Few beverages come with the same instant associations as Champagne and sparkling wine. In fact, the idiom “pop a bottle of Champagne” specifically means “to celebrate.”
But despite its festive reputation, few people know much about Champagne and other sparkling wines. Sure, we ring in the new year with it — usually with taste buds dulled from a few other beverages — but what makes a good sparkling wine? What flavor notes should you expect from different regions? How do you serve it, and what should you pair it with?
You may not become a sommelier in the 10 minutes it takes to read this article, but you’ll certainly understand the basics of buying, drinking, and storing sparkling wine — and be ready to wow your next guests.
Nomenclature: Champagne vs. Sparkling Wine
Before going any further, it’s worth pausing for a crucial distinction.
Only winemakers in the French region of Champagne may label their wines “Champagne.” The region is a legally protected appellation (a defined geographical indicator that identifies where a food is from). International trade laws prohibit winemakers outside that appellation from labeling their bubbly Champagne.
A rare exception does allow wineries that produced and labeled their sparkling wines as “Champagne” before France created the legal appellation in 1990 to continue doing so. In an infamous example that infuriates the French to this day, Korbel produces what it calls “California Champagne” due to this loophole.
But generally speaking, only call a sparkler “Champagne” if it comes from the Champagne region.
On your next wine-buying excursion, you’ll notice descriptive labels on each Champagne bottle. They’re also used on most other sparkling wines. These labels refer to the sweetness level.
If you understand these labels, you’ll never pucker thanks to an overly sweet or dry bubbly again.
The driest level, sparklers labeled “brut nature” or “brut zero” include almost no residual sugar. These wines retain only zero to 3 grams of residual sugar per liter, which translates to roughly 0.15 grams of carbohydrates per 150-milliliter glass (a typical wine glass, one-fifth of a standard 750-milliliter bottle). In imperial measurements, that comes to around 5 ounces, but the wine world uses the metric system, even in the stubborn United States.
As a refresher, the fermentation process converts sugar to alcohol. Winemakers halt the fermentation process when it reaches their desired sweetness level. In the case of brut nature, they encourage the fermenting yeast to eat through nearly all the grapes’ sugar.
The next-driest level on the scale, extra brut bubbly, contains little sugar: zero to 6 grams per liter. That means up to 0.9 grams of carbs in a 150-milliliter glass.
Brut sparkling wines appear commonly and allow for plenty of wiggle room on sweetness. These wines keep zero to 12 grams of sugar per liter, up to 1.8 carbs per glass. Given that flexibility, opt for a brut nature or extra brut if you want a bone-dry bubbly.
A somewhat misleading label, extra dry wines taste sweeter than their name suggests. These wines retain 12 to 17 grams of residual sugar per liter, or 1.8 to 2.6 carbs per glass.
Even more of a misnomer, “dry” or “secco” sparkling wines can taste quite sweet, depending on your palate. Expect 17 to 32 grams of residual sugar per liter, or 2.6 to 4.8 carbs per glass.
Read: “sweet.” These wines contain 32 to 50 grams of sugar per liter, or 4.8 to 7.5 carbs per glass.
The French word “doux” translates directly to “soft,” but you should read it as “dessert.” Winemakers leave over 50 grams of residual sugar per liter in these sparklers, and you can count on it to raise your blood sugar levels.
Notable Regions for Sparkling Wines
Winemakers produce sparkling wine all over the world. I’ve tasted delicious sparkling wine in Lebanon, for example, but that doesn’t mean you’ll spot it in your local bodega.
These wine regions remain the most famous exporters of sparkling wine, and each brings their own unique terroir (the environment where the wine’s grapes are grown) and style to the craft. These represent several strong examples at multiple price points for each region to try the next time you need some bubbles in your life.
True Champagne remains the gold standard for sparkling wines.
Winemakers in the Champagne region of France have been producing sparkling wine for centuries, refining both their technique and the soil. They follow the traditional method for making these wines, also known as “methode champenoise.” Most notably, it involves secondary fermentation in the bottle. After bottling the fermented but still (non-sparkling) wine, the winemakers add a little bit of unfermented grape juice or “must” to each bottle, then cap it like a beer bottle. The remaining yeast in each bottle ferments the sugar from the added must into a bit more alcohol — a process that produces carbon dioxide and sediment. The vintner stores the bottles upside down so the sediment collects at the bottom, and they remove the cap and sediment and install the final cork, all without losing the carbonation.
Most Champagne winemakers use the chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier grapes, although the appellation also allows pinot blanc, pinot gris, arbane, and petit meslier. Champagnes frequently include grape blends, but they sometimes use a single grape or single type of grape. The label “blanc de blancs” indicates a wine made from white grapes only (typically chardonnay), while “blanc de noirs” indicates a wine made from black or red grapes only (typically pinot noir).
The chardonnay grapes provide citrus and stone fruit notes, such as lime, lemon, and peaches. Blancs de noirs often feature cherry notes, and the time spent sitting on the lees (sediment) in secondary fermentation adds flavors such as toast and almond. Mineral notes from the soil round out these classically complex wines.
It all comes together to create some of the best — and most expensive — sparkling wines in the world.
Cremant: Other French Sparkling Wines
The French produce outstanding wine in many regions, not just Champagne, and plenty of these winemakers produce sparkling wines.
Known as cremant, these French sparklers follow the methode champenoise, with secondary fermentation in the bottle. That means many taste just as delicious and complex as true Champagnes without the heady price tag.
Most French vintners use the same grapes as classic Champagnes. But the varying climates, soils, and winemaking styles all bring something unique to each winery’s products.
Most Spanish vintners also follow the traditional method, adding the bubbles through secondary bottle fermentation. That can add those toast and almond notes Champagne has, but the similarities often end there.
Meaning “cave” or “cellar” in Spanish, most cava comes from Catalonia’s Penedes region in northeast Spain. The Spanish grow different grapes than the French, using primarily the macabeo, parellada, and xarel-lo grapes for cava. These grapes, combined with Catalonian soil and the traditional method of adding the bubbles, yield sparkling wines with zesty lemon or lime, tart apple, and almond flavors. Depending on how long the vintners left the wine on the lees, you may also taste a pleasant nuttiness. And the Catalonian soil can add an edge of minerality.
All of that makes cava an excellent alternative to French sparklers, often at a better value. Take that as a hint when you shop for gifts for foodies, gifts for your girlfriend or boyfriend, or gifts for your mother or father.
The Italians approach sparkling wine differently.
Primarily made in Veneto, prosecco is made from the Italian glera grape. This grape brings different flavor notes to the wine, including green apple, pear, honeydew melon, honeysuckle, and sometimes cream. As you can guess from the common flavors, these wines tend toward sweetness.
Italian winemakers don’t hassle with all the work required by the traditional method. They employ the easier and cheaper charmat, or tank method, where the secondary fermentation — where the carbonation happens — occurs in a large tank rather than individually in each bottle. They then bottle it already carbonated.
That directly impacts the wine in many ways. It’s cheaper, lowering the price. But you get what you pay for. These wines don’t typically develop the toasty, almondy, rich, creamy notes from sitting directly on the lees in small bottles.
The tank method also produces coarser bubbles and weaker carbonation. When you taste a true Champagne next to a typical prosecco, you know the difference instantly.
While not all prosecco is cheap or cloying, it tends to pale in comparison to its richer cousins in France and Spain. Then again, most people don’t take their sparkling wine seriously enough to distinguish between them, especially if they splash it in orange juice for some hair of the dog.
Save yourself some time and money by just grabbing a basic prosecco if everyone just wants a quick bubbly toast before turning back to their cosmopolitans.
Most sparkling winemakers in California grow traditional Champagne grapes, particularly chardonnay and pinot noir. Both grow exceptionally well in Northern California.
The best producers of California sparkling wine use the methode champenoise to produce complex, outstanding wines that rival anything produced in France or Spain. In fact, the centuries-old Moet & Chandon winery in Champagne opened Domaine Chandon in Napa Valley to produce wines of similar excellence — and similarly steep pricing.
Of course, California also produces cheap bubbly using the tank method as well. While not true of all wine styles, with sparklers, price does generally reflect quality.
It’s easier to score a great deal on wines than you think, at least if you don’t buy a true Champagne.
Step-by-Step Sparkling Wine Buying Guide
As a general rule, buy real Champagne if you plan to spend more than $30. They protect their international image jealously, never allowing inferior products to hit the market. Brand recognition aside, the wineries of the Champagne region have refined their art over hundreds of years.
When shopping for value, start by deciding on prosecco versus another sparkler. Prosecco presents a viable option for inexpensive sweeter sparkling wine, with more pronounced fruit notes. Some people like it for mimosas, although I still prefer drier bubbly to offset the sugar in the orange juice.
If you want a value dry bubbly with the potential for complexity, aim for cremant, cava, or a new-world (non-European) sparkling wine. You can then refine these further by sweetness level. If you want a bone-dry bubbly, buy brut nature or extra brut rather than brut. While brut could mean almost no residual sugar, it allows more flexibility than those more rigid designations.
Once you’ve narrowed down the choices to the sweetness and price level you want, ask for a recommendation from an employee. You can also look up wine reviews online. I love the Vivino smartphone app, which lets you snap a photo of any label to pull up details and ratings for any wine. Beyond simply checking user ratings and reviews, you can also view the sweetness level, body, and most commonly referenced flavor notes, which the app collates from user reviews.
Most stores offer only a limited selection of sparkling wines, so you’ll probably find only a few options for the sweetness level, price point, and region you want. That makes your options easy to research. In larger specialty wine stores, you can expect better guidance from employees to help you narrow down your decision.
Pro tip: If you want to avoid the stores when buying bubbly, shop through the Drizly app. They have a huge selection and everything can be delivered to your front door.
Does Vintage Matter in Sparkling Wines?
The short answer is yes, though arguably less than other types of wines.
Many wineries produce nonvintage (NV on the label) sparkling wines made by blending grapes from multiple years’ harvests. They do so to maintain consistency over time rather than wines that shift in taste and quality each year based on that growing season’s conditions.
In Champagne, winemakers can declare a “vintage” harvest in years they collect a particularly outstanding crop. Rather than label these wines NV, they publish the year on the label, declaring it a vintage bottle made from a single year’s harvest. These typically represent higher-quality wines produced by each vintner.
Champagne winemakers usually declare three or four vintage years in any given decade. Elsewhere in the world, many wineries follow a similar practice.
This practice of blending multiple years’ grapes to produce nonvintage wines is more common in sparkling wines than other wine types, which often vary in quality and taste each year. So while a vintage year represents a quality Champagne, you don’t have to worry about “bad” vintages or off years like many wine aficionados do with other wine types.
Sparkling Wine Recommendations at Each Price Point
Sometimes, you just want an everyday wine at a low price. On special occasions, you might want nothing but the best, and then there are all the Saturday-dinner-party moments in between.
In ascending order of price, try out these sparkling wines for every budget.
- La Vostra Prosecco (around $11): Italy
- Saint-Hilaire Brut (around $13): France (cremant)
- Juve y Camps Reserva de la Familia brut nature gran reserva cava (around $17): Spain
- Mumm Napa Brut Prestige (around $18): Napa, USA
- Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs (around $19): Sonoma, U.S.
- Sorelle Bronca Valdobbiadene Prosecco DOCG Extra-Dry (around $19): Italy
- Chandon Brut Rose (around $20): Napa, U.S.
- Lucien Albrecht Cremant d’Alsace Brut (around $22): France
- Schramsberg Mirabelle Brut (around $29): Napa, U.S.
- Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne brut (around $35): Champagne
- Mailly Grand Cru Brut Reserve (around $38): Champagne
- Ayala Brut Majeur (around $40): Champagne
- Piper-Heidsieck brut Champagne: (around $45): Champagne
- Chartogne-Taillet Sainte Anne Brut (around $50): Champagne
- Bereche & Fils “Montagne” Grand Cru Brut (around $80): Champagne
- Krug Grande Cuvee Brut (around $160): Champagne
How to Serve Sparkling Wine
There’s a trick to opening Champagnes and other sparklers.
After removing the cage, grab a clean tea towel or cloth napkin. Throw it over the cork, and grip the cork with one hand and the bottle with the other. Then gently twist the bottle, not the cork. The first time you try it, keep a wide-brimmed glass handy in case it overflows.
Speaking of glassware, serve Champagne in narrow flute glasses, commonly called Champagne flutes, not ordinary wine glasses. It minimizes the exposed surface area for the bubbles to escape. And it looks fancier, which we can all agree is part of the point.
Ideally, serve sparkling wine at 47 to 50 degrees F (8 to 10 degrees C), which is warmer than refrigerator temperature. When you drink Champagne at colder temperatures, it numbs your taste buds and prevents you from tasting the full spectrum of flavors.
To make your life easier as a host, pour the Champagne five minutes before you serve it. So long as you’re not serving a prosecco, don’t worry about it going flat. A sparkling wine made in the traditional method preserves its carbonation far longer than force-carbonated beverages like sodas or proseccos made using the tank method.
Proseccos go flat faster, so take the bottle out of the fridge a few minutes before opening and serving.
Pairing Champagne With Food
Dry sparkling wines pair well with seafood, such as oysters, lobster, and caviar. You can also pair them with chicken, fried potatoes, white truffle, and foods with intense citrus flavors.
You can pair dry rose sparklers with duck, salmon and meaty fish, prosciutto, brie, and spicy foods.
With proseccos and sweeter bubblies, try pairing with spicy foods, sushi, Asian foods, asparagus, and smoked salmon.
Perhaps surprisingly, you can pair either bone-dry or sweet bubbles with decadent desserts. For example, crisp blanc de blancs can pair well with cheesecake or Key lime pie, as the wine’s light dryness serves as a contrast against the rich, creamy decadence of the dessert.
Or you can drink sweet bubbly with sweet food, of course. Though I find that both lose their decadence when combined.
How to Store Champagne
Most sparkling wines drink best within the first few years of bottling. So you don’t want to age it intentionally in most cases.
But take care in how you store Champagnes — and all wines, for that matter — between buying them and drinking them. Don’t store them where sunlight can hit them, even indirectly. Sunlight quickly damages wine. There’s a reason people keep wines in underground cellars — several reasons, actually, including the temperature.
Ideally, store your wines at “cellar temperature,” roughly 55 degrees F (13 degrees C) with some humidity. Lay the bottles horizontally rather than standing them up to prevent the cork from drying out and shrinking, thus allowing small amounts of oxygen in and ruining the wine. Follow these rules with all wines, particularly if you collect wines and plan to age the non-sparkling ones.
If you open a bottle and don’t finish it, toss it in the fridge and drink it within the next few days. You can use a regular cork if you don’t have a specific sparkling wine stopper to plug the top. Alternatively, you can use leftover sparkling wine for cooking.
Too many people let Champagne and other sparkling wines intimidate them. But once you understand the sweetness rating system, you can select wines at precisely the right sweetness level for your palate and pairings. From that point, it’s just a matter of taste-testing plenty of bottles across different regions to discover your favorites.
To try some new bottles, join a wine club subscription service like Winc. Just beware that not all wine club subscriptions are worth the cost, so do your homework, and read the reviews for each.