The Grapevine – What’s Sparkling in Your Glass in 2012?

-A Tribute to the New Year

Champagne and Sparkling wines are drinks of celebration, so it is important to understand what’s out there, and more importantly how they are different.  Champagne and sparkling wines are technically, still wines; however they have been infused with carbonation.  The Champagne region of France produces some of the finest sparkling wines in the world.  Typically there are three grapes used in the blend for sparkling wines; Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.  Different vintages are used to create the blend, or the “cuvee”.

There are four methods of Sparkling wine production:

1. Carbon Dioxide Injection –Soft drinks and most inexpensive sparkling wines are produced using this method.  It produces large bubbles that dissipate rapidly.

2. Charmat Process – Wine undergoes a second fermentation in large bulk tanks and is bottled under pressure.  Prosecco and Asti are produced utilizing this method, which results in smaller, longer lasting bubbles.

3. Méthode Champenoise – This is the process by which true Champagne is made.  This method takes place in the bottle and requires much hands-on attention, which tends to make Champagne expensive.  During the second fermentation the carbon dioxide stays in the bottle, which is where the bubbles come from.

4. Transfer Method – The cuvee is bottled for the second fermentation, which adds complexity.  But the wine is then removed and stored in large tanks after it has spent the appropriate amount of time on yeast.

Authentic Champagne made from France can be identified by the capital letter “C” used in the word Champagne on the label.  Other sparkling wines called Champagne will by designated as “champagne”.  Champagne is white because only the juice of the grapes is used.

Pink Champagne is strained through the Pinot Noir grape skins which create its beautiful color.  The wine is fermented twice, once in an oak barrel, and the second time the wine develops carbonation in the bottle while aging a minimum of one year.  Blanc de Blancs is true French Champagne; it is produced entirely from the Chardonnay grape.

Designations of quality:

Prestige cuvee:

This Champagne is the highest priced and is available only in small quantities.  It is designated “Prestige” because the grapes come from the best grapes grown in the highest rated villages. It is made from the first pressing of the grapes, produced only as a vintage, and will have been aged longer than vintage and non-vintage Champagnes.

Vintage Champagne:

Some select years produce an outstanding grape harvest.  The Vintage Champagnes are aged for at least three years.  Here are a few examples of companies who produce these Vintage Champagnes; Veuve Clicquot, Perrier-Jouet, Moet & Chandon, and Taittinger.

Remember, a Vintage Champagne will be identified by an actual year marked on the label, but expect to pay a premium for this.

Non-Vintage Champagne:

The majority of Sparkling wine on the shelf of a store is non-vintage.  These are a blend of wines aged for two years.

How to identify your Champagne

  • Brut is Dry
  • Extra Dry is Semidry
  • Sec is Semisweet
  • Demi-sec is Sweet

Quality Champagne Cellars:

Ayala, Billecart-Salmon, J. Bollinger, Canard-Duchene, Deutz, Charles Heidsieck, Heid sieck Monopole, Henriot, Krug, Lanson, Lauret Perrier, Mercier, Moet & Chandon, Mumm Perrier-Jouet, Joseph Perrier, Piper Heidsieck, Pol Roger, Pommery, Louis Roederer, Ruinart, Salmon, Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot

Other sparkling Wine Regions:

Loire Valley of France produces Crémant, while the Asti region of Italy produces Asti Spumanti, and Prosecco comes from the Veneto region.  The Catalonia region of Spain produces the world’s most popular sparkling wine, Cava.

Prosecco is an Italian wine, generally a dry sparkling wine, usually made from grape variety Glera, which is also known as Prosecco.  The northern Veneto region of Italy, at the foothills of the Alps is where Prosecco is grown and produced.

Prosecco is mainly produced as a sparkling wine in either the fully sparkling (spumante) or lightly sparkling (frizzante, gentile) styles.  Prosecco spumante, which has undergone a full secondary fermentation, is the more expensive style.   Depending on their sweetness, Proseccos are labeled “brut”, “extra dry”, or “dry”, with the brut being the driest.

Unlike Champagne, Prosecco does not ferment in the bottle, and consequently the wine “goes off,” or gets old quickly, and should be drunk as young as possible, preferably within one year.

Prosecco is Italy’s answer to refreshing, well-made, sparkling wine that is low in alcohol, about 11 to 12 percent by volume.  Prosecco is light, affordable, and fun.  This Sparkling wine is aromatic and crisp, with nuances of yellow apple, citrus, pear, white peach, and apricot.

Asti Spumante is a sweet sparkling wine with a mellow effervescence.  It is produced in the Italian province of Asti and made from the Moscato grape.  Spumante is a fruit forward sparkling wine that is grapy, and has low alcohol content usually around 8 percent.  Moscato d’Asti is a sparkling wine that is frizzante in style and more refined than the Asti Spumante.

Cava originated in the Catalonia region at the in the late 19th century.  Originally the wine was known as Champaña until Spanish producers officially adopted the term “Cava” (cellar) in 1970.  Cava wines are fermented and aged in the bottle in underground cellars.  Today 95 perecent of Spain’s total Cava production is from Catalonia.

Cava is produced in different styles ranging from dry to sweet; Brut Nature, Brut (extra dry), Seco (dry), Semiseco (medium) and Dulce (sweet).  Under Spanish Denominación de Origen laws, Cava can be produced in six wine regions and must be made according to the Traditional Method with second fermentation in the bottle.  The grapes used to produce Cava are Macabeo, Parellada, Xarel·lo, Chardonnay, Pinot noir, and Malvasia.  The Chardonnay grape is a late comer to the scene despite being a traditional grape used to produce Champagne.  Cava made by the Champagne method is a very acceptable alternative to French champagne.

Crémant is produced in the Loire Valley of France and is the largest producer of sparkling wines outside of the Champagne region.  Crémant has to be aged for at least one year and it is handpicked.  The producers are also limited as to how much can be harvested, this all according to the standards of the French Appellation d’origine controlee, or AOC.

The Crémant Sparkling Wines are pressurized less than Champagne and therefore have a larger, looser bubble and are a less expensive alternative to Champagne.

California Sparkling Wines:

Sparkling wines from California use a few grape varietals such as Berger and Chenin Blanc to blend with the traditional Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes.

Producers to look for in California; Hacienda, Domain Lauier, Roederer Estate, Domaine Carneros, Domaine Chandon, Codorniu-Napa, Iron Horse, Jordan, Mumm-Cuvee Napa, and Schramsberg.

If you are interested in sampling these Sparkling wines, Liquid Planet, “Best of Beverage”, located in the heart of Downtown Missoula has a very nice selection of Champagne and Sparkling wines.  Stop in and a member of their knowledgeable staff will be sure to assist you in selecting the perfect bubbly for your New Year’s celebration and beyond.

For a list of WineGuyMike’s personal favorites and best value Champagne’s and Sparkling wines visit the blog at or Facebook at WineGuyMike.

Happy New Years and Cheers to a great 2012 from WineGuyMike.

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