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Sparkling Wine


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About Sparkling Wine

Background

“Sparkling Wine” is a generic term referring to wines with significant levels of dissolved carbon dioxide gas, which generates a “fizzy” or “bubbly” quality in the wines. The best-known type of sparkling wine is Champagne—which is now, by international law, a term that can only be applied to wines made in certain ways within the Champagne region of France—but there are great numbers of other such wines made in many countries. The dissolved gas can be the result of natural fermentation—either in the bottle, as with the traditional Champagne-style method or in a large tank designed to withstand the pressures involved (as in the Charmat process)—or, in some cheap sparklers, of simple carbon-dioxide injection.

There are also wines referred to as “semi-sparkling”, or often as frizzante; the rules governing such designations are these: bottle internal pressures greater than 3 atmospheres (instead of “atmospheres” you may see the term “bar”: it’s the same thing) are “sparkling”; bottle internal pressures between 1.0 and 2.5 atmospheres are “semi-sparkling”; pressures below 1 atmosphere are not sparkling. (We do not know what they make of pressures between 2.5 and 3.0 atmospheres, “they” being the Mental Giant lawmakers who define such things.)

(The history of sparkling wines is fascinating but too lengthy to recount here; we refer you to the Wikipedia article for that history.)

France produces a great variety of sparkling wines besides Champagne, including eight sorts of Crémant wines, a couple of Blanquettes, and perhaps as many as nine more (there are four AOCs whose wines can be sparkling or still, so it depends on how you count). In virtually all cases, sparkling wines can be spotted by the shape and weight of their bottles, which need to safely contain those high gas pressures.

From outside France, the more notable sparkling wines include:

There are many others. In the U.S., the simple designation “sparkling wine” is what is normally used. Worth noting is that several eminent European Champagne houses have established wineries in the U.S. in which wineries some excellent sparkling wines are made.

(Note that the winme laws pertaining to Cava had a major “tightening-up” as of the 2020 vintage; the details are too long to repeat here, but you can find them on this Wine Searcher Cava page.)

Most sparkling wines are whites, but by no means all (as with Lambrusco and most bottlings of Brachetto).

Grapes that are especially well suited for making sparkling wines are typically quite high in acid (and are often harvested rather earlier than such grapes when intended for still wines), and often somewhat neutral in flavor. The process of grape harvesting and processing is too complex to describe fully here (for details, again see the Wikipedia article), but the chief takeaway is that there are two fundamental approaches, which vary by how the secondary fermentation that produces the bubbles is handled: in the bottle (the approach formerly called the méthode champenoise but now called—unless explicitly referring to actual legally titled Champagne—the méthode traditionnelle), or the “bulk” method, called the Charmat method. It is widely believed that only in-bottle fermentation can produce the best sparkling wine, and bulk processing tends to be snooted, perhaps unfairly. But “sparkling wines” made by just injecting carbon dioxide into still wine are indeed to be avoided.

Sparkling wines are made with varying degrees of sweetness, ranging from essentially none to icky-gooey. The driest ones—which are far and away the most preferred—are referred to as Brut, but that category actually has three sub-categories. Here is a table showing what’s what on sweetness (per EU 2009 regulations, but widely followed around the world):

Rating Sugar content
 (grams per litre) 
Brut Nature (no added sugar)   0 –   3
Extra Brut   0 –   6
Brut   0 – 12
Extra Dry, Extra Sec, Extra seco 12 – 17
Dry, Sec, Seco 17 – 32
Demi-sec, Semi-seco 32 –50
Doux, Sweet, Dulce    50+

Basically, any sparkling wine not labelled as some sort of Brut is going to be to some degree sweet. That may be fine for celebrations where many of the celebrants are not wine fanciers, but most wine regulars would not use anything but a Brut as a table wine. Indeed, most wine fanciers tend to find even Brut wines that are toward the high end of sugars (say 10 – 12 grams/liter) to be a bit too sweet. Of course, YMMV, but that’s the general feeling.

It is worth pointing out here that decent and better sparkling wines are available at prices comparable to still wines, so there is no need to think of sparklers as luxuries to be reserved for rare occasions: drink them with whatever foods they seem to you to go with, or on their own whenever you fancy. Sparklers are especially good at matching up with foods normally thought to be somewhere from difficult to hostile for wine, such as egg dishes (think of a “Champagne brunch”).

A typical sparkling-wine bottle.

A good-quality dry sparkling wine will have aromas of baked bread and usually an overtone of citrus. The palate will be dry, refreshingly acid, and will carry through that vaguely bready, citrus-overtone of its nose. Some sparklers show more fruit than others (American sparklers are typically that bit more fruity than their European counterparts), but the fruit oughtn’t to dominate the characteristic dry toasty quality.

Factoid: One atmosphere of pressure is about 14.7 pounds, meaning that a bottle of Champagne, which is typically at 5 or 6 atmospheres in the bottle (5 is the legal minimum), is at something like 80 pounds, substantially more than the typical automobile tire (which is why Champagne bottles are so thick and heavy—see the image).

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Some Descriptions of Sparkling Wines

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Some Sparkling Wines to Try

(About this list.)

While sparkling wines tend to be pricey (in part because of idiotic “luxury” taxes applied to them), we have managed to make a decent list within our $20-and-under limit (though in some cases, close to it). As a sampling, we have shown some American sparkling wines, a couple of Spanish Cavas, and a Prosecco.

(One sparkler not shown below but worth attention is Costco’s privately branded “Kirkland Signature” Brut Champagne, which really is Champagne from France. It typically runs about $20 and has gotten good reviews—though also a few not-so-good—but it is available only at Costco and so is not listed by Wine Searcher, though it is at CellarTracker.)

When shopping for sparkling wines, especially true Champagne, keep in mind what so many wine experts say: most people spend most of their money not on the wine but on the prestige name. There is a lot of mystique evoked by famous Champagne-house names, but consensus seems to be that few of their products are worth the large premiums in price those names typically command.


Roederer Estate Brut “Anderson Valley”
(A California offshoot of the Louis Roederer Champagne house. Made by méthode traditionelle.)

• This wine’s Wine Searcher “Tasting Notes” page.
• This wine’s CellarTracker review pages.
• Retail offers of this wine listed by Wine Searcher
• Retail offers of this wine listed by 1000 Corks



Mumm Napa Brut Rosé
(A California offshoot of the Mumm Champagne house. Made by méthode traditionelle.)

• This wine’s Wine Searcher “Tasting Notes” page.
• This wine’s CellarTracker review pages.
• Retail offers of this wine listed by Wine Searcher
• Retail offers of this wine listed by 1000 Corks



Scharffenberger “Brut Excellence”
(A California winery, now owned by Roederer. Made by méthode traditionelle.)

• This wine’s Wine Searcher “Tasting Notes” page.
• This wine’s CellarTracker review pages.
• Retail offers of this wine listed by Wine Searcher
• Retail offers of this wine listed by 1000 Corks



Juvé y Camps “Reserva de la Familia” Gran Reserva Brut Nature Cava
(Catalonian “zero-dosage” Cava, made by méthode traditionelle.)

• This wine’s Wine Searcher “Tasting Notes” page.
• This wine’s CellarTracker review pages.
• Retail offers of this wine listed by Wine Searcher
• Retail offers of this wine listed by 1000 Corks



Llopart Reserva Brut Rosé Cava
(Catalonian Cava, made by méthode traditionelle.)

• This wine’s Wine Searcher “Tasting Notes” page.
• This wine’s CellarTracker review pages.
• Retail offers of this wine listed by Wine Searcher
• Retail offers of this wine listed by 1000 Corks



Bisol “Crede” Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Brut Superiore
(Charmat/Martinotti method Prosecco, Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG.)

• This wine’s Wine Searcher “Tasting Notes” page.
• This wine’s CellarTracker review pages.
• Retail offers of this wine listed by Wine Searcher
• Retail offers of this wine listed by 1000 Corks

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For a Splurge

Our nomination is the Iron Horse Vineyards “Wedding Cuvée” Sparkling. It is not drastically better than those listed abover, but neither it drastically more expensive.

• This wine’s Wine Searcher “Tasting Notes” page.
• This wine’s CellarTracker pages.
• Retail offers of this wine listed by Wine Searcher
• Retail offers of this wine listed by 1000 Corks

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