Sparkling Wine 101: Everything You Need to Know

Wine expert Rachel Von Sturmer is back with tips on drinking sparkling wine! Don’t miss her guides to white winered wine and rosé wine. She also teaches a free online wine course!

Champagne used to rule the roost in the land of sparkling wines, but now there are tons of great options we can access.

It is made in countries all over the world, from various kinds of grapes, through different methods. It’s certainly overwhelming, especially if you don’t know what to look for.

Champagne used to rule the roost in the land of sparkling wines, but now there are tons of great options we can access. It is made in countries all over the world, from various kinds of grapes, through different methods. It’s certainly overwhelming, especially if you don’t know what to look for.

How sparkling wine is made

It is made in a long, multi-step process, which contributes to the hefty price tag. First, it’s made into a low-alcohol still wine and then it is bottled and capped, where it undergoes a second fermentation with a little added yeast and a bit of sugar.

The yeast converts the sugar into alcohol, and natural carbon dioxide forms as bubbles. The bottles are slowly turned bit by bit in a rack until they are upside down in a process called riddling.

When the bottles are fully upside down, the spent yeast called ‘lees’ has moved into the neck of the bottle. Next, in a process called disgorgement, the neck of the bottle is frozen, the cap is popped off and the pressure inside the bottle pushes out the spent yeast.

More sugar and a bit of wine, called the ‘dosage’ can be added before the bottle is finally sealed and muzzled with a wire cage.

Types of sparkling wine

Champagne

To be called Champagne, this sparkling wine must be made from grapes exclusively in the Champagne region of France, which is to the east of Paris. There are three main grapes that go into champagne: the white-skinned chardonnay grape and the red-skinned pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes.

There are also tons of alternatives to Champagne from other countries and with price tags that are often less expensive. You may substitute any of them for Champagne in a cocktail, but it’s a good idea to taste any sparkling wine before you mix it to make sure the flavors won’t compete.

Prosecco

An Italian sparkling wine made with the Glera grape, that can range from very dry to sweet.

Its second fermentation takes place in stainless steel barrels, which helps preserve the fruity and floral notes from the grapes, and makes it more cost-effective. It is the most common substitute for champagne in cocktails.

Moscato d’Asti

Another Italian sparkling wine, made in the Piemonte region in northwest Italy from the Moscato bianco grape.

It is a dessert wine, lightly fizzy, naturally sweet and low in alcohol, with lovely fruity flavor from the Moscato grape.

Asti

This is also an Italian sparkling white wine made from the Moscato Bianco grape in the Piemonte region.

It is similar to Moscato D’Asti but is fully sparkling (‘spumante’ in Italian), with higher alcohol and lower sugar.

Cava

A Spanish sparkling wine produced using the Traditional Method. It can be white or rosé and it’s traditionally made from the local macabeu, parellada and xarel-lo grapes.

Cava can be a great substitute for Champagne, quality is always improving, and a bottle can be had for a fraction of the price.

Crémant

A quality French sparkling wine from outside the Champagne region, known for its creamy texture. It is made using the same method as in Champagne, but is traditionally bottled with a lower carbon dioxide pressure, so there are softer bubbles.

Look out for the label to say which French region it comes from, as the grapes used will vary by area.

What it tastes like

Fizzy, fruity, dry. When you buy champagne, the French words on the bottle can be confusing if you don’t know what they mean. Here’s a breakdown:

  • Brut Nature/Brut Zero: No added sugar
  • Extra Brut: Very dry
  • Brut: Very dry to dry
  • Extra-Sec or Extra-Dry: Off-dry to medium dry
  • Sec: Medium dry
  • Demi-Sec: Sweet
  • Doux: Very-sweet
  • NV/Non-vintage: A blend from several different vintages of wine
  • Vintage: All the wine is from the vintage (year) listed on the bottle

How to drink sparkling wine

Champagne flutes (affiliate link) are designed to be tall, narrow vessels to help retain the carbonation as long as possible, and show off the gorgeous strings of bubbles as they rise up the glass. The trumpet shape also keeps hands away from the bowl to maintain the cold temperature.

You should always chill sparkling wine several hours before using.

And also! Always be careful when opening a bottle of champagne, making sure to keep your thumb over the cork as you twist it open.

Do it over the sink or outside, away from people and fragile things. Keep glasses nearby to catch any spills when opening.

Sparkling wine recipes

Try one of these sparkling wine recipes:


RACHEL VON STURMER 

Rachel von Sturmer is a Vancouver-based wine and spirits writer and classically-trained chef. Check out her site for a free email wine course. When she’s not tasting and reviewing wine, she’s channeling her love of food, wine and travel into a guide to British Columbia’s wine country and completing the WSET Diploma. Follow her on Instagram at @rachelvonsturmer.

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