinct floral character. What Asti may lack in sophistication, it certainly makes up for in approachability.
In rounding out Europe’s main sparkling wine countries, Spain’s Penedès region, near Barcelona, is the primary producer of Spain’s signature sparkling wine known as cava. Spanish cava is traditionally made from the Spanish white grapes xarel-lo, macabeu and paradella. For a little variety, cava can also be produced as a rosé by adding small amounts of cabernet sauvignon, grenache (called garnacha in Spain) or mourvèdre (called monastrell in Spain). Like the others mentioned, cava can be a price bargain when compared to Champagne, yet this wine is also produced by the traditional method, making it affordable quality.
What about the USA?
The United States does make a good deal of sparkling wine. In fact, Napa Valley has more than one sparkling winery that uses the traditional method and was established in association with one of Champagne’s best known houses. Domaine Chandon was established by Moët and Chandon, Mumm Napa is a joint venture between French Champagne house G.H. Mumm and Cie with Canadian Joseph Seagram and Domaine Carnaros was established by the Champagne house, Taittinger. This gives the United States some very good products, all using the same grapes that would be found in France. The American offshoots can be more reasonably priced than their French parents. All of these will say “sparkling wine” on the label rather than “American Champagne” or “California Champagne.” The latter two terms, while legal in the United States, are considered counterfeit in other countries and for the most part, quality sparkling wine produced in the United States will avoid any form of the term “Champagne” altogether.
It should also be noted that there is a third method for producing sparkling wine that simply involves injecting the wine with carbon-dioxide, much in the way it is added to soda. This method produces very cheap sparkling wines with very large, soda-like bubbles. You’ll be able to tell the difference immediately once you’ve tried wines made by the traditional method or charmant method, both of which create bubbles out of the natural processes of fermentation.
As A Quick Reminder…
Dry isn’t the least sweet when it comes to sparkling wines. That category is called brut nature. Sparkling wines are ranked (from driest to sweetest) as:
- brut nature
- extra brut
- extra dry/extra seco
This can be a little confusing if you’re not used to buying sparkling wine and don’t hesitate to ask your wine shop about the sweetness of the wine you intend to purchase. Also, sparkling wines are typically labeled as “NV,” meaning non-vintage. This is because the various processes for producing sparkling wine result in a blending of wines from different vintage years. While uncommon for still wine, this process is the norm for sparkling wine.
Sparkling wine should be fun and exploring the wines from new regions during the season will enhance your festive table settings with colors and tastes to complement your family’s holiday traditions. Enjoy!
Be sure to check out my column each Wednesday, The Pairing Weekly, for holidays suggestions all month long.