It happens all the time: someone walks into a wine store and, when confronted with the wall of sparkling wine, says, “I just need a bottle of champagne.” Because really, Champagne, Prosecco, Cava: what’s the difference?
Calling all sparkling wines champagne is akin to a much classier version of calling all copiers Xerox machines: everyone knows what you’re talking about, but that doesn’t make it right. Because while some sparkling wines are similar (or identical) in terms of production to Champagne, others are made using entirely different methods. But let’s back up for a second.
What is sparkling wine?
The thing that makes sparkling wine sparkle is the introduction of carbon dioxide into the base wine. There are several ways of doing this, but the two most common are the “traditional method” and the Charmat process.
The methode traditionelle, or traditional method, which was developed in Champagne, France, develops its carbonation from a secondary fermentation in the bottle. After the wine has undergone primary fermentation, just like any other wine, a small amount of yeast and sugar are added to each bottle, which is then capped and stored horizontally to age. During this aging process, the interaction between the yeast and the sugar creates carbon dioxide, and delicious bubbles. Eventually the sediment from this process is removed, and what we’re left with is sparkling wine, including Champagne and Cava.
The Charmat process, or tank method, also uses secondary fermentation, but takes place in, you guessed it, tanks. Rather than individual bottles, the wine is stored in stainless steel tanks, where the yeast and sugar are added, and is then under continuous pressure until it is bottled. Some grape varieties, like those often used for Prosecco, produce better wines using this process. (The tank method is also what’s used to make “Soviet champagne,” which sounds...kind of suspect.)
Types of Sparkling Wine
There are many different varieties of sparkling wine out there, but the four that you’re most likely to encounter at the store or on a menu are Champagne, Cava, Prosecco, and American-produced sparkling wine.
Champagne, technically speaking, can only be produced in the Champagne region of France, under strict specifications that guide everything from the fermentation process to the labels on the bottles. In many places, it’s actually illegal to label something that doesn’t adhere to these restrictions as “champagne.”
Champagne is made from Pinot noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay grapes, and can be either white or rosé. Its bubbles are small and bright, giving it a refined texture.
French sparkling wine that is made outside of the Champagne region, or using different grapes, is known as Crémant. Mousseux refers to sparkling wines made in France that do not use the traditional method for secondary fermentation. One thing to look for when you’re drinking Champagne is the “collerette,” or trains of bubbles up the side of the glass; this can be a mark of a good-quality bottle.
Cava is Spain’s answer to Champagne; it’s made using the same traditional method, but uses different grapes, including macabeu, parellada, and xarello. You might have guessed this from the names of the grapes, but Cava comes mainly from the Catalonia region, where they speak Catalan, not Spanish.
Cava’s roots are typically traced back to Josep Raventós, who, in the 1860s, was traveling through France and decided to apply the French methods of making sparkling wine to Spanish grapes, His first Cava came out in 1872, and the country hasn’t looked back since. Like Champagne, the bubbles are small and lively, and the fizzing should continue throughout the life of the glass. Assuming you’re drinking reasonably quickly, which we’re sure you are. Cavas are available as either whites or rosés, with a range of sweetnesses.
Prosecco differs from Champagne and Cava in its production, which uses the tank method rather than fermenting in individual bottles. This creates less pressure and leads to larger, airier bubbles. It’s also cheaper, meaning that Prosecco is typically less expensive than its French cousin.
Prosecco is produced all over Italy, though its origins are near Trieste, where it’s been produced since at least the sixteenth century. Glera, the grape used for this variety, has also recently been cultivated in Australia and South America. Though, of course, the Italians have fought hard for the name to be limited to those wines produced in Italy. And unlike Champagne, which gets better with age, Prosecco is best drunk as a young wine; after a few years, it gets stale. So don’t hold on to your Prosecco—drink it now! Science says so.
American-produced sparkling wine can be made in any of these styles, but the most common, and best quality, is produced in the style of Champagne. Brands like Chandon use the same method as Champagne to make their bubbles; head Chandon winemaker Paula Lhote says that this method creates small, persistent bubbles that “add to the quality because the toasty, creamy notes develop...”
Each bottle produced in this way contains approximately 49 million bubbles, which means there are plenty of opportunities for you to look for each one of those notes, in the name of research. To help ensure that you’re grabbing a great bottle, look for the words “methode traditionelle” on the label, which means they’re made in the Champagne style.
What Do You Do With It?
Sparkling wines are some of the most flexible varietals out there; they can be paired with foods from salty french fries to briny oysters to creamy chocolate. Not only that, they’re equally delicious on their own, or added to a cocktail.
Classics like the French 75 and the Seelbach rely on the texture and crispness that sparkling wine brings to the drinks. And when you’re drinking something bubbly, always serve it in a flute, not a coupe; this helps to ensure that the drink stays fizzy longer.
So Can You Actually Taste The Difference?
Well...that depends. Will a cheap, sweet Prosecco taste different from a dry, vintage Champagne? Absolutely. But if you’re comparing bottles of similar quality, it’s unlikely that the difference between Cava and Champagne is going to make or break your evening or morning—we don’t judge. And if you’re making cocktails, where many of the more subtle flavors of the wine are likely to be overpowered, it’s pretty safe to say that you can use these three types of bubbles interchangeably.
Unless you’re getting pretty deep into wine tasting, in which case you probably wouldn’t be asking us about this, focus more on your preferred sweetness level and price range. After a couple of glasses, you’ll probably forget what you were worried about in the first place.
If you're looking for drink ideas see our Sparkling Wine Cocktail Recipes