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How to buy sparkling wine like a pro


Champagne isn’t the only game in town. In fact, with a little Intel, you can find a bottle of bubbly that’s much cheaper than Champagne, but is just as bubbly.

If you’re playing host on New Year’s, please say you plan on popping open a bottle or three of bubbly. (If you’re not, don’t bother inviting me.) And then please, consider all your options.

Yes, Virginia, there is more to sparkling wine than Champagne, which, let’s admit, is the reigning champ of festive beverages. Cava, Prosecco, franciacorta… so many choices, so many reasons to party.

But what’s the difference? What distinguishes cava from Champagne? Why does one bottle cost $15 and another $50? And is one type of bubbly going to start 2016 better than another?

Let’s find out.


Sparkling wine is produced either by the traditional method (“méthode champenoise”) or the “charmat” method.

In the traditional method, sugar and yeast are added to the base wine, triggering a second fermentation directly in the bottle. As the yeast cells nibble the sugar, they produce carbon dioxide, creating those appealing bubbles. The bottles are slowly rotated (for some Champagnes, this can take years!) until they’re neck down; the spent yeast collects and is eventually removed.

In the charmat method, that second fermentation takes place in big pressurized tanks before the wine is bottled.

The traditional method, the way Champagne with a capital C is made, yields the richest, most complex flavors.

“With the sugar and yeast feeding off each other when they’re trapped within the bottle, you get more influence from those spent yeast cells,” says Craig Perman, owner of Perman Wine Selections in Chicago and former sommelier at Alinea.


Champagne is just one category of sparkling wine. In Italy, “spumante” is the catchall term for sparkling wine, of which there are several types. There’s also sparkling rose, sparkling Shiraz — the list goes on, and sort of looks like this:


Only sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France can be called Champagne. It’s made in the traditional method from chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes. The area’s cool climate and unique chalky soil are ideal for producing Champagne.


 Any French sparkling wine made in the traditional way but outside of the Champagne region. Grapes vary by region and the name will specify the origin—Cremant de Bordeaux, Cremant de Loire, and so on.


Sparkling wine from Spain made the traditional way (though a machine takes care of the bottle-rotating). The three main grapes used are Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada.


The general term for sparkling wine from Portugal.


Sparkling wine from Northeast Italy, made in the charmat method mostly from Glera grapes.


A sparkling red made with Lambrusco grapes and hailing from Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, usually made by the charmat method (and way better these days than your mother’s super-sweet Riunite).


from the Lombardy region of Italy, made in the traditional way from chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot Blanc grapes.


an Italian sparkling wine made from the moscato grape, using the charmat method.


the German term for sparkling wine, often made with Riesling, sometimes with pinot Blanc. Austrian sekts typically use the gruner veltliner grape.

American sparkling wines

Most are made in the traditional method with various grapes. There are sparkling wines from California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, New York and even Illinois, Perman said.



Sparkling wine has varying levels of sweetness. The phrases to look out for on the bottle, going from driest to sweetest, are extra brut; brut; extra-dry or extra-sec; sec; demi-sec, and doux.

“Blanc de Blancs” means a sparkling wine made only with white Chardonnay grapes. “Blanc de noirs” means it was made with dark Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier grapes.

“NV” stands for non-vintage. This means what’s in the bottle is a blend of wines from more than one year, or vintage. It’s typical of a lot of sparkling wine and is done “for consistency’s sake,” Perman says.

  • $$$$

First things first: “There’s no such thing as good $10 sparkling wine,” Perman says. “It can’t be done.”

Certain grapes are more expensive to grow, and the traditional production method takes more time and labor than the tank method, which explains the higher price of Champagne and others made this way.

That said, you can find good sparkling wines for around $15 and even better values in the $20 to $30 range, Perman says.

Quality non-vintage Champagne ranges from $30 to $60 and vintages from $50 on up. The best Champagne? “Eighty bucks to the moon,” Perman said.


Store sparkling wine like any other wine, away from light in a cool place where the temperature doesn’t fluctuate much, with the bottle on its side.

Less expensive sparkling wines are meant to be opened sooner rather than later. The best Champagnes will keep for a while, though how long that is depends on the producer. “There are plenty of good examples of Champagne 10, 20, even 30 years after the vintage date,” Perman said.

Over time, all sparkling wine will lose its bubbles. So once you do open it, try to drink it all. (Friends are usually happy to help.)



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