Due to the global pandemic, sales of Champagne have dropped dramatically. People are finding fewer reasons and occasions to pop the corks and celebrate special events with a glass of bubbly. But sparkling wine can be enjoyed beyond using it for a special toast. In this blog, we break down the world of sparkling wine; what the difference is between Champagne, Cava, Prosecco, and other sparkling wines; and perfect food pairings with sparkling wine.
Traditional Method (Méthode Traditionelle)
The traditional method, once called the “Champagne method”, is what put Champagne on the map, but is also used for other types of sparkling wine like Spanish Cava. In this method, winemakers take a base wine that has already been fermented (often a blend of grapes called a cuvee) and puts it in a bottle with more yeast and sugar to begin another round of fermentation, called tirage. The bottles are sealed with crown caps (this process is also called Méthode Cap Classique) to trap the carbonation, and then aged for a certain period of time.
During this aging process, the bottles are riddled, which means the bottles are rotated and tilted downward regularly so the dead yeast, or lees, settles in the neck of the bottle. Traditionally, bottles are rotated by hand, but some producers have machines to automate this process. Once all the dead yeast has settled, the bottles are disgorged, meaning that the tops of the bottles are put in freezing brine so the lees freezes and can be easily removed by taking off the crown cap and letting the bubbles force it out. Since some wine can escape in this process, a step called dosage tops off the bottle with additional wine and sugar before being corked (usually traditional cork and wire cage) and made ready for sale.
Though many may blindly apply the term “champagne” to all sparkling wine, in order for a wine to be called Champagne it must be grown and made in France’s Champagne region. The base wine of Champagne is typically a blend of three varieties - Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier. Champagne’s cool climate in Northern France provides ideal conditions for creating a base wine with low alcohol and high acidity.
The least expensive Champagnes usually spend the legal minimum amount of time aging - 12 months. Champagnes aged for longer develop more complex flavours, and in exceptional years, a portion of the best grapes are used to create Vintage Champagne, which see extended aging on lees as well as in bottle. Due to being produced in small quantities and long production/aging time, they command very high prices.
Cava is the Spanish term for a traditional-method sparkling wine, usually made in the Catalunya region (specifically Penedès). Cava is usually made from local grape varieties to Catalunya (i.e. Macabeo and Xarello), but Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are also permitted. The warm climate of Catalunya (especially compared to Champagne) means grapes are harvested early to retain high acidity and light fruit flavours. Cava is also aged on its lees for a shorter amount of time than Champagne.
Cava is typically available at a lower price point than Champagne, but there are many small producers making good-quality Cavas that see more extended aging.
Instead of aging the base wine in bottles, the base wine is put in a tank for a second fermentation. Similar to the tirage process done in bottles for the traditional method, sugar and yeast are added to the second fermentation tank. Rather than being riddled and disgorged, the wines are filtered before dosage and bottling. This method is less complicated than the traditional method, and is typically used for making Italian Prosecco.
Prosecco has fewer yeasty/bread flavours than Champagne and aged Cava due to being made using the Tank Method. Prosecco DOC is in northeast Italy and made from the Glera grape, which produces light to medium-bodied wines with light apple and melon flavours.
Other sparkling wines
Sparkling wine is made in many wine regions around the world, but unless it is made in the Champagne, Cava or Prosecco regions, it can only be labelled as “sparkling wine”. General sparkling wine can be made with a variety of grapes, using the traditional or tank method.
When choosing a sparkling wine, one of the main considerations is its sweetness level. “Brut” indicates a dry, not-sweet sparkling wine, while “semi-sec” indicates a semi-sweet sparkling wine.
Sparkling wine also makes a great addition to certain cocktails if you don't enjoy drinking it on its own!
Sparkling wine and food pairings
Sparkling wine doesn’t have to just be used for toasts or aperitifs. Crisp bubbles can add an extra layer of food pairing versatility! The dryness, bubbles, and fruity notes can enrich a dish, while the acidity and carbonation can cut through buttery or fatty dishes. You can usually use the suggested pairings for Champagne for any sparkling wine, but we’ve separated out the pairings for Champagne, Cava and Prosecco.
Triple cream brie with crackers
Shrimp and shellfish - try ceviche!
Salami and cured meats
Salty potato chips (seriously!)
Manchego cheese - always a good go-to with Spanish wines
Olives and almonds
Prosciutto or Jamon Iberico
Asparagus (a notoriously difficult food to pair with wine)
We hope this post has inspired you to pick up a bottle of sparkling wine for more than just special occasions! As always, send us an email or message on social media if you need recommendations for your next sparkling wine buy - available at any budget. Cin-cin!