Take a look at the glass in front of you.
Bubbles. Check! Pale gold in color. Check! Rich toast and brioche on the palate. Check! Check! It must be champagne, right? Not always! While champagne and sparkling wines possess similar qualities, they aren’t one in the same. Let me rephrase that: all champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is champagne. Quite honestly, calling all sparkling wine, “champagne,” can take away from the remarkable regional sparkling wine varieties found all over the world!
To determine if you are drinking a sparkling wine or champagne, it’s as easy as checking the region on the label. Champagne is produced in a very specific region of France, the Champagne region. Winemakers in this region must stick to seven specific varietals (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Gris, Petit Meslier, arbane) that have a very specific flavor profile thanks to the chalky and mineral-rich soil. Winemakers must also abide strict regulations, as well as a specific method of production known as Methode Champenoise. Additionally, each label must be bottled within 100 miles of the Champagne region. It’s serious stuff, so serious that the name is protected by a body called the Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC), and they aren’t afraid to sue!
Champagne is not the only sparkling with its own protections and processes. Cava is often referred to as “Spanish champagne” because of its very similar process and degrees of sweetness to dryness. Produced in the Catalonia region of Spain, cava has its own AOC and must follow specific protocol in winemaking and well as use specific grapes (Macabeo, Parellada, Xarello). Similarly, Prosecco, with its own AOC in Italy, is produced in the Veneto region utilizing the giera grape varietal. While cava and prosecco are more heavily associated with bottomless mimosas and brunch, both can be very elegant and complex and a perfect compliment to fish and chicken dishes.
Some popular varieties from different regions are:
Sekt: Like its Spanish counterpart, the Germans’ Sekt has a reputation for being inexpensive and low in quality. Quite the contrary, this German sparkling wine is made with the same method as champagne, and typically utilizing the same varietals. What comes out is a lower alcohol version of champagne bursting with elegance.
French sparkling wine: Beyond the champagne region, France is bursting with world-class wine regions and many have their own sparkling wines. Cremants from the Alsace Region, Limoux from the Languedoc region, and Vouvray from the Loire Valley are all beautiful examples. These sparkling wines hold the elegance of champagne but tend to have a creamier mouth-feel versus champagne’s fizziness.
American sparkling wine: From blends using traditional champagne grapes to vintages with completely different recipes, there are endless flavors to discover in sparkling wine. Sparkling wine makers in the New World see no specific varietal, productions methods, regions, or limits.
Bottom line, get out there and try it all! There is a fascinating and delicious world of sparkling wine out there waiting for you!