Many people love bubbly wines; there's just something about them, that even before our first sip, brings a smile to our lips. Most of us are familiar with the names of Champagne, Cava and Prosecco. But what makes them different?

What Makes Champagne Different?

We'll start out with the big one, Champagne, not only because it might be the most well-known of all sparkling wines, but because if you understand Champagne, the rest is easy. So what is the difference between Champagne and sparkling wine?

Champagne, is not just the beloved and famed bubbly drink of France, but, it is also the name of the region where it is made, a small town also called "Champagne," which is where this spirit gets its name. The region is found in the northeastern part of France where a cool climate along with special terroir is ideal for cultivating the fruit for this wine. By law of the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC), there are only three grapes which are permitted for the production and making of Champagne: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier (both red grapes) and Chardonnay, a white grape variety.

When the grapes are harvested, they are first made into still wines. These are then blended into a cuvée. Each Champagne estate has their own blend, and it is used from year to year as a signature flavor for their Champagne. These blends are used to make Non-Vintage (NV) Champagne and may be blended with many other previous vintages. For Vintage Champagne, only still wines made from that year's harvest are permitted.

Going back to the name, only Champagne from the Champagne region of France can be called "Champagne," as it is specifically named for the AOC designations it possesses and the region's traditional Champagne-making processes. Within Europe, this regulation is strictly accepted and respected, however, in other countries such as in the US, winemakers aren't required to follow European regulations, leading to many winemakers labeling their sparkling wines as "Champagne," even though they aren't truly Champagne. Within Europe, all other effervescent wines are called "Sparkling Wines," with the exception of Cava and Prosecco, which are Spain and Italy's signature sparkling wines respectively, each earn a designated name.

The Process of Making Bubbles in Champagne?

The process of adding the sparkle to Champagne is called méthode champenoise. Champagne bottles are filled with the still wine along with a certain amount of yeast and sugar or syrup. This is called a dosage and just as every Champagne house has its own blend of cuvée, so do they also have their own secret dosage. This addition of yeast and sugar are what start a secondary fermentation in the bottle, creating Carbon Dioxide (CO2) gas, and thus, we have bubbles! Crown caps are then placed on the bottles and then they are cellared.

Champagne must be aged in this manner for a minimum of 1 1/2 years via AOC laws. Other, more special, Champagne, such as millésime, is aged up to three years. While the bottles rest in the cellar, they undergo remuage, a process by which a trained employee slowly increases the angle of the bottle towards the cap and gives each bottle a quarter turn over time. This allows for the yeasts to fall to the top of the bottle. Once the bottles are finished aging, they are taken to the bottling line where the top is flash frozen to disgorge the yeast and then the cork is put in place.

Now that you are familiar with how it is made, it might help you the next time you're in your favorite wine shop to know what you're looking for.

There are three blends of Champagne found on most labels:

  • Blanc de Noirs, a blend of Champagne only using Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier
  • Blanc de blancs, only Chardonnay is used.
  • Rosé, a Champagne which is made by process of saignée or mixing Chardonnay with Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier. Originally, this style was left for inexpensive Champagne, but that is not the case today.

Aside from the blends of Champagne, they are also categorized and labeled according to their sugar content, the first being the driest;

  • Extra Brut
  • Brut
  • Extra Dry
  • Sec
  • Demi-sec
  • Doux

Brut and Doux are often the most common styles of Champagne you'll find at a wine shop.

Now that you're familiar with Champagne, the rest of our bubbly wine article will go easy. Our next featured sparkling wine is Cava.

Spain's Sparkling Wine, Cava

Cava is from the sub-region of Penedes in Catalonia, Spain. Its bubbles are created in the same manner as Champagne, méthode champenoise. However, the grapes used are different and also regulated by the Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOC). For Cava the three main grapes are Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo. These are all white wine grapes. Rosé (rosat) versions of Cava are blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Garnacha or Monastrell. Most Cava is found only as NV, but, some vintage Cava exists, but it is rare and mainly sought after by collectors.

Just as Champagne has different styles according to sugar level, so does Cava. The most common style made is Brut and Brut Nature (with the least amount of sugar). Others are Brut Reserve, Sec (Seco) or "Dry," Semiseco or "Semi-Sweet," to Dulce or "Sweet."

On to Italy's Prosecco!

Prosecco, is made in the DOC region of Veneto, and the best Prosecco is found in the sub-region of DOCG Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore. As you might have guessed, Prosecco too has regulations on how it can be made and with what fruit. All Prosecco is made from a single grape called, Glera.

This grape enjoys a cool climate where it can maintain its acidity and delicate fruit profile. In the mountains of Veneto, this grape grows on sunny mountainsides in ancient soils. This region has been found so stunning beautiful to many, that the region of Conegliano Valdobbiadene has been officiated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The difference of Prosecco versus Champagne and Cava is how the bubbles are added. They are created by a secondary fermentation in a pressurized tank in a process called Charmat, rather than individual bottles. The fermentation starts the same way with the addition of sugar and yeast. For exceptional Prosecco though, the wine is made via Metodo Classico, the same as methode champenoise from Champagne. It is often found in one style as Brut, however, depending on the producer, flavor and sugar level can vary. It is often served chilled and as an aperitif.

There you have it, the top three sparkling wines explained. In all cases, they are all meant to be enjoyed with a smile. They are also worth popping open any day, not just for special occasions. Cheers!