Wine is about sharing, socializing and culture. But most of all, it’s about enjoying life. With the holidays at our doorstep, what better time to talk about the ultimate celebratory wine? Champagne, prosecco, cava, and sparkling—I enjoy them all. There is much to say about this festive, feisty and formidable wine, and plenty of so-called rules, but let’s burst the Bubbles myth and explore some of its basic and enjoyable aspects.
Champagne is a term loosely used to describe sparkling wines. A prestigious wine region in France, Champagne has strict rules on vineyards, yields and production. Bubbles from this region alone can officially be called Champagne. Chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier are three grapes encompassing this auspicious wine. Vintage vs. Non-Vintage? All Champagne is Non-Vintage (NV), unless the conditions of the harvest are particularly good, then a Champagne house will declare a vintage year. Blends are the key to the quality of Champagne and houses strive to maintain their style from year to year. Signature blend styles range from clean with citrus notes to bread and yeasty flavors. Champagne generally is a more expensive sparkling wine because of the cost of the land and the long, hand-crafted process—méthode champenoise—which involves a second fermentation in the bottle.
Cava is a sparkler from Spain. Most cavas are made near Barcelona, an area in the Penedés region of Catalonia. Macabéo, xarel-lo and parellada are the three main local white grapes, but a few more pricey cuvées use chardonnay. Cava has a distinctive, earthy mushroom flavor, and is always dry. Cava is a beverage of choice in Spain, and restaurants may have three or four choices by the glass.
Prosecco is an Italian bubbly made near the city of Venice from the grape variety of the same name. It’s a simple, often moderately priced, pleasant apéritif, low in alcohol, and available in dry, off-dry and sweet styles. A glass of Prosecco is the common start to an Italian gathering. Have you ever had the classic Italian cocktail, Bellini? The Bellini—a refreshing blend of prosecco and peach purée—originated at the famous Harry’s Bar in Venice.
Sparkling is made in America and many other parts of the world. Some are made méthode champenoise, while others are made with less expensive and faster methods, such as the transfer method or tank method. A few French Champagne houses started sparkling houses in California (i.e. Domaine Carneros by Tattinger) and are usually located in cooler climate areas, which is where pinot noir and chardonnay excel. It is generally fruitier, due to warmer climate than Champagne, but maintains a respectable toastiness.
There is a great selection of sparkling wine from all over the world at all price points. We have no excuses but to partake in its glamour, intrigue and allure. The best thing about the bubbly is that it is very versatile. Sparkling works well at the beginning or end of a meal, paired with both sweet and savory flavors, and tastes great at all times of the day. One of my favorite ways to open Champagne when celebrating with company is with a sabre, what the French call “the Art of Sabrage,” where I open the bottle with a sword. There are a hundred pounds of pressure in one bottle of Champagne so please, don’t try this at home.
As Lord Maynard Keynes said on his deathbed, My only regret is that I did not drink more Champagne. These are true words of wisdom. Don’t go through life without having fully explored the wide world of Bubbles.
TASTING TIP: Determine your taste and style in sparkling: Do you like it clean and citrusy? Elegant? Or fuller with bread or yeasty flavors? The best way is to keep tasting!
WINE RECOMMENDATION: A lot of us have indulged in the taste of Champagne, so try something a little less familiar to you like a cremant, cava, prosecco, brut rosé or some great domestic sparkling wines. Food pairings include: caviar, egg dishes, fried foods, lobster, oysters, popcorn and smoked salmon. Don’t be afraid to pair it with sushi or fresh fried chicken.
Stanley Browne is a Certified Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers, a Certified Specialist of Wine by the Society of Wine Educators, and the owner of Robust Wine Bar in Webster Groves. He is a 30-year veteran of the restaurant, hospitality and wine industry.