How to buy Champagne and sparkling wine like a pro
How to buy bubbly like a pro
Words— Kate Dingwall
The forthcoming holidays mean it's time to pop some bottles. Yes, the festive seasons brings your friends and family together (awwwww). But the holidays are also the time to celebrate your religious holiday of choice and prepare to ring in the new year. Or, realistically, just let loose because you have some vacation days left to use up.
Back in the day, you probably bought the first (re: cheapest) bubbly you spotted on the shelves. As you grew older, perhaps you gravitated to the Veuves and the Moëts of the world. Now there is nothing wrong with either of these brands: both are historic storied houses. But consider that your bubbly options now range from not only Champagne, but Spain’s Cava, Germany’s Sekt, Portugal’s Espumante, or Italy’s Prosecco. Why play it safe and stick to Champagne?
Especially considering the hefty price tag associated with Champagne: a bottle of Veuve will rob you of $70, while on the other hand, a bottle of Cava will only set you back $15. So what’s the difference and why is one more expensive than the other?
What is sparkling wine?
Each country has its own iteration of sparkling wine, some with tight, crisp bubbles and some, like Italy’s Lambrusco, that has more subtle, semi-carbonation that more harkens to a soda.
Sparkling wine can be produced via one of six different methods, each that build different characteristics to a bubbly. The two to know are Traditional (or Method Champenoise, Metodo Classico, Klassische Flaschengarung) and Tank (Charmat) method. The former is how Champagne, Cava, Cremant, as well as Italy’s Franciacorta and a few types of Sekt is made. It’s so steeped in tradition that it was dubbed with UNESCO heritage status in 2015.
In the Traditional Method, the second fermentation process takes place within the bottle, with bottles slowly rotating to collect the yeast in the neck of the bottle. Cavas will age for a minimum of nine months, but Champagne requires a minimum of 15 months to age (hence the gruesome price tag).
In the Charmat method, the second fermentation takes place not in the bottle, but in a massive pressurized tank.
What to look for
There is a huge world of bubbly out there beyond Champagne. In France alone you’ll find a variety of Cremant from different origins, and Italians are churning out not just Prosecco, but Lambrusco, Asti, and Franciacorta. Here’s how to navigate:
- Prosecco: Affordable, reliable, and yummy, Prosecco hails from Northern Italy. True Prosecco is made with 85% Glera grapes and you’ll be hard pressed to find a bottle over $30.
- Lambrusco: A sparkling red wine from Italy that was once a sweet staple in classic Italian joints, but now has muscled its way onto the menus of many a hip bars. It leans off-dry, fruit-forward, and can range in colours from a light blush to a deep punchy purple. Most Lambruscos are made in the frizzante style (semi carbonation), so don’t expect a mouthful of bubbles.
- Sekt: Germany and Austria’s answer to Champagne, Sekt is usually made with the Riesling grape, but also expect Pinots (Noir, Gris, and Blanc) or Chardonnay to make an appearance. Look for an Austrian Sekt ‘Reserve’, which is made using the Champagne method and aged for no less than 18 months.
- Cava: Spain’s sparkling wine, Cava relies on Xarel-lo, Parellada, and Macabeo grapes. Most Cavas will be Brut, so expect super crisp bubbles with a slightly tart taste. It’s a great deal if you have Champagne taste but not a Champagne budget.
- Franciacorta: Unlike Prosecco, Italy’s Franciacorta is made using the Method Champenoise and looks to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc grapes. The wine will be drier and less fruity than Prosecco.
Now you know how to begin traversing the bubbly aisle, here are some hacks to guide you to the right bottle. Plus, a few tips for picking up the right bottle for the right occasion.
Sparkling wines can vary immensely in sweetness, so if you tend to like your wines on the sweeter side, keep an eye out for Doux, Sec, or Demi-Sec. Brut Nature and Brut will note that the Champagne is on the drier side.
Blanc de Blanc denotes that a wine is made with only white Chardonnay grapes, while Blanc de noirs means it will have a blend of dark grapes as well, resulting in a lovely blush hue and more qualities of a red wine.
If you’re opting for a Prosecco, look for one with a DOC, or even better, a DOCG certification. The DOC standards, which you’ll often see on top quality Italian foods, mean that the product is from a controlled designation of origin where goods are made to the highest quality standard.
What to Buy For the Wine Geek:
Look to a Blanquette de Limoux. It’s a tiny region of Southern France that is producing Method Champenoise bubbly from Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc grapes and has been doing so since 1531. It’s delicious, nerdy, and if you’re looking for a bottle to impress your wine geek friend, this is it.
For the Sartorial Superstar:
For the friend who lines up for every Off-White drop: Virgil Abloh has a Champagne. I repeat, Virgil Abloh has a Champagne. In collaboration with Moet Chandon, expect a really slick bottle and a Rose blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
For the (Still on a Budget) Celebration:
While Champagne is always a crowd pleaser, look beyond the region if you’re looking to save a few dollars. Cremants, any sparkling Wine from Jura, or a Method Champenoise prosecco come with the meticulous production methods of Champagne, but since they weren’t made in the region, they don’t have the branding prestige (so the prices will be far lower).
Whatever you do, don’t reach for that bottom shelf bottle of bubbly that collects dust in grocery stores across the continent. Just as a cheap tequila will leave you reeling in the morning, as will a cheap, mass-produced bubbly. It will be laden with tons of sulfurs, fake sugars and commercial yeast that will make for not only sub-par bubbles, but a hell of a hangover.
If all else fails, a Prosecco is a sturdy, no-fail choice for a budget bubbly. La Marqa, Mionetto, and Martini & Rossi are all churning out very agreeable Proseccos at a tiny price point.
For the Ball-Out, No-Bars Held Celebration:
Heck, buy some Champagne. Laurent-Perrier Ultra Brut Champagne will set you back under $100, but it’s a bottle that boasts history. In 1889, the Perrier family perfected a Champagne with no added sugars or sweeteners that they sold until World War 1. It’s back, and the blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes makes it a fresh, vibrant bubbly.