The world's three most famous sparkling wines each bring different flavors to the party.
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Types of Sparkling Wines and Champagne
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Weddings, birthdays, and anniversaries are marked by popping bottles of Champagne. Napoleon toasted victories with it, and famously used it to soothe his frayed nerves following particularly challenging battles. Musicians have name-checked Champagne across genres. Indeed, Champagne has been so beloved for so long that mere mention of the wine, and by default the region it comes from, is enough to instantly convey a sense of celebration, well-being, and success.

That iconic status, however, has come at a price: Even today, the word "Champagne" continues to be used as shorthand for sparkling wine in general, which is just not accurate. Champagne, we're constantly told, only comes from the region of the same name in France. But what really sets it apart from its two main fizzy counterparts on the continent, Cava and Prosecco? Let's take a look at the differences between Champagne, Cava, and Prosecco..

Champagne

Due to French wine law, it's not enough for a wine to sparkle and be made in the region to qualify as Champagne. There are a number of rules and regulations that must be adhered to, from the vineyard to the caves in which the all-important aging takes place, for a bottle to earn the right to be referred to as Champagne.

What grape varieties are used to make Champagne?

The grapes for the wine (and yes, Champagne is a wine) must be grown in the Champagne region of France, a couple hours in the car from Paris. Three main grape varieties — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier — dominate the vast majority of blends, but growers are also permitted to work with Arbane, Petit Meslier, and Pinot Gris. Most Champagnes are blends of the first three, but climate change may raise the profile of the latter ones a bit.

How is Champagne made?

The process begins as it does for any other wine. The grapes are harvested, pressed, and fermented (we're simplifying here), resulting in what's called "still wine," or wine without bubbles. At this point, the final blend is determined. Vintage Champagne is only produced in the best years, and though it's a wine from a single year, most houses will bring together fruit from multiple vineyards. (Some vintage Champagnes, however, come from single vineyards.) The flagship expression of most houses, however, is Brut Non-Vintage or Brut NV, which is based on a single year's harvest that's blended with "reserve wines" from a range of previous vintages. Historically, this was done to ensure that each house was able to produce plenty of Champagne even in years that wouldn't result in particularly memorable vintage bottlings.

Once the final blend is determined and carried out, bottles are filled with this still wine, which is combined with yeast and sugar and sealed, usually, with a crown cap that resembles the kind that closes a bottle of beer. This combination of yeast and sugar kicks off a secondary fermentation, which produces a bit of alcohol and carbon dioxide. Since the bottle is sealed, the CO2 has nowhere to go, so it dissolves into the wine: Bubbly is born.

How long does Champagne have to age? 

At this point, Champagne regulations set out specific minimum lengths of time that each category of Champagne must age (more for vintage, less for Brut NV) before each bottle is riddled, which is the slow method of rotating and inverting each bottle in order to move the lees, or spent yeast, to the neck. It's then disgorged, which is the process of shooting out that (recently frozen) plug of yeast in order to achieve a clear liquid. After that, each bottle is sealed with a cork and wire cage, and sent out into the world to fulfill its full potential: making the moments worth celebrating that much more exciting and delicious.

What does Champagne taste like?

When it comes to aroma and flavor, Champagne typically boasts subtle yet expressive fruit notes that run the gamut from apples and pears to more citrus-leaning ones. Spicier characteristics like candied ginger and cumin are not uncommon; lemongrass, honey, nuts, and flowers are frequently evoked in tasting notes; and, thanks to the time it's spent aging on its lees, aromas and flavors reminiscent of bakeries are often found as well: Brioche, toast, fresh-baked bread.

Prosecco

What grape varieties are used to make Prosecco?

If Champagne is built on a base of richness and depth, then Prosecco is its more fruit-driven counterpart. Hailing from Northeastern Italy (specifically the Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia regions) Prosecco is produced from the Glera grape variety. Interestingly, the name of the grape used to be Prosecco, but that was changed to help avoid confusion.

How is Prosecco produced?

It's not just Glera that differentiates Prosecco from Champagne, however; the entire production process is quite different. It all starts off the same way — harvest the grapes, then crush and ferment them to produce wine without bubbles — but everything changes for the secondary fermentation.

Prosecco is produced using the Charmat Method, which means that, instead of the second fermentation occurring in the bottle, it takes place in a large stainless steel tank. This means that the sparkling wine itself has far less — and less extended — contact with the lees, allowing the fruit character to shine through.

Cava

How is Cava made?

Cava gets its bubbles in the same way as Champagne, in the individual bottle. It's important to note, however, that when it's done in Champagne, the process is called Méthode Champenoise, whereas elsewhere it's generally referred to as some version of "traditional method." Méthode Traditionelle in other parts of France, Método Tradicional in Spain, and so on.

What grape varieties are used to make Cava?

Yet because the grape varieties for Cava are different from the ones used in Champagne — in this case, Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarello dominate, though some producers use a bit of Garnacha and Monastrell, as well as the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir familiar to fans of Champagne — it tastes quite different. In addition, the terroir is not the same as it is in Champagne. Most Cava is produced in Catalonia, where soils and climate set it apart from its famous French counterpart. In general, Cava boasts an earthy, savory core around which other notes of hard autumn orchard fruit and citrus can be discerned. 

No matter which bubbly you choose to open — Champagne, Prosecco, Cava, or something else entirely — sparkling wine is often just what you need to celebrate a special occasion, mark a milestone, or simply pair with brunch or dinner.