Champagne and Sparkling Wine: Understanding What To Buy and Labels

Written by Ori Geshury with help from Nathan Weigert

Bad boy novelist turned wine writer (and Gossip Girl guest star) Jay McInerney once observed:

"Nobody ever said I want you to pour sparkling wine all over my naked body."

Champagne has such an incredible reputation for elegance, luxury, and decadence, but does it deserve it?

First, I want to give a little bit of a background about how sparkling wines and Champagne came to be and how they've been marketed. There are many legends of how sparkling came to be created, but my favorite is the story of Monk Dom Perignon.

The story begins in the 1600s, where the monks were making wine in the Champagne region of France. But Champagne had a problem. The region was too cold and the wine in the cellar would always stop fermenting just a little bit too early--causing still wine to be carbonated. This problem was known as refermentation. Thus, bottled wine from Champagne had a quirky problem that many other regions didn't have. Their beautiful wine, would sometimes, have bubbles, or worse, just magically explode!

Dom Perignon, however, decided that was enough was enough. There was a bright side to Champagne after all and a few exploding bottles wasn't going to stop him from showing the world that. Champagne was absolutely delicious. When winemakers all over threatened the region of having defected wine, Dom Perignon invited all his fellow monks around him. He famously told them, "Come Quickly, I am tasting the stars!"

Champagne may be the first Sparkling Wine and it is full of beautiful history. But it is not the only one. Here is a cheat sheet for your sparkling wine purchases:

  1. CHAMPAGNE The traditional gold standard of sparkling wine. Aged "sur lie" and have tasts which range from chardonnay grapes which are lean/crisp with lemon, to green apple and minerally to rich and full pinot noir champagnes with aromas of brioche, toffee and baked apples.
  2. CREMANT means creamy in French, denoting sparkling wine made in the "Methode Champenoise" in any other region other than Champagne. The quality is often comparable as grapes used are very similar. However, there is still quite a difference in terroir.
  3. PROSECCO Made in Italy in the Charmat method. It is not aged "sur lie" as Champagne is.  As a result, the flavors are simpler and more to the point (like apples and pear), with a little bit of sweetness.
  4. CAVA Spain's sparkling wine which vary greatly in quality. Some are extremely high quality and are comparable to the some of the greatest Champagnes in the world. Others are made more similar to prosecco and are bottled quickly! Knowing brands is extremely important!
  5. FRANCIACORTA is from the Lombardy egion Italy, made in the Methode Champenoise. A lot warmer than northern France, and they tend to be riper and fuller than its French counterpart. In exchange, they lack a lot of the acid and mineral qualities of champagne.
  6. AMERICAN SPARKLING WINE Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the most common varietals. Some are made in the Methode Champenoise, but many are not. In general, cooler growing regions are better bets because the acidity in the grapes is preserved.
  7. SEKT Sparkling wine made in Germany.
  8. MOSCATO D’ASTI & BRACHETTO D’ACQUI Sweet sparkling wines from Northern Italy, delicious as an aperitif or with dessert.

Sparkling wine has four levels of sweetness, which will be printed directly on the bottle. Here is a guide to understanding them:

  1. Extra-Brut: Driest kind of sparkling wine, the yeast has eaten absolutely all of the sugar.
  2. Brut: Most popular type of sparkling wine. The wine is dry, but there is just a hint of sweetness. The winemaker stopped the fermentation process just before the yeast ate all of the sugar.
  3. Extra Dry: Dry, but not as dry as Brut or Extra-Brut, noticeably sweeter but not sugary sweet. Prosecco is most often Extra Dry.
  4. Demi-sec: Sweet sparkling wine, usually drink with desert, as there a noticeable sugar.

The Difference between Rose and normal Champagne is either the addition of red wine or the addition of black grape skins in the fermentation process. However, due to the perception of consumers and the market, many Rose champagnes are also sweeter and more full-bodied than their white counterparts!