A Six-Bottle Master Class to Sparkling Wine 

sparkling wine poured into tulip flute
Photo Courtesy ALAIN JULIEN/AFP via Getty Images)

During the holidays, queries for “best sparkling wine” flood Google’s search bar. Given the subjectivity of “best” and that the answer ultimately lives in the realm of personal preference, skip asking Alexa for recommendations and try a comparative tasting instead.

Sparkling wine encompasses more than just Champagne. It is made all over the worldLocal grapes often inform the blend or varietal base wine, such as Chenin Blanc in Crémant from the Loire Valley or Riesling in Sekt from Germany. Then climate, production method, style, aging and other variables come together to create the final wine.

Of course, Champagne remains the most famous fizz. The production methodMéthode Champenoise or traditional methodis emulated everywhere, from French crémants and Italy’s Metodo Classicos to South Africa’s Méthode Cap Classique (MCC) bottlings and Spain’s Cavas.

Beyond the traditional method of production, producers can also utilize other sparkling winemaking techniques. The tank method, also known as the Charmat method, is the technique of choice for Italian favorites Prosecco and Moscato d’Asti.

With so many sparkling wines to consider, it’s simultaneously enlightening and delicious to treat yourself to a side-by-side tasting of sparklers of different kinds. 

Organize your tasting by three key categories: Champagne against traditional-method California sparkling wine; German Sekt versus Crémant de Loireand tank-fermented Prosecco versus Moscato d’Asti and Asti. As you taste, search for aromas and flavors, but also think about sweetness, alcohol, the texture of the bubbles and the mouthfeel or weight of the wine

Of course, you’ll need to pick up a few bottles, so we’ve included tips on what to seekIf you can’t find exact matches, ask your retailer to recommend alternatives. 

winemaker checking on his aging bottles
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Champagne vs. Traditional-Method California Sparkling Wine 

There are several ways to get bubbles into a bottle of wine. The most laborious, expensive and well-known technique is the traditional method, one perfected by the Champenois to produce their iconic sparkling wine.

For this method, the winemaker fills a bottle with still, dry base wine, adds yeast and sugar, then seals it with a crown cap. As the yeast consumes the sugar, it gives off carbon dioxide as a byproduct, which is trapped inside the bottle and creates carbonation.

Today, many winemakers use the traditional method to produce bubbles, often aging their wines on the lees, or dead yeast, for many years like the Champenois. The traditional trio of grapes found in ChampagneChardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunieralso grow in vineyards around the world that are dedicated to the production of sparkling wine, from Tasmania to California.  

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So how does one tell the difference between these wines when the techniques and grapes are similar? That’s where terroir comes in. Terroir is the climate, topography and all the factors of the natural environmentand even, some argue, the microbes.

The Champagne region sits to the east of Paris and extends north to the Belgium border. It has long been considered one of Europe’s northernmost limits of viable wine growingThat wisdom has shifted with changes in the climate, but the cooling oceanic and continental influences still prevail.

The soil is notable thanks to its abundance of limestone, which also impacts the flavor of the wines. The limestone soil is rich in calcium and is said to impart a chalky minerality, or chalky, mineral flavor, to the wine. Picture the white walls of caves below the Champagne housesthey’re carved from the same chalk in which vines above grow. Hillside vineyards offer good drainage and sun exposure. The synergy of these elements is what gives Champagnes their trademark acidity, tension and earthy minerality.

In contrast, California’s persistent sun and long, warm summers have a different impact on the structure and flavor of its traditionalmethod sparkling wines. Even from the coolest regions like Anderson Valley, Sonoma Coast and Carneros, where most of the state’s sparkling wine grapes grow, bottlings are much different than those from Champagne. Wines are richer and broader in texture, with riper, more fruit-forward notes and lower acidity than Champagne.  

Champagne vs. California Sparkling Wine 

Wine 1: Seek out a bottle Champagne—vintage or nonvintage, depending on your budget. 

Wine 2: Look for a sparkling wine from California’s North Coast appellations, like those in Anderson Valley or Sonoma. 

Riesling Sekt vs. Crémant de Loire  

The ubiquity of the classic trio of sparkling wine grapes overshadows the vast range of grapes used in regional expressionsIdentifying the flavors and aromatics of wines made with other grapes like Riesling and Chenin Blanc will enhance any wine lover’s understanding of sparkling wines of the world.

Let’s start with Germany. Though the U.S. is the most important sparkling wine market by value, Germany leads in consumption. Germanimports sparkling wine from its neighbors in EuropeCava, Prosecco and Champagnebut also has its own robust domestic market for Sekt.

Sekt had a poor reputation as an insipid, mass-produced, tank-fermented sparkler for decades, but quality has risen as more producers have turned to traditionalmethod winemaking. Today, Sekt garners serious attention.

Riesling, of course, is the obvious choice for the base wine. It’s the most widely planted grape variety in Germanyand its high, natural acidity and propensity towards lightbodied wines make it perfect for sparkling wine production.

When tasting Sekt, one immediately notices aromas distinct from the usual Chardonnay and Pinot Noir duetThe typicity of Riesling’s aromatic character shines through with notes of lemon, lime and orange peel, plus applepear and the occasional hint of candle wax or lanolin. Any autolytic notes of biscuit and brioche are derived from extended lees aging. On the palate, taut, racy acidity provides further clues to the variety.

Another highacid grape that performs well in sparkling is Chenin Blanc. Loire Valley is the spiritual homeland for Chenin, so logically locals make sparkling wine with it.

Crémant is a category of sparkling wines made with the same technique as Champagne but outside the region. Crémande Loire is the regional appellation for sparkling wines from Anjou, Saumur and Touraine, though Saumur producers have the advantage of historical production and underground caves for aging. The rules of cremant specify secondary fermentation in the bottle, though the wines are typically cheaper than Champagne.

While a variety of grapes may be usedChenin Blanc is typically the star of the show. How can you tell a Chenin-based Crémant de Loire in a blind tasting? Chalky minerality and creamy texture, to be sure, but specifically, a dollop of sweet quince and orchard fruit on the midpalate, encircled by dazzling acidity. Another giveaway: the nutty, honeyed nose common to Chenin, with the occasional whiff of white flowers.  

Riesling Sekt vs. Crémant de Loire 

Wine 1: Look for a traditional-method sparkling wine made from Riesling, ideally from Germany, although quality domestic options can be found in the Finger Lakes region of New York.

Wine 2: Find a Chenin Blanc-based Crémant de Loire.

sparkling wine in flutes
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Prosecco vs. Moscato d’Asti and Asti  

Fresh, fruity, fizzy—It’s easy for the casual consumer to confuse Prosecco with Moscato d’Asti and Asti.

These wines are tank-fermented, though with slight variations in methods. Tank fermentation reduces the impact of yeast on flavor and highlights the wines’ primary-fruit notes. However, there are numerous differences between the wines if you consider origin, grapes, sweetness and alcohol levels. Tasting them side-by-side illuminates these nuances.

Prosecco hails from Northeast Italy, though its heartland is a small region in the Veneto  called Conegliano Valdobbiadene. Glera, the main grape used in sparkling wine production here, must comprise at least 85% of the wine to be called Prosecco.

The hills of Prosecco DOC see warm, sunny days followed by brisk evenings with cool, coastal influences. Glera, grown on these hills, produces wines perfumed with melons, peaches, pears and white flowers. Moderately high acidity gives it the freshness needed for sparkling wine. The results are typically light- to medium-bodied, ranging in alcohol levels between 8.5% and 12.5%, depending on the producer’s style and dryness choices.

In the past, Prosecco was typically sweeter, like Moscato d’Asti. However, tastes have changed to drier, more elegant styles, especially within the higher quality Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) appellations like Conegliano Aldobbiadene Prosecco Superiore, Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Rive and Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze.

Some producers employ secondary fermentation in bottle, but for the sake of this comparison, we’ll focus on the overlap of tank fermentation, which is used in the production of most Prosecco DOC.

In the tank method of sparkling wine production, second fermentation happens in a large tank following the addition of sugar and yeast. Once the desired level of atmospheres (a unit of pressure) or alcohol is reached, fermentation is interrupted by chilling the wine, followed by filtering and bottling under pressure. The resulting atmospheres span from frizzante, or lightly sparkling with a lower atmospheric pressure of 1–2.5 bars, to spumante, or fully sparkling, at 5 bars.

To the west of Prosecco, in the Piedmont region of Italy, sits the Moscato d’Asti and Asti DOCGs. Like Prosecco, Moscato sales have exploded, encouraging producers overseas to make similar-styled and named wines with Muscat grapes.

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However, the DOCG guarantees that both Moscato d’Asti and Asti come from a defined place, made in a specific method with local grape Moscato Bianco. For Asti wines, the first and only fermentation happens in the tank, which yields a spumante style—semi-sweet and higher in alcohol at around 9% alcohol by volume (abv). For Moscato d’Asti, the style is youthful, fruity and frizzante, with around 5% abv.

When blind tasting, the easiest way to spot Moscato d’Asti over Prosecco, aside from the sweetness and lower alcohol, is with a sniff of its signature aromatics. Apricot, peach, tangerine, rose, orange blossom and a distinct “grapy” character gush from the glass.

 Prosecco vs. Moscato d’Asti and Asti 

Wine 1: Seek out a wine labeled with the Prosecco DOC.

Wine 2: Look for a wine labeled Moscato d’Asti DOCG.

 

Published on December 24, 2020
Topics: Champagne, Sparkling Wine