Understanding Sparkling Wine categories
There is a great mistake made in many wine shops and restaurants, and it involves putting the common moniker “Champagne” on any sparkling wine. The world of sparkling wine varies greatly, so here is a nice list for you to help keep the categories straight.
Champagne is the real deal, and true Champagne only comes from one region on the planet: Champagne, France just Northeast of Paris (please get in the habit of calling Champagne “Champagne” and bubbly from other parts of the world “Sparkling Wine”). World wide demand, limited geographical growing regions, and a marginal climate all conspire and result in higher prices than other bubbly. But oh my it’s worth it. A great bottle of real Champagne is one of the best reasons to be a wine lover. The main grapes allowed are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Munier. All wines are made in the ‘Traditional method’ meaning a second fermentation in the bottle, a process that takes time and skill and financial resources.
When you see the word “Cava” on the label, it refers to the geographic locations in Spain that are designated for Cava production. Because there are many Cava-designated locations throughout Spain, and more are added regularly, they have kept the supply and demand balance in check resulting in some of the best buys in the Sparkling Wine world. The best part about Cava is that, by law, it has to be produced in the same tradtional method as ‘real’ Champagne. A multitude of grapes can be used in the production.
Where Cava is the national sparkling wine of Spain, Prosecco is to Italy. The name of the grape is Prosecco, and it’s produced in the hills toward the city of Venice, in the Northeast corner. The key words to remember about Prosecco are: light, frothy, airy, and clean. The traditional use of Prosecco is to start a meal, to clean the palate, and get you ready for the evening. Over the holiday season, take the opportunity to suggest always starting with a bottle of Prosecco to help ease you into the meal.
#4: Sparkling Wine
If you are making bubbly outside of Champagne, France (be it Argentina, Tasmania, California or even Minnesota) the correct term is “Sparkling Wine.” Many times these are made in the traditional method of Champagne, but occasionally from the Charmat process, which is also how Prosecco is produced (the Charmat process, in a nutshell, is a second fermentation in a large tank instead of in the bottle).
Other terms to know:
Vintage vs. Non-Vintage (NV)
A vintage dated sparkling wine indicates the grapes came entirely from one vintage harvest, which is actually rare in the bubbly world due to the marginal climates they are grown in, plus the desire to blend to achive consistency. Most bubbly is labeled “NV” which means it comes from multiple vintages and are assembled into a master blend.
Brut vs. Extra Dry
Extra Dry is, ironically, a little bit sweet. Brut is considered dry, though in truth many wine labeled Brut have more sugar than people know — it is masked by the high acidity, the bubbles, and the usually too-cold serving temperature.
General food pairing suggestions
The wine to suggest to start an evening with is Prosecco, without any doubt. It doesn’t need any foil in terms of fat or protein, it cleans the palate, and it gets you ready for the evening. Cava is usually a bit fuller bodied and can balance with various cheese and meats (stick with Spanish selections if you want to enjoy a ‘What grows together goes together’ meal), along with simple Spanish tapas. The real deal, Champagne, or better Sparkling Wines tend to have more complexity, weight, and richness that call for richer or fried foods (deep fried is great), salty foods, goat cheese, or seafood dishes. Great Sparkling Wine is considered by many to be one of the best ‘food wines’ out there, and it’s a bit of a shame so much is consumed only in the moment of grand celebration. Encourage your guests to consider it for the meal instead of just the toast.
And never forget: “Too much of anything is bad … but too much Champagne is just right.” – Mark Twain