This holiday season, there is little to no doubt that you will attend or throw a party during which someone will pop the quintessential party favor. Nothing is more festive than a little sparkly, and considering the high price and inedibility of gemstones, that sparkly is most likely going to come to your party in the form of Champagne or sparkling wine.
This brings us to an interesting question: What exactly is the difference between Champagne and sparkling wine, besides the obvious, which is that Champagne hails strictly from the region of Champagne itself? Only Champagne can come from Champagne; however, champagne can come from the U.S. just as long as that first letter remains lower case, because there are no laws in place to keep American winemakers from doing so. That is, except for “Champagnes” produced in the U.S. before the year 2006. They may keep the Champagne name—big ‘C’ and all—provided the label also lists the actual state of origin. (For example, Korbel California Champagne, which grew to fame in the early twentieth century and remains popular today.)
Most American producers of sparkling wines do not use the term champagne out of respect. And smartly so. Not only are the laws protecting the Champagne name strict, the standards, methods and philosophies behind Champagne production are unparalleled in rigidity. Only chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier grapes are allowed in Champagne; vine spacing, density, height, pruning and grape yields are limited; hand harvesting is required; and a minimum of fifteen months of aging for non-vintage, three years of aging for vintage are also required.
The term for the process of bottling and fermentation, (specifically, secondary fermentation in the bottle in which it is served,) is called the methode Champenoise. This term, like the name Champagne, cannot be used to describe the method of bottling and fermenting anything not from the region. In other regions, this method is referred to as the method traditionelle.
Sounds like a lot of hype for a little bubbly, but is it worth it? Anyone who has had a great bottle of Champagne will answer that for you. But does that mean Champagnes are superior to other sparkling wines? It is, as with all matters of the palate, a matter of opinion. Having said this, there are a host of sparkling wines from all over the world that will make just as much of a splash, not to mention that satisfactory popping sound, at your next party.
Let’s start with Cava. This sparkling wine from Spain was often referred to as Spanish Champagne (champana), which is, of course, no longer permitted by EU law. Almost all Cava comes from the Penedes region of Catalan, and was created in 1872 by a man named Josep Raventos, who had reportedly been to Champagne and wished to produce a comparable product in Spain. Through the years, Spain’s efforts have certainly paid off. The versatility of Cava has made it a solid sparkling not only well-suited as an aperitif and a fine pairing partner to shellfish, but also a good accompaniment to desserts and cheeses. The reason for this is because like Champagne, Cava is produced in varying levels of sweetness. Brut or brut nature is extra dry, sec or seco is dry, semisec or semiseco is medium-dry, and dulce or dolsec is sweet.
Italy is also known for several types of sparkling wine. Perhaps most notable are Asti from Piedmont and Prosecco from Veneto. Both of these wines are produced with the Charmat method, (a more affordable method than the traditionelle, whereby the wine is aged in a tank rather than in the bottle,) which means they’re more affordable for the buyer and meant to be consumed relatively young. Asti is made in the province of Asti from the moscato grape, which produces a much sweeter sparkling than Prosecco. And many have heard of Moscato d’Asti, which is a frizzante (semi or slightly sparkling) version of Asti. Because of its dryness and bright, fresh flavors, Prosecco is a versatile partner to many foods. But Asti goes best with sweet, and is especially good at showcasing fruit flavors.
With so many countries producing sparkling wines, including Germany, (called Sekt,) Portugal, (Espumante,) Hungary, Romania, South Africa and Australia, there’s no denying the business of bubbly is booming. California produces several noteworthy sparklings, facilitated by some of the Champagne region’s best known vintners, such as Moet Chandon’s Domaine Chandon. And France produces much more than just Champagne, such as Cremante, (method traditionelle sparkling produced in specific regions of France outside of Champagne,) and Mousseaux, (literally, “sparkling” in French.)
You can try a nice variety of bubbles at Eola Wine Company if you order the “Bubbles” flight (sampler). $15 gets you a spritely sampling of J NV (non-vintage) Brut from Sonoma; Tiamo Prosecco from Veneto, Italy; Graham Beck Brut Rose from Robertson, South Africa; and Piper Heidseik Champagne from—you guessed it—Champagne, France.
It is nice to know that, with so many varieties of sparkling wine on the market, we do not have to limit ourselves due to price or quality. If you want to spend a little extra on that bottle of Piper Heidsiek, go for it. Because you can rest assured you’re getting quality and tradition that pays off in complexity and taste. But if you just want something fun and affordable to take to a party or pop with friends, you can still get a great bubbly off the shelf without breaking the bank. And that’s cause enough for celebration.