Now We Sip Champagne When We’re Thirsty: Navigating Sparkling Wines

Another year is coming to a close, and partiers around the world are making plans to ring in a new one. No New Year’s Eve would be complete without a little bubbly at the stroke of midnight—but many of us also have no idea which bubbly that should be.

Champagne is the obvious and old-school choice, but thanks to the current upswing in the sparkling wine industry, restaurants, bars and liquor stores alike are bubbling over with sparkling selections. To help you take full advantage of your new freedom of choice (and appear impressively cultured to all your friends) we’ve broken down the differences between the three main types of sparkling wines out on the market: Champagne, prosecco and cava.

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CHAMPAGNE

First produced by Dom Pérignon in 1693, Champagne is the namesake of the region of France it’s produced in, and no other sparkling wine produced outside of Champagne can give itself that prestigious moniker. It’s processed through a method known as Méthode Champenoise where early-harvested grapes are fermented twice—the second time with sugar and yeast so that the carbon dioxide released from the sugar-gorging yeast carbonates the wine. The carbonated solution is then aged using lees (dead yeast cells that make the wine taste richer) and riddling (a method of rotating the bottle upside down slowly over time, allowing the dead yeast cells to collect in the bottle’s neck).

Because the French love their wine, there are a few more steps before they say “Voilà!” but it’s the bottle fermenting and hand riddling that set Champagne apart from prosecco and cava.

Sparkling wines—even from the same region—will vary in taste, but Champagne is usually characterized as biscuit-y because of the yeast, with notes of white peach, white cherry and citrus like lemon or orange. This makes it relatively acidic, though it does range from dry to sweet (Brut, Extra Sec, Sec, Demi-Sec and Doux). Best served before or after a meal, pair Champagne with raw and cooked shellfish and desserts like lemon tarts, chocolate-covered fruit and macarons.

PROSECCO

Prosecco hails mostly from the northern region of Veneto and was first produced in 1868 by Carpenè Malvolti. It’s processed almost exactly like Champagne, but the second fermentation is staged in steel tanks instead of individual bottles. This means it’s produced more efficiently and is a more lucrative product, a perk that’s then passed on to the consumer; a decent bottle of Champagne in your liquor store will average about $40, while a bottle of respectable Prosecco runs $13-$15—just a third of the price of Champagne.

The sweetest of the three types of sparkling wine, Prosecco usually tastes lighter than and more fruit-forward than Champagne, giving impressions of green apple, honeydew melon and pear. It’s also not as effervescent since the second fermentation happens in larger tanks rather than bottles, so enjoy it with classic charcuterie boards, pasta dishes like spaghetti carbonara and creamy, fruity desserts like apple tart à la mode.

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CAVA

Cava can be made anywhere in Spain but most hail from the Catalan region. It can be traced back to the winemaker Josep Raventós, who traveled throughout Europe in the 1860s, became fascinated by the Méthode Champenoise and successfully created his first bubbly in 1872. Catalan cava makers, calling the method traditionelle so as not to piss off the French (who claimed even the term as their own), then transformed the sparkling wine industry by inventing a mechanism for riddling, eliminating the need for it to be done by hand like the Méthode Champenoise.

Though priced similarly, cava is less sweet than prosecco but still delivers fruity notes like pear, melon and lemon. It’s often mineralic and can even be faintly floral or herbaceous, with hints of wild flowers and aniseed. This makes cava the easiest to throw back, as well as the most versatile for pairing with food. Don’t be afraid to order or serve it alongside pork belly or short ribs as it cleanses the palate of residual fat, but is also ideal for poultry and seafood dishes like the Spanish classic, paella.

Photo courtesy of Armand de Brignac

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