Guide to Sparkling Wine

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Nothing fits a celebration quite like a great sparkling wine. From wedding toasts to work victories, the only way to commemorate a great moment is by popping a cork and pouring some bubbles. But don't relegate your sparkling wine to only the most special moments -- Champagne, Prosecco, Cava, and the rest are all terrifically food-friendly and palate-stimulating, making them the right choice for everything from brunch to cocktail hour.

Sparkling Wine Grapes

You'll often see these terms on bottles of sparkling wine. They each refer to the sort of grapes that were used in the production of the wine.

Blanc de Blancs refers to sparkling wines made from white grapes; Chardonnay, in particular, when it comes to Champagne. These tend to be crisp and elegant with vibrant orchard fruit tones.

Blanc de Noirs refers to white sparkling wines made from red grapes, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier in Champagne. The juice of virtually every red grape is actually clear, so a quick pressing off the skins results in white wines such as these. The flavor of the wine retains hints of red fruits and tend to be somewhat richer than their Blanc de Blanc cousins.

Rose sparkling wines are pink to quite red, much like the still versions. There are two ways to produce a rose sparkler. The first involves leaving the juice in contact with the skins of the red grapes for a period of time. It is also possible to produce a rose by blending red wine and white wine. Roses can be among the richest of sparkling wines and have fruit flavors that lean decidedly in the berry direction.

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Sparkling Wine Regions

You're certainly familiar with Champagne, but French sparkling wine is only the beginning! Nearly every major wine region in the world produces its own sparkler; the next time you're looking for bubbles, check out these other contenders.

Italy-- Produces its own Prosecco, which tends to be light, fruity, and a touch sweet, as well as Methodo Classico. Methodo Classico is a style that uses traditional Champagne methods and grapes. Another Italian sparkler is Moscato d’Asti, a slightly sweet, fruity and floral bubbly that is decidedly different from both Prosecco and Methodo Classico.

Spain-- Cava is the sparkling wine of Spain. These can be great values, and while they use the Meethod Champenoise the grape varieties tend to be different. Traditionally made from the indigenous Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarel-lo varieties, Cava tends to be dry and fairly fruity.

Germany-– Sekt is the traditional German sparkler. Generally produced by using the bulk, or Charmat, method. These tend to rather simple sparklers, though the best, based on Riesling and Pinot Blanc, can be remarkably delicious.

Austria-- Another source of Sekt, though in Austria the quality tends to be higher and the main grapes are Gruner Veltliner and Welschriesling. These are lovely, somewhat fruity wines produced in either a trocken (dry) or halbtrocken (off-dry) style.

USA-– Domestic sparkling wine production has exploded over the past two decades. Almost all of these wines are produced using the Method Champenoise, mostly with traditional grape varieties. Nomenclature for sweetness on US bottles is the same as that found on European bottling

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Sparkling Wine Styles

We'll start at the top-rung of Champagnes, also know as Crème de Tete, or cuvée de prestige. These are wines that define a house’s style and go by proprietary names like Cristal, Dom Perignon, and Cuvee Winston Churchill. These represent the pinnacle of the champagne blender’s art and are wines that frequently benefit from and many times demand cellaring to release their potential. Right off the shelf, the current release of these wines can be somewhat disappointing.

More common is a house’s non-vintage style. This is, not surprisingly, a blend of several vintages that allows a blender to combine the freshness of younger wines with the complexity contributed by older, more mature wines. The goal in making a non-vintage wine is to offer a consistent style from vintage to vintage.

In certain vintages the Champagne is so good, and has such a distinctive character, that it may be bottled as a vintage wine. In general these wines are a step up in quality from the basic non-vintage bottling, though there can be exceptions. As with the Crème de Tete, a vintage sparkling wine may require several years in the bottle to offer the drinkability of a non-vintage. You also have to be familiar with the style of the vintage. Great vintages come in different styles, from opulent and ripe to chiseled and structured. It’s easy to love one vintage and hate another, so ask a trusted retailer if you have any questions.

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The Sweetness Scale

The terminology used to indicate how sweet or dry a sparkling wine is can be confusing, but once you learn it, you're in luck: It's largely consistent across most countries.

Sparkling wine labeled Brut Natural, Brut Nature, or Brut Zero have less than 3 grams per liter of residual sugar and are considered dry.

Bottles deemed Extra-Brut have up to 6 grams per liter of residual sugar and still taste dry but are richer and fruitier than Brut Zero.

Sparklers labeled Brut have up to 15 grams per liter of residual sugar and can begin to be noticeably sweet though producers generally keep Brut fairly dry.

Any sparkling wine labeled Extra Sec, Extra Seco, or Extra Dry have 12-20 grams of sugar per liter. These sparkling wines are in fact a bit sweeter as they tend to the upper end of the allotted range.

Sparkling wine labeled as Sec or Seco have between 17 and 35 grams of sugar per liter and are noticeably sweet. Wines labeled Demi-Sec or Semi-Seco have between 33 and 50 grams per liter and are fairly sweet, though the bottom end of the range still produces wines that can seem dry to the most sugar-tolerant.

Sparkling wines that's noted as Doux or Dolce have at least 50 grams of sugar per liter and are exactly what they claim to be: Sweet.

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Who made my Champagne?

Once upon a time pretty much all Champagne sold in the US was produced by big houses that bought other farmers' grapes to make their blends. They are known as Negociants. Not too long ago, the farmers growing these grapes realized it might be in their best interest to make some wine themselves, see if they could sell it and make a little more money. And thus, the Grower or Grower-Producer Champagne movement was born.

The beauty of Grower Champagne is that the wines come from uniform plots of land. Year in and year out the wines are produced by the same folks, using the same techniques, so the character of the wine comes from the terroir and the climate as opposed to the blender's art.

On each label of Champagne you’ll find a small alphanumeric code. The first two digits of this code will tell you what sort of an operation is responsible for your creating your sparkling wine:

NM = Négociant manipulant. Someone who buys grapes to make their wine.

CM = Coopérative de manipulation. A co-op that producers wines from member’s grapes and sells it under on label.

RM = Récoltant manipulant. The grower producer who makes wine from their own grapes.

SR = Société de récoltants. A group of growers who make wine together but sell them under more than one brand

RC = Récoltant coopérateur. A Co-op member selling Co-op produced champagne under his or her own label

MA = Marque auxiliaire or Marque d'acheteur. A brand name.

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