What’s in a name? That which we call champagne by any other name would still taste as delicious. But, as we know, not all bubbles are deemed champagne.
There’s cava, prosseco, and crémant de bourgogne (not to mention the many examples of other domestic or international bubbles). So what gives champagne and its sparkling cousins their namesakes? It’s all about what methods they use to capture the bubbles within the glass.
The Traditional Method
Winemaking has come a long way since foot presses, but there are still certain practices that have held up to scrutiny. The traditional method used to produce sparkling wines (known as méthode traditionnelle in France) is one of these practices. It’s a systematic, pedantic and painstaking process, but nothing else compares to the sparkling wines produced in this way.
First, the grapes destined to sparkle go through a primary fermentation in tanks. This halfdone, still sweet wine is then placed in bottles, dosed with a pinch of yeast and sugar, and then capped. This is where the magic happens. The yeast induces a secondary fermentation that releases carbondioxide into the wine slowly, over a period of months. The bottles are then gradually turned upside down, so the lees (deceased yeast cells) fall towards the temporary cap.
The bottle neck is then frozen, and the ice plug containing the lees is removed. The bottle is topped up, corked and — tah-dah! — traditional method sparkling wine. While “champagne” can only be made in the Champagne region of France, there are many other sparkling wines with their own prestigious histories and traditions. It makes sense why the best bubbles aren’t so cheap!
Cava is a name of sparkling wine classified with a Spanish Denominación de Origen (DO) and also made in the traditional method. Often fermented from macabeu, parellada and xarel-lo (through chardonnay, pinot noir, and a few other varietals are allowed), Cava mostly comes from Catalonia in the northeast corner of Spain. It is often produced in a brut (dry) style, though may be found dulce (sweet). It is full of creamy delicious bubbles that are an ode to the painstaking methods taken to produce it.
Crémant is a term used in French designations for traditional method bubbles that aren’t made in Champagne. There is crémant de bourgogne, crémant de alsace, crément de die, as well as Jura, Bordeaux, Limoux, Loire, and Savoie. Each crémant is crafted from the recognized, designated vines from each region: chenin blanc and cabernet franc in the Loire; pinot blanc, pinot gris, riesling, and pinot noir, in Alsace.
The sparkling wines of burgundy can be a particular treat. With a bit of research, you can find crémant de bourgogne produced with 100% pinot noir and chardonnay — two of the varietals of Champagne. Since they aren’t labelled champagne (and priced accordingly), you can have a traditional method treat at a fraction of the cost.
Champagne is the be-all-end-all of sparkling wines for many reasons: the blend of varietals, the climate (cool weather heightens the acid content) and the time-honoured traditions, but it is the limestone and chalk soils that give it a particular je ne sais quoi.
The chalk-rich soils impart minerality onto the grapes that other geologic areas are seldom able to replicate. Champagne also goes through a meticulous blending process. This is why you’ll find that most bottles are labelled NV for non-vintage. These bottles are a combination of multiple vintages to craft a consistent wine with balance and poise. Vintage champagnes are sometimes produced, but only in years worthy of the privilege.
Here are four favourites to try on the best of bubbles spectrum:
Raventos i Blanc 2013 L’Hereu Reserva
Brut Cava, Spain
A vintage Cava, brimming with peaches, and lemons, and chalky minerality. This wine is a stunning example of Spanish sparkling. Crafted for fried octopus, prosciutto wrapped dates, patatas bravas, and any other tapas you can find. CSPC +741609 $30
Louis Bouillot NV Crémant de Bourgogne Perle de Vigne Grande Reserve
Nuits Saint Georges, France
A vibrant floral and stone fruit bouquet with green apples and lemon on the palate. It is aged on the lees for 24 months (far more than the nine month requirement) and it shows in the quality of the wine. You could cellar, but who can keep delicious sparkling for that long? Pair with cream sauces and hard cheese. CSPC +772978 $22
Delamotte NV Blanc de Blancs Cote des Blancs
The traditional bready aromas are backed up on the palate by lemon, persimmon, and white cherry. A dazzling mouthful, with a long finish. Laid on its lees for four to five years, it’s crafted with patience. The firm acid begs for fat or cream: duck confit, lobster, or french fries will make this wine sparkle. CSPC +715346 $99
Cuillier NV Brut Rosé Pouillon
The high percentage of pinot meunier leaves it musky and floral on the nose, but the palate is fruity with red apples and strawberries. The bubbles are fine and the acid is soft and citric. Extremely food-friendly, but a pleasure to drink all on its own. CSPC +783811 $50