Sparkling wine is the beverage for celebrations. Whenever there is a reason to say a toast, a bottle of bubbly wine is nearby. Most people think of Champagne for these occasions. But actually, the world of sparkling wine is much bigger than that. In this article, we’ll discuss the 9 best types of sparkling wine, where they come from, and how they are made.
What Is Sparkling Wine?
Sparkling wine is wine that is carbonated and thus contains carbon dioxide (CO2). This CO2 forms fine bubbles that create a fizzy drinking experience. Sparkling wines can range from bone dry to sweet and offer many different aromas. Typically, they are relatively light with a low level of alcohol.
Vintners from many countries produce sparkling wines in different colors, qualities, and tastes. To do so, they use various production methods. In the following paragraphs, we’ll discuss the most famous types of sparkling wine and how they are made.
The History of Sparkling Wine
The history of sparkling wines began thousands of years ago. The ancient Romans and Greek observed wines that contained bubbles. But they neither understand where the bubbles came from, nor did they deliberately create them. For a long time, sparkling wines were considered faulty. And as the bottles were under pressure and had the tendency to explode occasionally, they were also a hazard for vintners.
In the 17th century, the first methods to create sparkling wines purposely were invented. It’s not clear who was the very first to produce them. A wide-spread myth contributes their invention to Pierre Perignon, a French monk. According to common belief, he created the “Méthode Champenoise” that winemakers today still use to produce sparkling wines.
According to an alternative birth myth, the British are the inventors of sparkling wine. More specifically, it says that the physician Christopher Merrett presented a paper to the Royal Society that explained the techniques to add bubbles to wine. And Merrett did so 30 years before Dom Perignon developed his production method.
No matter who really is the inventor, sparkling wines spread over Europe quickly. Over the centuries, vintners in different regions created other methods to make them. Most of them are still in use today.
How Is Sparkling Wine Made?
The production of sparkling wine consists of two processes.
The first one is the making of still base wine. It’s similar to the process of making table wine with a couple of distinctions. The vintners must harvest the grapes for sparkling wine very early in the year when the grapes are high in acidity but low in sugar. Especially those who aim to make high-class wines do that manually. After the harvest, they crush and ferment the grapes to make the base wine. It’s not unusual that vintners blend different wines to compose the perfect base wine.
The second process is what distinguishes sparkling wine from table wine. It’s another fermentation phase that produces the bubbles. Vintners use various methods to perform this second fermentation.
The Méthode Champenoise
The “Méthode Champenoise” is the oldest method to make sparkling wine. As the name suggests, it originated from the French Champagne region. And it’s still the way to go for Champagne producers. Vintners outside of the Champagne region use it as well, but they typically call it “Traditional Method” or “Bottle Fermentation”.
The latter alternative name hints to the actual technique that winemakers use: They fill the base wine into bottles and add yeast and sugar. These ingredients start the second fermentation. While the yeast consumes the sugar, it produces CO2. And as this CO2 can’t escape the bottle, it creates the bubbles that sparkling wine enthusiasts love.
When the second fermentation comes to an end, the sparkling wines typically age further in the bottles. In some cases, they lay on the lees (the dead yeast cells) for several years.
After that, the vintners riddle the bottles to move the dead yeast cells to the bottlenecks. Then, they remove them while keeping the CO2 inside the bottle. That might happen either manually or automatically by freezing the bottleneck and getting the ice plug containing the yeast cells out of it. This step is called “disgorging”.
Champagne Bottles Aging in a Cellar
Finally, the vintners perform the dosage. They add a mixture called “liqueur d’expédition” (English: expedition liquor) that consists of base wine and sugar. This liquid balances the wine’s acidity and determines its sweetness. Immediately after the dosage, vintners cork their bottles, so they’re ready for sale.
French wine laws force Champagne producers to use the Traditional Method. But winemakers in other countries use it as well, given they want to make high-quality sparkling wines.
The Transfer Method
The “Transfer Method” is a simplified version of the Traditional Method. From the harvest of the grapes to the bottle fermentation, it’s identical.
But after the end of the fermentation and aging period, the Transfer Method differs. Instead of riddling and disgorging the bottles, winemakers empty them and transfer the wine into pressurized steel tanks. This transfer gives the method its name. They then filter out the dead yeast cells, perform the dosage, and finally bottle the sparkling wine.
As the filtering and the dosage happen in a bulk process, the Transfer Method is much less time-consuming and cheaper than the Traditional Method that requires the repetition of the process for each bottle. Many winemakers in the New World, especially in Australia and New Zealand, use this production method.
The Charmat Method
The “Charmat Method” is one of the most-used methods to make sparkling wines. This method was developed by an Italian named Federico Martinotti at the end of the 19th century. That’s why vintners also refer to it as the “Martinotti Method” or the “Italian Method”. The name “Charmat Method” goes back to the Frenchman Eugène Charmat, who improved it and patented it under his name about ten years later.
Steel Tanks for Sparkling Wine Production
In the 1930s, Antonio Carpene refined the process entirely to adapt it to the Glera varietal, which Italian winemakers use to make Prosecco.
Instead of bottles, vintners use stainless steel tanks for the second fermentation. They fill the wine in, add yeast and sugar, and close the tank. Next, they put the tanks under pressure, so the fermentation’s carbon dioxide stays in the wine.
Vintners don’t let sparkling wines age further after the fermentation. Instead, they immediately perform the final steps of the production process: filtering, dosage, and bottling.
The Continuous Method
The “Continuous Method” is a rather uncommon way to make sparkling wine. The Russians invented this technique. Thus it’s also called the “Russian Method”.
Vintners who follow the Continuous Method also use steel tanks for the second fermentation. But instead of filling the wine must into a tank and letting it ferment until it has the optimal level of alcohol and CO2, they move them through different tanks. In the first stages of this journey, they continuously add yeast, hence the method’s name. In the following stages, the wine gets in contact with oak chips. The yeast cells accumulate on these wood chips that impart toasty flavors on the wine. Finally, the last set of tanks filters the wine to remove the remaining sediment, before winemakers bottle it.
Today, only a couple of wineries in Central and Western Europe use the Continuous Method.
The Asti Method
The “Asti Method” is a unique way to make sparkling wine. Unlike most methods we’ve discussed so far, wines made with the Asti Method undergo only one fermentation phase.
After the pressing of the grapes, the vintners transfer the wine must into stainless steel tanks. Then, they lower the temperature inside the tank close to the freezing point. That prevents the must from fermenting and basically sends it to sleep.
Vintners do that because, unlike Champagne producers, they make their sparkling wines all year long. So whenever they want to process a batch of must, they raise the temperature inside one of the tanks to start the fermentation.
Typically, the Asti Method is used to produce sweet sparkling wines. So the winemakers don’t allow all of the sugar in the must to ferment. After stopping the fermentation, they filter out the remaining yeast, and bottle and cork the sparkling wine.
As the name suggests, the Asti Method is preferred by vintners who make Asti Spumante and Moscato d’Asti.
The Ancestral Method
The “Ancestral Method” (French: Méthode Ancestrale) is one of the oldest methods of making sparkling wine. It’s also special for several reasons.
Like the Asti Method, it doesn’t include a second fermentation phase. Instead, vintners bottle the wine must even before the first fermentation is finished. By doing that, they take a risk: If they do it too early, there will be too much sugar left in the must. And when fermenting inside the bottle, it can create too much carbon dioxide and too much pressure that causes the bottle to explode. On the other hand, bottling the must too late may result in too little CO2 and too low pressure. In the end, this can lead to a flat wine that lacks the exciting fizziness.
However, when choosing the right moment for transferring the wine into bottles, vintners can create excellent sparkling wines with very fine bubbles. Often, these wines contain some residual sugar, so they are slightly sweet. And as neither filtering nor disgorging happens, they can also have some sediment that makes them look cloudy.
The Carbonation Method
Finally, the “Carbonation Method” is the easiest and least expensive method to produce sparkling wine. When using this method, vintners don’t let their wine undergo a second fermentation method either. Instead, they inject carbon dioxide into their wines artificially. Afterward, they bottle them under pressure. You could compare this method to carbonizing water with a SodaStream device.
While the Carbonation Method is the least expensive method, it also produces the lowest-quality sparkling wines. Typically their bubbles don’t last very long and dissipate quickly once a bottle is open. Thus, many winemakers consider this method inferior. Nevertheless, it’s widespread across the industry.
The 9 Types of Sparkling Wine You Should Know
Depending on the production processes, sparkling wines can be of very high or relatively low quality. You can find them in all colors, qualities, and flavors.
The following sparkling wines are the most famous among them.
Champagne is, without a doubt, the most famous sparkling wine in the world. It comes from the French region with the same name. For more than 300 years, winemakers produce these sparkling wines that typically are dry, acidic, and have fruity and mineral aromas.
They use different grapes to produce Champagne, including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Although two of the three are red varietals, Champagne is always white.
To process the grapes, the French traditionally follow the Méthode Champenoise. Vintners who don’t use this process actually may not call their wines “Champagne” because the method is mandated by law.
Champagne sparkling wines are of high quality with very fine bubbles. Due to the manual labor and the time it takes to make them, they’re also among the most expensive sparkling wines in the world.
Like Champagne, Prosecco is a high-quality sparkling wine that is subject to strict wine laws. It comes from the Italian regions Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Veneto. Although the name Prosecco appears in documents from the 16th century, the sparkling wine as we know it today is a product of the 1960s.
The law forces winemakers to use at least 85% Glera grapes to make Prosecco. The rest can be other varietals like Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio. In any case, they must cultivate all grapes in the formerly mentioned regions. Besides the varietals, Italian laws also mandate vintners to follow the Charmat Method. As this method is less labor-intensive than the Traditional Method, Prosecco is less expensive than Champagne.
Typically, the Italian sparklers are slightly sweeter and less strong than their French counterparts. They offer fruity and flowery aromas. Until 2020, all Prosecco styles had to be white. But due to the vintners’ initiative, regulations have been adjusted to allow the production of pink variations. So by the end of the year, you can find the first-ever pink Prosecco on store shelves.
Cava is the most famous Spanish sparkling wine. Winemakers and marketers often referred to it as the “Spanish Champagne” before the European Union protected the name Champagne so only French vintners could use it. The official name “Cava” roots from the Spanish word for cave. The reason is that in the early days of winemaking, Spanish sparkling wines aged in caves.
Vineyard in the Penedès Region in Catalunia, Spain
Vintners primarily use Macabeu, Parellada, and Xarel-lo grapes to produce Cava wines, although a couple of other varietals are allowed. They have to follow the Traditional Method, and their wines must be either white or Rosé. In terms of sweetness, they have more freedom. Cava may be anything from sweet to dry. However, most styles are on the dry side of the spectrum.
More Details on Cava: CAVA – PREMIUM SPARKLING WINE FROM SPAIN
Crémant wines have a confusing history. Initially, the term Crémant referred to wines from the Champagne region that were less fizzy than the original sparklers. In other words, Crémant was the name of semi-sparkling Champagne wines. But since 1985, vintners from other regions may use the term as well. In return, they can’t use the term “Méthode Champenoise” for their production processes anymore.
Despite the deregulation of the name, Crémant wines still are subject to various rules. As of 2020, the French legislation recognizes eight Crémant AOC regions. Vintners who want to use this quality label must hand-pick grapes, use the Traditional Method, and let their sparkling wines age for at least nine months. Besides, each region has its own rules regarding the permitted grapes.
More Details on Crémant: WHAT IS CRÉMANT AND HOW DOES IT DIFFER FROM CHAMPAGNE?
Crémant wines can be white or Rosé. Again, local rules limit the allowed styles in some regions. Typically, Crémant sparklers are off-dry to dry, have crisp acidity, and offer aromas of citrus fruits. While they are significantly cheaper than Champagne, they are of high quality as well.
- 2018 Barmes Buecher Crémant d’Alsace
- Bailly Lapierre Crémant de Bourgogne Reserve Brut
- Lucien Albrecht Crémant d’Alsace Brut Rosé
Sekt is the German version of sparkling wine. German vintners traveled to the Champagne region in the early 19th century to learn how the French produce their great sparklers. While some stayed to found wineries there, others returned and laid the foundation for the German sparkling wine industry.
After World War II brought the industry to its knees, the rebuilding efforts resulted in a wide variety of Sekt styles. The vast majority of it is produced for domestic customers.
More Details on Sekt: SEKT – GERMANY’S FAVORITE SPARKLING WINE
Nowadays, Sekt comes as red, white, or Rosé sparkling wine, and it can range anywhere from sweet to bone dry. According to German wine laws, there are four different quality brackets with more or less strict production rules. They regulate the permitted grapes and production methods. The best-quality styles are made from locally grown grapes and by following the Traditional Method.
Besides Germany, Austria is the second European country that produces Sekt. The Austrians have their own set of quality categories and production rules. Like their neighbors to the North, they make all types of Sekt from cheap and simple to high-quality and expensive
Moscato d’Asti and Asti Spumante
For wine lovers with a sweet tooth, Asti wines might be the best choice. Actually, the Asti DOCG area in the Piedmont region is home to two styles of sparkling wine: Asti Spumante and Moscato d’Asti.
Both are sweet, light in alcohol, and come with fruity bouquets of aromas such as citrus, apricot, and orange. They differ in their fizzyness, though. While Asti Spumante is a traditional sparkler, Moscato d’Asti is a semi-sparkling wine that’s significantly less fizzy than Champagne or Prosecco.
More Details on Asti: WHAT IS ASTI AND WHY SHOULD YOU TRY IT?
As you might have guessed, winemakers use the Asti Method to make both of these styles. They may only use grapes from the Moscato family and have to follow a couple of other rules written in Italian law.
In general, Moscato d’Asti and Asti Spumante are high-quality sparkling wines, although they don’t have the same reputation as Champagne or Prosecco. Luckily, they also are less expensive.
Another popular sparkling wine from Italy is Lambrusco. It originates from two regions in the Northern part of the country: Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy. Archaeological evidence proves that Lambrusco grapes were cultivated in these regions hundreds of years before Christ’s birth. Today, vintners know more than 60 single varietals that belong to the Lambrusco family. Lambrusco Salamino is the most wide-spread of them.
Italian wine laws recognize four different DOC regions in this area. Vintners in these regions use different varietals and produce different types of Lambrusco. Usually, they follow the Charmat Method to do so, but some also stick to the Traditional Method.
Most wines share one characteristic that makes them special compared to other sparkling wines: They are red. Also, they are semi-sparkling, have low alcohol content, and fruit-forward flavor profiles. In terms of sweetness, Lambrusco wines cover a broad range, though. Some are very dry, and others are incredibly sweet. The best of them tend to be on the dry side, although you can find excellent sweet styles.
Bottle of Sweet Lambrusco Sparkling Wine
More Details on Lambrusco: LAMBRUSCO – SWEET AND SPARKLING WINES FROM ITALY
Italy has another red sparkler to offer: Brachetto. Like Asti and Moscato d’Asti, its home is the region of Piedmont. More precisely, it’s produced around the town of Acqui Terme. Thus, its official name is Brachetto d’Acqui. Since 1996, the sparkling wines from this area have DOCG status, the highest quality classification in Italy.
Brachetto is made from grapes with the same name. It’s a light-bodied, slightly sweet wine with aromas of red and black fruits, such as strawberries, raspberries, or cherries. It can be either sparkling or semi-sparkling, and its low level of alcohol makes it a perfect wine for hot summer days.
Last but not least, we have to talk about Franciacorta. It comes from the Brescia province in the Lombardy region in Italy. This province received the DOCG classification for high-quality wines exclusively for its sparkling wines.
Some wine experts consider Franciacorta the finest of all Italian sparkling wines, although it’s a young style. The first Franciacorta wines were made in 1961.
Unlike the rather light Prosecco or Asti wines, Franciacorta is a complex sparkling wine. Its high quality is the result of consequent improvements in the production processes over the decades. Nowadays, Franciacorta vintners follow the same techniques that Champagne producers use, including gentle grape pressing, bottle fermentation, and long aging phases. They use similar varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Additionally, some also use Pinot Blanc.
Given these similarities in production methods, it isn’t surprising that Franciacorta often tastes similar to Champagne. Typically it’s dry and acidic with citrus-forward flavors.
New World Sparkling Wines
The most famous sparkling wines come from Europe for sure. But vintners in New World wine countries also produce some great styles. Due to the climate, it’s significantly harder than in the Old World, though.
The warm temperatures in Latin America, Australia, or South Africa make it hard to grow the traditional sparkling wine varietals. Grapes such as Chardonnay or Pinot Noir need cooler conditions to preserve their aroma and crisp acidity that make great sparklers. And these conditions are rare in the New World. Only a few areas that are typically located close to the ocean provide them.
Among them is the Carneros part of the Napa Valley and the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County. Both are located in California. Some wineries in these regions focus on making high-class sparklers by using the Traditional Method.
- Roederer Estate Brut Anderson Valley
- J Vineyards Sparkling Brut Rose
- 2017 Domaine Carneros Brut By Taittinger
You can also find great wines made in the Champagne or Cava style from South America, especially Argentina and Chile. Usually, they’re produced for the local markets, though, so it might be hard to find them in American stores.
- Valdivieso Sparkling Brut (from Chile)
- Belasco de Baquedano Rosa de Argentina Sparkling (from Argentina)
New Zealand is relatively new in the business. The cool climate in areas like the Marlborough region provides optimal conditions for growing grapes for sparkling wines.
How to Serve Sparkling Wine
To provide the best drinking experience for yourself and your guests, you must serve sparkling wine appropriately. The right glass and temperature are crucial, and so is the serving portion.
But the first challenge when it comes to serving sparkling wine is opening the bottle. Make sure to follow these guidelines:
- Don’t pop the cork. Although it has some potential to create a show effect, it causes more harm than good. Popping the cork might cause the sparkling wine to overflow, so you lose a lot of it. And even worse, a flying cork might hurt a bystander.
- To reduce the risk of injuries, never point the bottle at a person.
- Remove the wire cage, and twist the bottle in one direction, while holding the cork with your other hand. Make sure not to lose grip on it while pulling it out gently.
- Have a glass nearby, so overflowing wine doesn’t end on the carpet.
- Hold the glass at an angle when pouring to reduce the risk of overflowing.
What Is the Right Glass for Sparkling Wine?
The optimal glass for sparkling wine is a flute. Its long narrow bowl prevents the bubbles from escaping too quickly, so the wine stays fresh longer. The long stem allows you to keep your hand away from the bowl, so you don’t heat the wine.
More Details on Sparkling Wine Glasses: WINE GLASSES EXPLAINED – THE GLASSWARE GUIDE
A tulip-shaped glass is a proper alternative. It has a slightly wider bowl that allows more complex sparklers to showcase all of their aromas. But on the other hand, it causes the bubbles to disappear faster.
No matter which glass you choose, don’t fill it completely. Warm sparkling wine isn’t really enjoyable, and smaller portions increase the chance that your guests finish it before it gets too warm.
Sparkling Wine Flute
What is the Right Serving Temperature for Sparkling Wine?
Sparkling wine should be chilled. When it’s too warm, its acidity gets too dominant and overpowers the fruity aromas.
The best temperature for white sparklers is between 43 and 46°F (6-8°C). Vintage Champagne is an exception. For these precious wines, aim for 46-50°F (8-10°). When serving red styles, you can go even higher. They’re best between 50 and 54°F (10-12°C).
You shouldn’t serve sparkling wine on ice, especially if it’s a high-quality wine. As soon as the ice melted, it would dilute the wine’s aromas. Better use wine charms or pre-chill the glasses.
Should You Decant Sparkling Wine?
No, the vast majority of sparklers shouldn’t be decanted. If you let them sit in a decanter, they will heat up, lose their fizz, and become flat and dull.
There is only one exception: old vintage Champagne. These prestigious styles have complex aromas and thus need a bit of air to release them. Make sure to limit the decanting to 30 minutes, though.
As you’ve just read, the world of sparkling wine is versatile. It has something to offer for lovers of reds and whites, and sweet and dry styles. When planning your next celebration, consider trying a sparkler you haven’t tasted before. Maybe you’ll find one that you like even better than Champagne.