Yes, the sparkling wines: Champagne, Crémant, Cava, and Prosecco! If there’s a wine style that is both misunderstood and intimidating all at once, it’s this one. I believe the style’s bad reputation stems from two extremes: the high end and the low end. The high end sparklers, Dom Perignon and his compatriots (Veuve, Cristal, and Henriot), have hard-to-pronounce names and are even harder on the wallet! Not to say that they aren’t wonderful, but most of us cannot drink these everyday. And then we have the opposite end of the spectrum… We all know the name of a sparkler (I’m using this term loosely) that you may have had at a giant function, be it family or work, that had an oddly sweet taste, bubbles that foamed in your mouth like cheap soda, and which left you with either gut rot or a wicked headache (or both).
Fortunately, there are great alternatives to the two deal breakers above. And yep, you guessed it! Cava, Crémant, and NV are my favorite ways to get around the expensive and the downright awful sparkling wines.
Cava used to be called “Spanish Champagne,” but the EU cracked down and now only sparklers from Champagne, France can be called Champagne. Never mind that Cava is made using an identical method… rules rules rules! Cava is made primarily with Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarello in the method traditional. (Method traditional is simply Champagne’s rules for correctly making Champagne sparkling wine. It’s kind of like a general recipe that must have the major points, but you can do what every good baker does, and tweak the recipe to make better cupcakes than your neighbor—or so you hope!)
Champagne and Cava are almost identical: same time, 18 months, in the bottle; same disgorgement and dosage method. It’s just the grapes that are different, and how the two “shake” (using a gyropalette in Spain) or “turn” (called riddling in France, where they turn each bottle one quarter per day). Both methods work to carry on the secondary fermentation process in the bottle, making the ubiquitous bubbles we all love so much, as well as incorporating the depth of flavor that the yeast imparts to the wine.
Crémant is made in France using the same traditional French methods as Champagne, but completely different grapes. Crémant may or may not have Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, or Pinot Meunier grapes, but that is about the only difference. Oh yeah, that—and price! Crémant wines typically come from areas with almost identical soils and climate to Champagne, but do not fall within the geographical lines of the Champagne region that were drawn hundreds of years ago. That’s good for us!
Lastly, great bubblies can be found under the NV (nonvintage) label. All nonvintage means is that the grapes are not from a specific year and that the bubbly is being made in the tradition that the Champagne house wants to use to present their signature style. The great thing about nonvintage is that is consistent: same blend, same yeast, same champagne every time! Unlike with our friend Dom Perignon, where vintage to vintage can vary greatly, the nonvintage label gives you some assurance that if you like the Champagne you bought last time, there’s a very good chance you are going to like it again.
So there it is in nut shell: the good, the bad, and the translated mystery of that bubbly wine. Now go out and celebrate with one of those gorgeous non-Champagne sparklers—your taste buds and wallet will thank you!
Cheers, everyone, to a great new year!