Thursday, December 21, 2023

See how they sparkle!

Every year, at this time, wine writers struggle to think of different ways to write about Champagne and other sparkling wines.  So, this post is intended as a basic buying guide to Champagne, Cava, California sparkling wine and Prosecco, the four most popular bubblies. 

As reported in the e-zine "Seven Fifty Daily," the growth in sparkling wine, across all categories, continues to go up, in contrast to that for still wines. Champagne leads the pack, followed by Prosecco, then Cava.  In terms of the number of bottles sold in 2022, Prosecco outpaces Champagne, then German Sekt, Cava, Italian Franciacorta and California Sparkling wine.


Perhaps it's the centuries spent making the same wine in the same place, using the same grapes to cause the wine to sparkle in the same labor-intensive way, that makes Champagne the epitome of sparkling wine. 

Or, is Champagne the top sparkling wine because we've been told for decades by Champagne marketing that it is?


Whatever, sparkling wine makers worldwide probably agree that the champenois make the best Champagne. But there is equally good bubbly made outside the delimited region of Champagne in northeastern France. 

Champagne is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and occasionally a little Pinot Meunier.  The chef de cave makes the blend, sometimes adding in reserve wines from earlier vintages, plus a dose of wine and sugar, called liqueur de tirage to form the bubbles.  A crown cap (like those on beer bottles) is affixed, the bottles are stacked (tirage) in a cave or cellar, where they develop complex flavors. 

A second fermentation is achieved en tirage, producing the famous pin-point bubbles.  The bottles are shaken and rotated by hand or machine to settle the yeast sediment in the neck of the bottle and are then taken from tirage. The crown cap is removed, a finishing dosage added for style and the final cork rammed home and held in place by the wire net. Finally, the bottle is dressed with the foil capsule. 

These are the broadest styles of Champagne: Blanc de Blancs, made only from Chardonnay; Blanc de Noirs, made from Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier; Rose Champagne and Vintage Champagne. Each house usually has a Prestige Cuvee, a luxury wine such as Cristal and Dom Perignon.  

Within these broad styles, the dosage levels, dry to sweet, are:  Brut Nature or Zero Dosage, under .3% residual sugar; Extra Brut, less than .6%; Brut, 1.2%; Sec, 1.7-3.2% ; Demi-Sec, 3.2-5% ; Doux, 5% plus. Prestige Cuvees are usually made only in the Brut style.

There are hundreds of Champagne houses, far too many to recommend here, so here is a short list of Champagne, priced at $35 to $250: Louis Roederer, Michel Arnould, Billecart-Salmon, Moet & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Gosset, Pol Roger, Laurent-Perrier, Krug, Taittinger. 

The buzz in Champagne, at least from Bollinger, is that the future of Champagne could be still wine. It's another worry brought on by climate change, but if a changing climate will make it difficult to ripen the three varieties used to make sparkling wine, then switching to still wine may also be problematic.  Besides, there is Coteaux Champenois, a still wine made by a number of Champagne houses. 


Cava is the Catalan word for "cellar," and not a Spanish acronym, as is commonly thought.  The majority of Cava is produced around Sant Sadurni d'Anoia, near Barcelona.  However, Spanish DO regulations allow sparkling wine in five other appellations, including Rioja, to be called Cava.

Prior to 1970, Spanish sparkling wine made using the traditional Champagne method was called "Champana."  The French objected, so the Spanish adopted Cava.  However, the objection didn't deter sparkling wine producers in other parts of the world from continuing to call their bubbly Champagne. 


Today, 95% of all Cava is made in Catalonia from three grapes: Macabeo, Parellada and Xarello. In 1986, in a move away from native Spanish varieties toward more traditional French grapes, Spanish law allowed the addition of Chardonnay, and in 1998, Pinot Noir was allowed. Garnacha (Grenache) and Monastrell are also permitted.

There is some turmoil within the ranks of DO Cava.  In 2019, nine major Cava producers, unhappy with the way the DO was running things, left DO Cava and became part of Corpinnat. Meanwhile, depending on what source you read, sales of DO Cava have been going up.

Cava must be made using the traditional methods, and must spend a minimum nine months on the lees in tirage.  Remuage, the technique of riddling or shaking the bottles, is mostly done today in Spain by a gyropalette, a mechanical devise capable of shaking hundreds of bottles at a time.

Major brands of Cava include Juve y Camps, Roger Goulart, Segura Viudas, Campo Viejo, Jaume Sera, Codorniu, Vilarnau, Freixenet. Price range: $17 to $25.

California Sparkling Wine

Although, in the early years, a few sparkling wine houses in the Napa Valley, Schramsberg, Kornell, plus Korbel and Iron Horse in Sonoma Co., made bubbly using the traditional method.  The number of producers remained static until 1973 when the Champagne house of Moet & Chandon opened Domaine Chandon in Napa.


Before long, other European producers were making sparkling wine in California, including the French houses of G.H. Mumm, Roederer, Piper Heidsieck, Taittinger, Pommery, Champagne Deutz, and the Spanish houses of Codorniu and Freixenet (Gloria Ferrer).  Deutz and Pommery eventually left the state.

Another way to get bubbles into wine is the tank or bulk method, commonly called Charmat, or the French name, cuve close.  Use of the tank method is less expensive, but, say critics, it makes lower quality sparkling wine.

There is a broad range of California sparkling wine, both in quality and price. Here are just a few of the better known ones made by the traditional method: Gloria Ferrer, J Vineyards, Mumm Napa, Domaine Carneros, Ultramarine, Domaine Chandon, Roederer Estate, Iron Horse and Schramsberg. Price range: $18 to $35.


Few sparkling wines have smashed U.S. sales records like Prosecco, the Italian bubbly from the huge DOC zone in the northeast Italian regions of Veneto and Friuli. While there's no denying the popularity of Prosecco, especially in the United States, sorting out the grapes, appellations and production practices, can be confusing.

In 2009, Prosecco was granted DOC status and shortly after, the classic zone was made DOCG.  Prosecco Classico comes from the tongue-twising towns of Coneglino-Valdobbiadene.  The majority of Prosecco lies in the Veneto region, with the balance around the town of Prosecco in Friuli.

Typically, Prosecco is grapy and slightly sweet, the product of the Glera grape.  With international fame came pressure to finish the wines drier.  Today, some producers have backed off the residual sweetness or make both a dry and semi-dry version.  


Since popularity of Prosecco took off, the U.S. market has been flooded with brands, including: Bisol, La Marca, Nino Franco, La Gioiosa et Amorosa, Zonin, Carpene Malvolti, Ruffino, Mionetto.  In fact, nearly every major Italian wine maker now has a Prosecco in their portfolio. Most Prosecco is $20 or under.

I read recently that a representative of the house of Bollinger said the firms noted Vielles Vignes special cuvee "may disappear."  The reason?  Climate change and phylloxera are destroying the old vines

I want to end this post with two thoughts: There is a sparkling wine for every taste and sparkling wine is not just a wine for special occasions. 

Happy Holidays!


Next blog: Dry Creek Valley

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