The holidays are in full swing and that means people are breaking out the bubbles. Parties, celebrations, fantastic gifts, family gatherings, holiday meals… so many things that require some delicious Champagne and sparkling wine. But the stress of picking the best one can be overwhelming. Stress no more and read on for our helpful cheat sheet for sparkling wine.
Let’s start with the big one, Champagne. While you often hear this word used to describe all sparkling wines, this is not the case. True Champagne must come from the region of Champagne and it must be made in the traditional champagne method, which means the second fermentation takes place inside the bottle. A few more things to know…
The facts about Champagne and sparkling wine & tips on how to read the label
There are 3 grapes used to make Champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
Some wines have all 3 grapes, some have only one or two. These three grapes are also typically used for sparkling wine made in the traditional style from other regions.
On the label you may see the following (and these hold true for sparkling wines made in the traditional method in regions like California and Australia as well):
• Blanc de Blanc – means “white of white” and is made only of Chardonnay; lighter in style & crisply delicious – for the value blanc de blancs, try them as an apperatif or with seafood. That said, some of the great ones have fantastic ageing potential. The classic, rare Blanc de Blancs Champagne on every collector’s list? The Salon Blanc de Blancs Le Mesnil-sur-Oger 1999.
• Blanc de Noir – means “white of black” and is a white champagne made from either Pinot Noir or both Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (both red grapes); usually fuller-bodied than blanc de blanc, this style enjoys the ability to match with a variety of foods. One of our favorite values from California is the Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs.
• Rose – could be only one grape or all three, but must contain some % of a red grape – that’s where it gets the pink color! Champagne is actually one of the only regions of France that blends red and white wine to create rose, rather than the saignee method, or bleeding. Also a great match with food – and good for any reason you might be in the mood for pink. An awesome value rose Champagne? Try the Canard-Duchene Authentic Brut Rose – absolutely fantastic for under $50!
Non-Vintage vs. Vintage
Non-vintage wines are exactly what they say they are – not from a particular vintage. They are blends of a few wines from different years. Champagne begins as a blend of still wine. If the Chardonnay of 2005 is not acidic enough, they’ll pull some of the 2003 or 2004 Chardonnay and blend it in for acidity. The goal is consistency. So that the NV of Veuve Clicquot you buy this year will be consistent with the one you bought last year. Most NV Champagne represent a house “style” that the winemaker tries to maintain so that the consumer knows what they are getting. NV wines should be drunk within a year or two of purchase. The most classic of NV Champagne is the Veuve Clicquot Brut Yellow Label. But for me, I’ll pay the extra $10 for the Bollinger Brut Special Cuvee. I’d drink it every night if I could!
Some years the vintage is so perfect that the houses of Champagne declare a vintage year. The blend is made only from grapes in that vintage – no adding of back vintages allowed. Vintage wines are low in supply and high in demand, and therefore a bit more pricy than that NV. Most vintage champagnes can age about 10 to 15 years, sometimes much longer. Some houses don’t even release their Champagne until 10 to 15 years later because of the amount of bottle aging they prefer – Dom Perignon released their 1999 vintage about the same time Krug released their 1995! And Salon recommends that their vintage Le Mesnil sur Oger age for at least 20 years after the release date (which is 10 years after the vintage).
Other label tid-bits
Premier Cuvee or Tete de Cuvee – means the top of the top, the best of the best blend of the house. A classic example? Krug’s Grand Cuvee.
Premier Cru and Grand Cru – Some vineyards in Champagne, like other areas of France are labeled Premier Cru or Grand Cru vineyards. If a house purchases all of its grapes from grand cru or premier cru vineyards, they may put that on their label.
Levels of Sweetness
Extra Brut – Bone dry
Brut – very dry, but with a touch more dosage
Sec – off-dry, which means a hint of sweetness
Demi-Sec – technically means “half dry” but really is half sweet
Doux – sweetest of the Champagne, more rare, often more expensive, and a delicious balance of sweetness and acidity.
Cava & Prosecco
Cava: The sparkling wine of Spain. Cava can come from quite a few regions in Spain, but generally offers the same style: it’s dry, crisp and affordable. Need a good party wine? Cava is the go-to. Have a budget but want something delicious? Go with Cava. One of our favorites for everyday drinking - Juame Serra Cristalino Brut Cava.
Prosecco: From the region of the same name in the Veneto area of Italy, Prosecco is made from the Glera grape. It is produced using the tank method, which means instead of having the biscuit and bread-like flavors of the Champagne method, the wine delivers up-front fruit and floral aromatics. Fresh, fruity and floral = Prosecco. Grab a bottle of Carletto – it embodies the fresh, fruity and floral mantra!
Cheers & enjoy the bubbles!