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Sparkling Wine Guide: What’s the difference between Prosecco, Cava and Champagne?

SommWine's

Sparkling Wine and Wine Glass Guide for a Party

Vaccinations are complete; lockdown is over and you’re hosting a party! What bubbles should you buy to celebrate?

Here is SommWine’s Sparkling Wine Guide to three of the most popular sparkling styles; Prosecco, Cava, and Champagne. We’ll share what they taste like and why, what budget you will spend, and a couple of suggestions for awe-inspiring wines within the category to impress your friends!

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SommWine's

Sparkling Wine Guide

Understanding Prosecco wine labels can be daunting….

We will do our best below to explain the most important Prosecco labelling terms to make your purchases easier. But Italians LOVE to complicate wine labels. Good luck!

Prosecco

pronounced [prō-seh-cō]

Prosecco in a flute glass

Prosecco wines are from the Veneto and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia regions of Northern Italy.

Flavour Profile: Consumers love these lightly fruity wines that have aromas of fresh honeydew melon and white flowers. These wines offend no one.

How They Get the Bubbles and Flavours: adored for its soft, pretty honeydew melon, nectarine and white flower aromas and flavours. These flavours are due to the grape variety and the production method.

The Grape Variety: The white grape used to make Prosecco is called Glera. It’s considered to be a fairly neutral grape in flavour.

The Production Method: Pretty much, the initial base wine just sits there in massive inert stainless steel tanks until it is needed in the marketplace. It’s not a very romantic beginning for such a pretty wine.

How does Prosecco get its bubbles?: When they need to bottle it, winemakers add sugar and yeast to the huge stainless steel tanks to start a ‘secondary fermentation’. This method of making bubbles in wine is called the ‘tank method‘ and it’s the way that Prosecco is usually made.

 

SommWine Tip

  • In fermentation, the yeast eats the sugars, and alcohol and carbon dioxide is produced as a byproduct.
  • In still wines, we let the bubbles dissipate into the atmosphere. With sparkling wines, the carbon dioxide is simply trapped in the wine and becomes the delicate bubbles we love.

More on Prosecco

Prosecco wines are from the Veneto and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia regions of Northern Italy.

 

The texture of the bubbles produced from the ‘tank method’ are slightly bigger, more aggressive and less frothy and fine than the bubbles made from the
traditional method used in making Cava and Champagne.

Why is Prosecco less expensive than Champagne or Cava? The ‘tank method’ way of making bubbles is a less expensive process than the one used for Cava or Champagne. This is why you can find many Prosecco wines at great prices.

Prosecco used to be a white sparkling wine only but they just released a pink version too!

$ Budget: for inexpensive Prosecchi (that’s the plural of Prosecco and pronounced: prō-seh-key) look for labels that say DOC on them. Great bargains are available from small family producers such as Vaporetto’s Prosecco Brut No. 8.

$ Mid-priced: Prices start to rise when you buy Prosecchi from the hillside appellation of Valdobbiadene [pronounced: valdo-‘bee-a-den-‘nay]. Try Valdo’s Valdobbiadene Superiore Marca Oro Prosecco Brut. These wines will have DOCG on the label (instead of the lower-tier label of DOC).

$$ For the wine savvy: Some Prosecchi are labelled with ‘Rive‘- followed by the name of the hillside. These are particular hillside plots of land. They are meant to showcase Prosecchi made with grapes from specific climates or terroir. But some producers make better ‘Rive’ wines than others and generally price will tell you which ones are the best.

For great quality and value try the Adami Vigneto Giardino ‘Rive di Colbertaldo’ Prosecco Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG.

Like come on Italy, can these names get any bigger!!

$$$$ The most expensive Prosecchi are as pricey as Champagnes from France. These are also labeled with DOCG and come from the esteemed ‘Grand Cru’ of Conegliano Valdobbiadene.  Wines labelled with Conegliano Valdobbiadene are from the Cartizze [pronounced car-teets-eh] hillside, one of the most expensive plots of vineland in the world.  These wines show less obvious honeydew fruit and exude a distinctive volcanic minerality (they literally smell lightly of a smoky volcano!)

Try the Bisol ‘Cartizze’ Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze DOCG.

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Cartizze hillside in Valdobbiadene

SommWine Tips

Italians love to make things complicated!

There are some Prosecchi [pronounced: prō-seh-key] that are made in the 'traditional method' (in the same expensive way that Cava and Champagnes are made).

These wines will be labelled 'Metodo Classico' and the flavours will be different as a result. Instead of the fresh honeydew, nectarine and white flower flavours and aromas, you will smell burnt matchsticks or toast or freshy baked brioche bread with green apple fruit.

Impress your friends with these facts...

The most common winemaking method for Prosecco is called the 'tank method' in English. But it's usually referred to as 'the Charmat method' in wine textbooks - named after a French inventor who helped develop the process in 1907.

However, this process was originally invented and patented by an Italian named Frederico Martinotti in 1895.

Unfortunately in the wine world, we often take French words to describe wines and 'the Martinotti Method' or 'Metodo Martinotti' is not often seen.

So outsnob a wine sommelier with this little known fact!

But the Italians are not the only ones who have made their sparkling wine category confusing for consumers, Spain is doing a pretty good job of it too. Make sure you read about Cava’s renegades below!

In the next lines, we’ll try to break down some of the important labelling terms for you. However, the ageing categories of Basic Cava, Reserva, Gran Reserva and Cava de Paraje Calificado do not fit neatly into price points. The reputation and quality of the individual producers and where the grapes are grown will affect the pricing as well. Therefore, one producers Gran Reserva Cava (which are aged for a very long time before being sold), may be less expensive than another producer’s basic Cava (which is aged the least).

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Cava

pronounced [cav-ah]

Cava DO is a sparkling wine from Spain that is made in the same way as Champagne.

Flavour Profile: lemon peel, overripe apple, biscuit and matchsticks.

Ageing tiers of Cava and how this affects how the wine tastes:

1) Basic Cavas are aged just 9 months on their lees and will show fresh fruit characteristics of lemon juice and yellow apple or quince.

Lees is the French word for the dead yeast flakes that float to the bottom of the vat (or in this case, bottle) during fermentation. Lees are important for giving traditional method wines their signature flavours of toast, brioche, and baked bread. However, these flavours don’t develop much until the wines are aged at least 15 months on their lees such as…

2) As the Cava wines progress up the ageing ladder from basic Cava, to Reserva Cava , some almond nutty notes appear and perhaps a brioche bread aroma from the longer ageing of 15 months on their lees.

3) Finally, Gran Reservas (30 months on lees) and longer aged wines will smell more of lemon peel, overripe apple or appleskins, with absolutely distinctive notes of burnt matchsticks, toast, and baked bread aromas.

4) Two years ago, the Regulador (Cava administration board) introduced the Cava de Paraje ‘grand cru’ tier. Only 12 wines qualified. (See more on this below). These must be aged a minimum of 36 months.

How they get the Bubbles and Flavours: Cava gets its bubbles from the same labourious winemaking technique used to make Champagne. The wines have yeast and sugar added to each individual bottle where the ‘secondary fermentation’ forms the bubbles.

This is an expensive process and it makes the smallest, longest lasting bubbles. Then the wines are aged on the dead yeast cells (in French lees) that die and fall to the bottom of the vat after consuming all of the sugar in the wine.

Grape Varieties: Cava can be made with French grape varieties such as Chardonnay. However, native varieties such as Parellada, Macabeu, and Xarel-lo are being used more frequently (generally because they fit Spain’s climate better). Xarel-lo, in particular, is valued for its quality.

Cava is also produced in a rosé style that’s pink!

Why is Cava cheaper than Champagne even though it’s made using the same labourious ‘traditional method’ to make the bubbles? Two Spanish Cava producers dominate the Cava industry. They have figured out how to make large volumes of traditional method wines efficiently and brilliantly.

For example, the Spanish invented the gyropalette, a machine that ‘riddles’ the lees down to the bottom of the neck of the bottle so it can be removed. Furthermore, these two largest companies benefit from economies of scale to keep Cava prices low.

But, you get what you pay for! The best Cavas, those that are as good as Champagne, cost the same as Champagne.

 

This is a gyropalette. A machine that makes the ageing process much faster
This is a gyropalette, a machine invented in Spain that quickly moves the lees to the neck of the bottle so they can be removed before sale.

$ Budget: start with the inexpensive basic and crisp Cava from Jaume Serra Cava Brut Nature or the Sigura Viudas Reserva Cava Brut

Basic Cava (like the Jaume Serra listed above) is aged only 9 months on the dead lees and offer a fresher lemon and yellow apple aroma. They won’t show aromas of toast or bread yet because they haven’t been aged long enough on their dead lees (yeast).

However, Reserva Cavas are aged longer for a minimum of 15 months on the lees and will offer some light aromas of freshly baked bread or toast and generally cost a little more because of their ageing.

$ Mid-priced: If you are looking for an organic, biodynamic and more complex version of the basic Cava category, try the Parés Baltà Cava Brut. There are also some Gran Reservas that are mid-priced but in this case you get what you pay for.

If your Gran Reserva wine looks like a total bargain, it may have some vegetal aromas such as cabbage or overripe apples. (For example, I do not recommend the Sigura Viudas Gran Reserva sold in the silver plated bottle for this reason.)

However, the Segura Viudas Brut Gran Cuvée Reserva is only made in good years and gets my approval!)

$$ For the wine savvy: Gran Reserva Cavas are vintage dated (all the grapes must come from the same year) and aged for 30 months on lees for a much richer style showing more obvious toast, bread and matchsticks aromas often with overripe apples, and appleskins.

$$$$: But the top tier Cava wines are aged a minimum of 36 months on lees (think apple, toast, brioche and earthy yumminess). These wines are only from the best cool sites and offer fruit flavours closer to Champagne such as lemon juice, lemon peel or lemon curd.

Try the organic Torelló 225 which is super rich and earthy or the top of the line Torelló Gran Torelló ‘Vinyes de Can Marti’ vineyard. This last is one of only 12 wines that made the new ‘Grand Cru‘ list in the recently formed ‘Cava de Paraje Calificado

For more of the best Cava producers, keep reading below.

[With your wine for your party in tow, it’s time to choose the proper glassware to showcase your fancy bubbles. Read when you should use the coupe glass, the vintage flute glass, the regular flute or simple white
wine glass for your bubbles here.]

[Interested in wine and food pairing? Read the 6 Easy Steps to Become a Wine Pairing Guru]

[Do you want to know how to help the environment? Read about the environmental impacts of Tetra-pak, Aluminum cans and the new Paper Bottles for shipping wine here.]

 

17th century barrel in Codorniù winery

SommWine Tip

Cava's renegades...

This appellation underwent major changes in the last decade. Most notably most of the best producers of Cava have left the Cava DO appellation and formed their own appellation with new labelling laws.



First, Raventós i Blanc started a ‘Conca di Riu Anoia’ appellation for his sparkling wines in 2012.



More recently, 9 other producers left to form the Corpinnat. These include esteemed producers such as Gramona, Recaredo, Llopart, Nadal, Sabaté i Coca, Torelló and others). They released their new wines under the label ‘Vino Espumoso de Calidad, Método Tradicional’ in 2019.

Of those nine, 6 of the producers had just made the the recently formed top tier ‘Grand Cru’ Cava de Paraje Calificado designation. In other words, 50% of the countries best Cava producers gave the Cava administrators the finger and left!

These same 9 mentioned above only make up 1% of Cava production, but 30% of Gran Reserva Cava production.

This is a big blow to the Regulador (the governing body that makes the wine laws) behind the Cava DO.



This will also make it really difficult for consumers to understand wine labels for sparkling wine from Spain. Because now, many of the best Cava’s from Spain can no longer say ‘Cava’ on the bottle, or Reserva, or Gran Reserva.

 

Why did the top Cava producers break away?

 

The two largest and oldest producers of Cava in Spain are Freixenet and Cordoniú. They tend to have the most influence on the Regulador and therefore on the way wine laws are drafted.

The other renegade producers complain that the producers above aim to make industrially produced Cava that focuses on faultlessness and cost efficiency to the detriment of quality, character and terroir. 



They have a point.

But do try the Cordoniú, Anna de Cordoniú Brut, it’s mid-priced, made with 100% Chardonnay and wonderful!

Champagne is expensive!

There’s no getting around it, if you want to drink Champagne, you will have to pay for it!

Generally speaking, the further you live from Champagne, France, the better overall quality of the wines. That’s because importers do a great job of selecting only the best to bring into markets. That also means, you will pay for it!

Why is Champagne so expensive?

Champagne’s cost is in part due to the process of making the bubbles with the ‘traditional method’. In this process, ageing and lees removal (disgorgement) are all done in single bottles.

The high price is also because Champagne producers work tirelessly to position themselves purely as a luxury product.

Champagne

in French
pronounced [shom-pāyn]

Champagne is a region in France that makes premium sparkling wines

Flavour Profile: tart lemon juice and lemon curd with brioche, light toast and matchsticks

How they get the Bubbles and Flavours: Champagne uses the same ‘traditional method’ that Cava does (see above). This sparkling wine method produces the most elegant and persevering bubbles. It also causes Champagne’s characteristic flavours and aromas of matchsticks, baked bread, and brioche.

The Grape Varieties: Champagne can be made from Chardonnay (a white grape), Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier (2 red grapes).

(OK, so Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Arbane, and Petit Meslier may also be used, but you’ll never see them).

It’s the marginal climate where these grapes barely ripen that gives Champagne wines its high quality.

Why? Cool, marginal climates allow for grapes to maintain high acidity throughout the ripening process. High acidity is one benchmark for ageability and for high quality wine.

There are many pink Champagnes (rosé) to choose from too!

$ Budget: Yeah, good luck with that. Unless you live in France or near a large supermarket chain in the UK, you’re not going to find Champagnes on a budget.

But, if you are in the UK, you can find Nicholas Feuillate for £20 in Tesco; Piper Heidseick currently at Sainsbury’s for £25 (usually £35); and Duval Leroy Blanc of Blancs £30 at Waitrose (usually £40)

$$ Mid-priced: In Canada and the US, there are only premium bottlings. If you live in the UK, you may find some good deals at the supermarket (see above).

Lesser known Champagnes from Ployez Jacquemart will save you a few dollars.

But the Grand Marques houses such as Moët and Roederer (see next paragraph) will cost a touch more. The Grand Marques Champagne houses are the  generally the most well-known among consumers. You can recognize a Grand Marques Champagne as it will be labelled as CM orCoopérative Manipulanton the back label.

And if you want to know what I mean by ‘burnt matchsticks’ aroma, either strike a match or sniff a glass of Moët & Chandon Impérial Brut.

Louis Roederer Brut Premier known for its smoky, rounder style with apple, almonds, and toast for example, will cost a touch more than Moët.

$$$ for the wine savvy: Impress your friends with a lesser-known grower-producer such as Pierre Paillard ‘Les Parcelles’ Bouzy Grand Cru Extra Brut known for being made from primarily Pinot Noir. (Pinot Noir adds body and earthiness to Champagne.) Or try a lightly toasted, juicy lemon, and créme brûléed Gimmonet et Fils ‘Spécial Club’ Brut made with 100% Chardonnay.

You can recognize when a Champagne is from a grower because it will say RM or Récoltant Manipulant on the back label.

Buying a ‘grower-producer’ will impress your wine savvy friends.

$$$$:  Otherwise, pick up a ‘Prestige Cuvée‘ or top bottling of a Champagne house (Dom Pérignon, Cristal (by Louis Roederer), Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill (by Pol Roger) etc).

Ask at your favourite wine shop for their Prestige Cuvée wines. These wines are meant to be cellared for 10 years+ so perhaps put them away for a while.

There are also premium Non-Vintage bottlings such as Krug Grande Cuvée available and ready to drink upon release. Krug is known for ageing their wines in old oak barrels which provides for a ‘heavyweight’, bold Champagne at a super premium price.

SommWine Tip

The flavour difference between Blanc de Blancs and Blancs de Noirs Champagne

If you prefer Champagnes with lots of lemon curd, créme brulé, toasty complexity, long finishes and eye-watering tartness, try a Blanc de Blancs Champagne that is made with 100% Chardonnay.

If you prefer more richness and earthy tones and more body, try a Blancs de Noirs Champagne made with Pinot Noir.

[If you would like more sparkling wine suggestions, you can check out our post here.]

Tell us about your favourite bubbles in the comments below!

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