If you’re not sure what the differences are between Champagne, Cava and Asti, you’re not alone. With so many available varieties from so many places in the world, sparkling wines can be hard to figure out–which can make shopping for one a challenge. Luckily you don’t need to be an expert in sparking wines to decide if you should buy a French Champagne or an American white sparkling wine for your next party.Â All you need is some basic knowledge.
The sparkling wines of the world can be divided into basic types and styles that will help you understand what you’re looking at, and decide what to buy, on your next visit to the wine shop.
Sparkling Wine Styles
Sparkling wines range in look and taste because of the different ways they are produced. The method by which a sparking wine was made should appear on its label. These are the most common methods:
- Injection method: This process creates carbonation by injecting carbon dioxide into regularly produced white or red wine during the bottling process. Sparking wines created by use of the injection method tend to be the least expensive. They have the largest, harshest bubbles. Many people also believe them to be the least flavorful.
- “Method charmat”: This natural fermentation process is most commonly used in Italian sparkling wines, but may be used in some American varieties. It involves fermenting the wine in steel barrels to create natural carbonation before it is bottled. It is a less expensive production method than “methode champanoise,” the traditional process used for making Champagne, but more costly that the injection method, putting most Italian sparkling wines in the middle price range.
- Methode champanoise: Also called “methode traditionelle,” methode champanoise is the traditional method for making Champagne. It is an extremely labor-intensive process during which the two fermentation stages needed to create Champagne’s signature delicate bubbles are done inside of the bottle. This is the most expensive method for producing sparkling wines. Many people also believe it to be the best.
How to Tell if a Sparkling Wine is Dry or Sweet
The amount of residual sugar left in a sparkling wine after it’s been bottled will determine how sweet or dry it tastes. A sparking wine’s sugar level can be determined by a series of terms used by winemakers that appear on a wine’s label:
- Brut is the driest sparkling wine with the least amount of sugar
- Sec is slightly sweeter than brut, but still on the dry side.
- Demi sec is mildly sweet, with a slight hint of dryness.
- Doux is the sweetest type of sparkling wine; sparking wines labeled “doux” have a very high sugar level.
Sparking Wine Types
Different countries produce different types of sparkling wines using various kinds of grapes and production methods:
- American white sparkling wine: White sparkling wine is made in many locations throughout the United States. It is a general term used to describe most sparking wines produced domestically, because terms like “Champagne” and “Cava” can only be applied to those sparkling wines made in specific winemaking regions. There is a lot of good American white sparking wine available, but there are also many inferior ones. To tell if the white sparkling wine you’re thinking of buying will be good to drink, look for evidence of its production method and sweetness level on the label.
- Champagne: The only white sparkling wine that can be called Champagne is produced in the Champagne region of France by methode champanoise. Only chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes are used to make Champagne. When Champagne is made from grapes that were all harvested during the same year, the wine is called “vintage.” Champagnes that are made from grapes that were harvested during different seasons are knows as “cuvees.”
- French crÃ©mant: A lesser-known variety of French white sparkling wine, crÃ©mant is made in many regions of the country, including Bordeaux and the Loire Valley. It is produced using methode champanoise but often contains pinot gris, pinot blanc and Riesling grapes.
- Italian Prosecco and Asti: Produced by method charmat, the sparkling wines of Italy are reasonably priced and fast becoming a popular alternative to Champagne and other types of white sparkling wine at weddings and celebrations. Italian sparking wines are sometimes named for the grapes that they’re made from, but in other cases, an Italian sparkling wine’s name may also indicate where it was made. For example, Asti Spumanti is a sparkling wine made in the Province of Asti.
- Spanish Cava: The premier white sparkling wine of Spain, Cava is traditionally made using methode champanoise, but is occasionally produced using other methods. It is produced in several regions of the country using macabeo and parellada grapes which give the wine the light, fruity flavor that makes it drinkable in Spain’s hot climate. Freixenet, one of the most popular white sparking wines in the United States, is a type of Spanish Cava.
- Red sparkling wine: Though red sparkling wine isn’t particularly common in the U.S., red sparkling shiraz is a favorite drink in Australia and is just beginning to get noticed around the world. Made using methode champanoise, sparkling reds are typically drunk for all occasions. They are a must-try for sparking wine fans that aren’t familiar with them.