When you think of sparkling wine, what’s the first wine that comes to mind? Champagne right?
Or if you live in the Napa area, California “champagne” like Domaine Chandon, Domaine
Mumm or Domaine Carneros right? Well, the world of sparkling wine has many personalities and
while they’re all bubbly, that’s where the similarity ends. Even the patriarch of all bubblies,
Champagne, offers many subtle variations on the original theme.

The Big Boys of Bubbly

Ever since that Benedictine monk, Dom Perignon announced to the world that he had been
drinking stars, France has continued to perfect the art of sparkling wine. However, most
Americans simply recognize the most popular labels such as Chandon, Roederer, Mumm, Veuve
Cliquot and Perrier Jouet. Though I enjoy these labels as much as the next person, their claim to
fame lies in their ability to provide the same flavor, year in and year out regardless of each year’s
growing variations (their vintage labels are unique, though most of their sales are from non-
vintage labels). Therefore like the big beer houses of America, the large Champagne houses
provide a consistent product every year. How do they continuously provide the world with
1,000,000 cases per year? By purchasing a LOT of grapes. From small family owned vineyards to
large coops of grape growers. Unlike the Chateaus in Bordeaux or the Domaines in Burgundy, the
large Champagne houses don’t own and farm their own vineyards; they purchase grapes from
outside sources and blend them to give that final product we specifically look for in each house.
Then there’s the small grower-producer Champagne houses that for the most part, are
overlooked by the mass market of Champagne drinkers. These grower-producers cultivate their
own vineyards and produce the Champagne from start to finish. Therefore the finished product is
made the same way most still wines are made – with complete production control. And in the
case of any wine, bigger doesn’t mean better. Though labels like Dom Perignon, Cristal and La
Grande Dame may readily be recognizable, Rene Collard, Agrapart, Diebolt Vallois and Pierre
Gimmonet may seem as French as the language itself. Along with a quality that rivals the large
houses, these small grower-producer houses usually only sell for a fraction of the price. Even
though I usually prefer Blanc de Noir (Pinot Noir and Meunier based) and Rose champagnes, I
find that the Blanc de Blanc (made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes) Champagnes from these
small houses are much better than the large houses and I might even pass on a large Champagne
produce’s Pinot based bubbly for a smaller producer’s Chardonnay offering. It’s just that good!

California “Champagne”

Many of the large French Champagne houses have taken residence in California, most notably
Mumm, Chandon, Roederer and Taittinger. While these California bubblies can’t legally be
called Champagne, they are produced in the same “Methode Champenoise” of their French
cousins. Namely, the secondary fermentation that gives sparkling wine its fizz occurs in the
bottle and very little “dosage” or sugar solution is added after the yeast imbedded cork is
“disgorged” or expelled for final bottling. Therefore the final product is also very good and in
many cases, comparable to the French equivalent – especially for the “Tete de Cuvee” wines or
flagship wines for each house. For instance, Chandon has its Dom Perignon in France and Etoile
in California; likewise Roederer has its Cristal in France and L’Ermitage in California. But like all
flagship products, these also come with a higher price – do you spend that $50 on California
Tete de Cuvee sparkling wine or two bottles of non-vintage Champagne?
There are also pure Californian sparklers on the market - I’m sure you’ve all heard that the
“Champagne’s not Korbel”. Well, that’s always true since Korbel isn’t produced in the
Champagne region of France. However Korbel does provide a very cost friendly alternative and
since it’s readily available for less than $15, there’s no guilt in making “Champagne” cocktails
with this bubbly. Crème de cassis or Chambord added to Korbel Blanc de Noir makes a tasty Kir
Royale or Royal Kir. California labels also include Schramsberg, Scharffenberger and S. Anderson
that also produce very good sparkling wines though once again, cost rises with quality and some
of these wines approach the $100 range.

Spanish Cava

No, this isn’t the kava consumed in the Pacific but rather Spain’s version of Champagne – made
in the same manner – and named after the cellars that they are produced in. The main difference
with Spanish sparklers is the grape varieties used. Whereas American sparklers mainly use the
same grape varietals as in France – Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, Spain uses
indigenous grapes for their Cavas – Macabeo, Xarello and Parellada. However Spain still produces
their sparklers in the Methode Champenoise (though the European Union doesn’t allow the
term, Cava must be labeled Methode Traditionale). The main difference is price – Cava are
usually lighter on the wallet than Champagne or domestic sparkling wine. And even if the cost is
lower, the quality doesn’t suffer. Major labels to look for are Cordoniu, Frexeinet and Segura
Viudas.

Bellinis Anyone?

The sparkling wine used for the popular Bellini (peach cocktail) created at the original Harry’s
Bar in Venice uses Prosecco or Italy’s rendition of Champagne. Prosecco is both the name of the
sparkling wine and the grape varietal that produces it. Other than using a distinct grape varietal,
Prosecco’s diversity also lies in its production.  Prosecco is made in the Charmat or bulk process.
Instead of undergoing a secondary fermentation in the bottle, this process takes place in huge
tanks – though its less labor intensive than individual bottles, the main reason for this bulk
fermentation is to preserve the fruitiness and freshness of the Prosecco grape. Because bulk
fermentation isn’t as labor intensive, most Proseccos can be found for less than $15. They’re
available as dry wines though most of the US market has off-dry wines. Another distinct
difference is that these wines usually have less alcohol than French, American or Spanish
sparklers so they’re the perfect drink for those hot summer days – light on the wallet, light on
the palate and perfect with lighter foods!

Augment Your Bubbly Personality

Instead of simply looking for those “Big Label” bubblies for your next celebration, I encourage
you to either try the smaller grower-producer Champagnes or alternative sparklers. I’m sure you’
ll find that they are just as delicious, often lighter on the wallet and still make any occasion just
as festive. Or follow my lead and enjoy them as any other still wine. Sparkling wines are great
with food, great with family and friends, great for celebrations and great “just because”. A voitre
sante!
What a Bubbly Personality