Whether you’re toasting your bestie’s engagement or simply having a weekend brunch, there are plenty of opportune moments to have a refreshing glass of bubbly. Finding the right one though, can sometimes be a stressful experience. To help us navigate the ever-growing list of fizzy options on the market today, we tapped Pauline Lhote, the female winemaker of the California-based winery Domaine Chandon, to school us on the subject of Sparkling Wine 101. Check out her list of must-know terms and shopping tips below.
Step 1: Know the Difference Between Champagne, Cava, Prosecco, and Sparkling Wine
Champagne: To acquire the prestigious “Champagne” label, the sparkling wine must be made in Champagne, France; made of traditional Champagne grapes (chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier); and follow a traditional winemaking technique that requires that the liquid is fermented in the bottle as opposed to in tanks. The higher price point is due to the price of the grapes, which are more expensive than any other. Of the three (Champagne, prosecco and cava), this is the least sweet, and has the finest bubbles.
Cava: Like Champagne, this Spanish sparkling wine is fermented within the bottle, but uses less expensive grapes, which results in a lower price point. Cava’s bubbles are finer than those found in prosecco, but larger than Champagne, and is typically sweeter than Champagne.
Prosecco: Made in Italy, these wines are made using the Charmat method, which means that they are fermented in tanks first, and then bottled after. Prosecco is generally sweeter than cava, and has the coarsest bubbles.
Sparkling Wine: General term for all kinds of fizzy vinos that do not follow any traditional wine-making techniques that the three listed above do. Plus, it can come from any location, from California to Switzerland.
Step 2: Find Your Sweet Tooth, From Doux to Extra Brut
During the last stage of production, sugar is added to sparkling wines to level out the acidity. Depending on how much sweetness is added, the resulting bottle will fall under one of these labels which are listed below from sweetest to driest. When it comes to food pairings, one foolproof approach is to match the drink with the dish, recommends Lhote, adding that sweet blends compliment desserts and acidic varieties are better suited for salads.
Doux: This is as sweet as they come. Have it with a creme brulee.
Demi-Sec, Sec and Extra Sec: Still on the sweet scale, these are a good match for desserts, but also pair surprisingly well with spicy Asian foods.
Brut and Extra Brut: Now we head into the dry territory. Unlike sweeter varieties, a Brut wine is very versatile and can be enjoyed by itself or with an array of foods from salads and crab cakes to pizza and chicken, says Lhote.
Step 3: Know Your Tiers
Classic: A vineyard’s entry tier.
Reserve: Signifies that the bottle has been aged for some time (which can vary from a couple years to several) for more complex results.
Prestige: These blends are made using the most prestigious grapes from the winery.
Step 4: Spend a Little, Get a Lot
Bottles between $15-$20 are a good starting point if you’re unsure of what to get, and especially if you’re trying to impress a party host or the in-laws.
Step 5: Go Green (With Your Bottle)
Like olive oil, wines can be compromised with excessive light, which is why many sparkling wines are packaged in dark bottles. Keep them in a cool and dark place, so that you don’t risk “cooking” the wine, which will turn transform the ideal aromatics into something that’s more cabbage-like, advises Lhote.
As a final tip, know what works—and what doesn't—to keep the bubbles flowing. Have you ever inserted a spoon, handle side down, into the neck of a bottle hoping to preserve the bubbles? Sorry, but it doesn’t do anything, says Lhote. The only way you can stretch a bottle of Champagne longer than a couple of hours is to get yourself a Champagne bottle stopper ($8; surlatable.com)—that will keep your vino in good shape for up to three days.