Photo: Billy Huynh
‘Tis the season to break out the champagne flutes. While there’s nothing more celebratory than a glass of bubbly, a lot of us still aren’t exactly sure what to buy when they’re presented with a choice. Before picking a bottle, it’s important to know the difference between all the sparkling options on the market. So, to break down the various types, we talked with Adam Chilvers, owner of the website Wine on the Way. Brush up before your next toast, so you can cheers with confidence.
It’s easy to see a glass of golden bubbles and just assume it’s champagne. Surprisingly, this isn’t necessarily the case. “Champagne is different from sparkling wine, mainly due to its region of origin,” says Chilvers. “Only wine from the Champagne region in France can be called Champagne.” If you see a wine label that reads “Methode Champenois,” it means it was made in the champagne method, in which sugar is added to still or base wine and left for several weeks to further ferment and produce bubbles, but isn’t actually Champagne by definition. Often, those beverages are simply called sparkling wine.
The different types of Champagne
The first way Champagnes differ from one another is in the grapes that are used. If a bottle reads “Blanc de Blancs,” it’s made with Chardonnay or Pinot Blanc—or sometimes a mix of both. Whereas, if it’s a Blanc Noir, then Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier is used.
The second differentiation point is its taste. Just like red or white wines, Champagnes can be sweet or dry. First ask yourself which flavor profile you prefer, then narrow it down from there. The drier the wine, the less sugar is in it. “You have Extra Brut, which is the driest, and Brut, which is also dry,” explains Chilvers. “Next you have Demi-Sec, which is sweet.”
There are also rosé Champagnes. “These are made by either blending in still red wine or by letting the red skins come in contact with the clear juice. Rosé champagne can range from light salmon to dark pink in color,” he adds.
The best way to figure out what you like is to experiment, so go ahead and order that sparkling wine flight. Anytime you sip something you like, take a picture of the label so you can remember it for later.
The different types of sparkling wine
Sparkling wine is a pretty big category. Similar to how Champagne can only come from a specific region of France, the different types of sparkling wine speak to what region the grapes are from, explains Chilvers. Prosecco comes from Italy, Cava from Spain, Espumante from Portugal, and sparkling wine refers to bubbles made in the United States. You’ll find these variations to be more affordable than champagne, yet still delicious.
While a glass of sparkly is always a good way to start off a meal, you can really get creative when pairing it with food since it’s so versatile. “Fried Chicken and popcorn are two favorite pairings of mine—seriously!” says Chilvers, who explains that the acidity of those foods really complements the bubbles. He also suggests pairing prosecco, Cava or sparkling wine with appetizers, rosé with meat like prime rib, since it cleanses the palette and sweeter varieties with dessert.
Getting the most for your money
From Dom Perignon to Ace of Spades, bottles of bubbly have a reputation for being a luxe indulgence of the rich and famous. Thankfully, there are other options beyond big name, big money brands. Chilvers advises looking for offerings from smaller producers. “They’re called ‘Grower Champagnes’,” he explains. “They grow their grapes, make and bottle the wine themselves. They have less overhead than the big houses and don’t spend millions on advertising. All these factors contribute to a higher quality champagne for the buck. Grower producers such as Barnaut, Jacquisson, Vorin Jumel and Drappier are all fine examples.”
How to serve it
The colder, the better. This allows you to experience the beverage's maximum flavor. There’s also a proper technique to opening a bottle of bubbly: After unwrapping the cork, untwist the cage. Then place a linen napkin over the cage, pulling it off. Then slowly turn the bottle with one hand while the other is applying pressure on top of the cork. This triggers the bubbles to push out the cork. “You shouldn’t actually hear a pop,” advises Chilvers. “It should sound like a little whisper.”
However, always proceed with caution: “Champagne and sparkling wine corks can fly out of the bottle at 160mph. Make sure to cover the bottle with a napkin or towel when opening it, and never point it at a person or something breakable,” he furthers. Bottom line: Leave the Champagne showers to TV and the movies.
How to store it
If you have leftover bubbles, keep the bottle in the fridge. While there’s an old wives’ tale that putting a spoon in the top will maintain its freshness, this isn’t the case. Instead invest in a good champagne stopper. For the best flavor, drink the leftovers in the next day or so. Bottoms up!