The Quick And Dirty Guide To Sparkling Wines


Made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, this is the gold standard of sparkling wine. Styles range from lean and crisp with lots of lemon, green apple and stony minerality to rich and full with aromas of brioche, toffee and baked apples. Rosé Champagne will display more red fruit and berry aromas. The hippest category of Champagne these days is known as Grower Champagne, so called because the winemaker also grows the grapes – a relatively uncommon practice in the region. These tend to be rather pricey in the US (but if you are going to France, you can get great deals) — think $50+. Henri’s Reserve is a good resource and they ship nationally.

Good for: Hostess Gifts, Special Occasions, Wine Nerds (Grower Champagne)

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Cremant de Loire, Burgundy, Jura, Alsace, etc France

Cremant means creamy in French and is the word used to denote sparkling wine made in the “Methode Champenoise” in any region other than Champagne – for example: Cremant de Loire, Cremant de Bourgogne (Burgundy), Cremant de Jura and Cremant d’Alsace. In each region it is made from different grapes. In the Loire, it will often be Chenin Blanc or Cabernet Franc; in the Alsace it might be Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc or even Gewürztraminer. This is a great way to get close to the quality of Champagne at a fraction of the price.

Good for: Value, Hostess Gifts, Champagne Alternative

Blanquette de Limoux France

Hailing from Limoux, a small sub-region of the Languedoc in southern France, this wine is also made in the Méthode Champenoise primarily from Mauzac (a local grape also known as Blanquette). Crémant de Limoux is from the same region, but made primarily from Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. Both are great choices. Limoux is one of the oldest sparkling wine-producing regions in France – dating to 1531.

Good for: Value, Wine Nerds, Champagne Alternative

Prosecco Italy

Made from the Glera grape in Italy in the Charmat method, Prosecco is perhaps America’s favorite bubbly. Because it is not aged “sur lie” as Champagne is, the flavors of Prosecco tend to be simpler and less complex. Think white flowers, apple and pear. Some even have a bit of sweetness, especially cheaper versions.

Good for: Brunch, Punch, Parties, Value

Cava Spain

Spain’s sparkling wines can be extremely high quality, but historically the ones that were exported to the U.S. were not the nation’s best. This is changing and I encourage you to seek them out. Cordoniu is a quality producer with a fairly large production that is widely available. They are also made in the Methode Champenoise, and many are aged even longer than Champagne is. The principal grapes are Xarello, Macabeo and Parellada, but many others can be used as well.

Good for: Something Different, Parties

Franciacorta Italy

Hailing from the Lombardy region of Italy (also the home of Milan), Franciacorta can be delicious, but unfortunately it also tends to be overpriced. It is made in the Methode Champenoise from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir (Nero) and Pinot Blanc (Bianco). As a warmer region than chilly northern France, the wines tend to be riper and fuller and can lack the zesty acidity and minerality of Champagne.

Good for: Something Different, Die Hard Italians

Sekt Germany

Basically any sparkling wine made in Germany. This is another category that has suffered from poor quality production and lack of attention. There are some producers who are really doing it right, though. I recently had a Riesling Sekt that was phenomenal, with all the green apple, nectarine and minerality of a still Riesling, plus the added sparkling bonus.

Good for: Something Different, Wine Nerds

American Sparkling Wine United States of America

In the US we don’t have any laws about what grapes can be included in what wines, so technically just about anything could be used. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the most common choices. Some are made in the Methode Champenoise, but many are not. In general, cooler growing regions are better bets because the acidity in the grapes is preserved. Parts of Northern California and upstate New York are examples, although improbably some of the best value US sparkling comes from New Mexico’s Gruet. Schramsberg from the North Coast is my favorite domestic bubbly.

Good for: Drinking American

Moscato d’Asti & Brachetto d’Acqui Italy

Sweet sparkling wines from the Piedmont region of Northern Italy, Moscato d’Asti is made from Moscato grapes in the Asti region and is white, while Brachetto d’Acqui is made from Brachetto grapes near Acqui Terme, and is a Rosé. Both wines range from slightly to very sweet. Bad examples are cloying, while good ones are delicious as an aperitif or with dessert.

Good for: Something Different, Dessert

Lambrusco Italy

Once only available at very few Italian restaurants, Lambrusco is making a comeback and can now be spotted all over the hippest of Brooklyn locales. A sparkling red wine that can be off-dry, it comes from Emilia Romagna in Italy, also home to such delicacies as Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano — which is what you should pair it with. Grasparossa di Castelvetro is considered the best sub-region.

Good for: Something Different, Drinking with Salumi, Hipsters

Sparkling Wine From Anywhere Else

Almost every wine producing country in the world produces sparkling wine of some sort. Without any clear regulations or reputation, however, it can be challenging to identify what will be delicious, and what might be an unfortunate experiment. Some fun and unlikely examples of sparkling-producing places include Austria, South Africa, Australia and even England. To seek these gems out, I recommend finding a good local wine merchant who can point you in the right direction.

Good for: Something Different, Value

A word on pricing…

As our recent infographic illustrates, making sparkling wine of quality is fairly complex. For Champagne, Cava and Franciacorta, there are strict rules on how long a wine must age. For example, a non-vintage Champagne must rest at least 15 months “en tirage” and vintage Champagne must rest for three years. Accordingly, you’ll get much better quality if you trade up a bit in price.

Disclaimer: The article’s author’s employer helps to promote wines from Languedoc.

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Adrienne is a native New Yorker who now lives in Napa with a penchant for all things food & beverage. Previously she co-founded Dipsology, a guide to great cocktails in NYC, and she is also a Certified Sommelier. Follow her on twitter @alstillman.