A helpful guide to buying sparkling wine on New Year's Eve.
I have a confession to make: I am addicted to bubbly. I love how it smells and tastes. I love how pretty it is when it bubbles in the glass. I love how it’s appropriate for almost any occasion and how delicious it is with just about every type of food. I love how it's lower in alcohol so you can drink more of it without suffering the consequences too quickly… It’s literally the perfect wine, and if socially acceptable I’d drink it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
But sparkling wine isn’t a one size fits all kind of wine. It runs the gamut in style, price, varietal, production method, aging capability, etc., so what one person likes, another person may not. I have some friends, for example, who won’t touch anything but a rich, nutty Champagne, and others who will only drink a light, fruity prosecco. While both are delicious to me, they’re delicious for uniquely different reasons. As is the case for so many other bubblies in this diverse and complex category of wine.
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So what makes one sparkling wine different from another? Well, lots of things. There’s no easy answer to this question because so many factors determine how one compares to another. Among them, how it’s made, where it’s made and the style it’s made in rank among the greatest differentiators.
How Sparkling Wine Is Made
Sparkling wine is primarily made using one of these five methods, and each has a different impact on the resulting wine:
Méthode Champenoise/Méthode Traditionnelle/Traditional Method
Charmat Process/Cuve Close/Tank Method
Continuous Method/Russian Continuous Method
Méthode Ancestrale/Méthode Rurale
Méthode Champenoise is the most time-consuming, expensive and labor-intensive method, and the method used to make all Champagne (thus the name) and most high-quality sparkling wines elsewhere in the world. There are dozens of steps involved in this method (which in order to do justice to the intricacies and complexities of the process would require a completely separate article), but the main difference between Méthode Champenoise and other sparkling winemaking methods is that after the wine undergoes its primary fermentation in stainless steel or barrel, it must undergo a second fermentation in bottle. Bottle fermentation can take up to eight weeks to complete and is usually followed by further bottle aging, resulting in a more complex and nuanced wine. This method is an indication of quality, so producers make this designation clear by including Méthode Champenoise, Méthode Traditionnelle or Traditional Method somewhere on the wine label.
The Charmat Process is a faster and cheaper method in which the wine undergoes primary fermentation in tank, after which liqueur de tirage (a mixture of sugar, yeasts, fining agents and still wine) is added to the wine to provoke a second fermentation. In contrast to Méthode Champenoise where the second fermentation occurs in bottle and can take several months to complete, this second fermentation is done in a pressurized, enamel-lined tank over the course of just a few days. Once the right pressure is reached, the wine is chilled in order to stop fermentation, after which it is filtered and bottled, usually with a dosage (sugar and wine mixture) added, to produce a sparkling wine with larger bubbles and fruitier, more pronounced varietal aromatics.
The Continuous Method is similar to the Charmat Process except that the wine is pumped through a number of connected tanks during the second fermentation, and liqueur de tirage is constantly added to the wine. In turn, lees (sediment that forms from the breakdown of dead yeast cells) accumulate in the first few tanks, which can give the wine a creamier mouthfeel and nuttier, more toasty flavors than it would get from the standard Charmat Process.
Méthode Ancestrale is the oldest and most basic method in which a single fermentation begins in tank, and before the process is complete the wine is transferred into bottle. Once inside the bottle, yeasts ferment the remaining sugars, which in turn creates the sparkle. No dosage is allowed in these wines, which tend to have funkier flavors and a bit less fizz due to the nature of the single, natural fermentation process.
Carbonation is the least expensive method, which involves simply injecting carbon dioxide into a still wine. This method is not used for quality wines, and the bubbles in these sparkling wines usually fade quickly upon opening. (My dad used to complain that “Champagne” gave him headaches, but I’m pretty sure a certain popular grocery store bubbly made in this style was the culprit, not the overall category of wine…)
Where Sparkling Wine Is Made
Just about every wine region in the world produces some sort of sparkling wine, and just as “place” affects other styles of wine, it too affects sparkling. Factors such as soil type, climate, viticulture/viniculture practices, varietal, etc. can have a huge impact on how a wine tastes or smells or feels in your mouth. For example, a sparkling wine from California can be made with exactly the same grapes and in exactly the same style as Champagne, but can taste completely different all because of this “where” factor.
In addition to the impact of terroir on a sparkling wine, where a wine is made and the varietals used determine what it's allowed to be called. Champagne is probably the most recognizable example of this rule as only wines made in Champagne, France can be labeled as Champagne. In addition, to be classified as Champagne the wine must be produced in the Méthode Champenoise style and made only with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Meunier (a black grape formally known as Pinot Meunier), or some combination of the three.
Crémant is another specific label used for French sparkling wines that like Champagne are made using Méthode Champenoise, but are produced outside of Champagne. The varietals allowed in Crémant vary by appellation (Pinot Blanc can be used in Alsace or Chenin Blanc in the Loire, for example), but to be called Crémant the wine must be produced in one of the following appellations: Crémant de Bordeaux, Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant de Loire, Crémant de Limoux, Crémant de Die, Crémant du Jura, or Crémant d’Alsace.
Another famous and proprietarily-named sparkling wine is Italy’s Franciacorta, which in order to bear this name must be produced in Lombardy’s Franciacorta DOCG and made using the Méthode Champenoise. Similarly, cava can only be called cava if it is made using Méthode Champenoise and produced in specific regions in Spain. And although not region-specific, most sparkling wines made in Germany are known as Sekt, a term for sparkling used only in this country.
Interestingly, although other countries like the United States and New Zealand produce plenty of outstanding Méthode Champenoise sparkling wines, they don’t have any proprietary sparkling names, regions or terms that the rest of the world must abide by like the ones mentioned above. At least not yet.
What to Know About Sparkling Wine
From Shiraz in Australia to Riesling in Germany to Xinomavro in Greece, the list of varietals used to make sparkling wine is endless. And let’s not forget that bubbly can range in style from completely dry to super sweet, not to mention it can be made as white, rosé or red, so combine these variables with the endless varietal options available and you begin to understand why it’s not so easy to explain what makes one sparkling wine different from another. That’s why the “how” and “where” of sparkling wine are so helpful in understanding what’s in your glass, even though the “what” is a bit more complicated because of all the reasons just mentioned.
That said, here are a few more general terms you can look for help you better understand the “what” when choosing a sparkling wine:
Blanc de Blancs: a sparkling wine made from only white grapes
Blanc de Noirs: a sparkling wine made from only red grapes
Brut Nature: the driest style of sparkling - no sugar added at all
Brut: bone dry, with a minimal amount of sugar added
Non-Vintage: sparkling wine made by blending wines from multiple years
Vintage: sparkling wine made from the harvest of a single year
Best Sparkling Wines for New Year's Eve
New Year’s Eve is basically synonymous with sparkling wine, and an excellent excuse to completely indulge in bubbles! So whether you’re looking for a special bottle of sparkling to enjoy intimately with a loved one, or a fun and easy drinking bubbly that you can serve in bulk for a party, I have a number of recommendations for you.
You will never catch me turning my nose up at Champagne. Ever. But for most of us, it’s too expensive to drink as an everyday wine, so this is what I reach for on special occasions, to give as a gift or to bring for a dinner party, or to pop open when I have a bad day and need some cheering up. A few of my recent favorites in this category include:
WINE: NV Laurent-Perrier Brut, Champagne, France
VARIETY: Blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier
WINE: Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage Rosé, Champagne, France
VARIETAL: Blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Meunier
WINE: NV Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Reserve, Champagne, France
VARIETAL: Blend of Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay
I am obsessed with Méthode Champenoise wines in general because my favorite sparkling wines are those that have that brioche quality that you get from aging on the lees. However, I equally enjoy a bright, crisp, citrusy sparkling as well, and because I usually go for funky and different wines, I get excited when I find a bubbly that’s made in this style with interesting varietals and in less expected parts of the world. Some of my top finds in this genre this year are:
WINE: La Valle Franciacorta Rosé, Lombardy, Italy
VARIETAL: 100% Pinot Nero
WINE: NV Segura Viudas Brut Cava, Catalonia, Spain
VARIETAL: Blend of Macabeo, Parellada and Xarello
WINE: NV Saint Hilaire Blanquette de Limoux Brut, Languedoc-Roussillon, France (the oldest sparkling wine in the world!)
VARIETAL: Blend of Mauzac, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay
WINE: 2016 Akarua Vintage Brut, Central Otago, New Zealand
VARIETAL: Blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay
WINE: NV Ktima Tselepos Amalia Brut, Arcadia TO, Greece
VARIETAL: 100% Moschofilero
Other Sparkling Wines
If you ever come to my house, chances are you’ll find (and drink) multiple bottles of Prosecco and/or Lambrusco. These are two of my go-to types of sparkling wines (most of which are made using the Charmat method) because they tend to be affordable, less intimidating and more approachable for the average wine drinker and outstanding with food. (If you’ve never had a glass of Lambrusco with a plate of cheese and charcuterie, make that a priority in 2022!) Two that I’m drinking lots of right now are:
WINE: Cinzano Prosecco D.O.C. Veneto, Italy
VARIETAL: Blend of Glera, Pinot Bianco and Chardonnay
WINE: Maschio Prosecco Brut D.O.C. Veneto, Italy
VARIETAL: 100% Glera
WINE: NV Cleto Chiarli Modén Blanc Brut, Emilia Romagna, Italy
VARIETAL: 100% Grechetto Gentile
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
Wishing you all a fantastic new year and a healthy and prosperous 2023! Cheers and best wishes for a wonderful new year ahead.