What Are the Differences Between Sparkling Wines?

Not all bottles of bubbly are created equal. 

When most of us think of sparkling wine, we tend to think of celebratory toasts and special occasions with tiny bubbles floating to the top of long fluted glasses. And there’s usually one sparkling wine in particular that springs to mind first: Champagne.

But the truth is, sparkling wine is enjoyed almost as commonly as regular wine, and there are hundreds—if not thousands—of varieties other than champagne, made all over the world.

“Spain makes the most sparkling wines,” notes Master Sommelier Melissa Monosoff, “but Italy and Germany also make a boat load.”

And while all sparkling wines have one major factor in common—the bubbles!—the main differences between them all have to do with how they’re made and what grapes are used.

How They’re Made

pouring-sparkling-wine
Photo by DNY59/Getty Images

Believe it or not, certain parts of Europe actually require wine makers (by law) to make their sparkling wines a specific way by using certain grape varieties. Yet while every region of the world has their own traditional twist, there are a few common methods to making it, according to Monosoff.

“Certain European wine regions in France, Italy, and Spain are known for using the method the people of Champagne, France lay claim to,” says Monosoff. “These wines are aged for quite a while before they are sold. Other more simply-made wines are not aged and sold soon after bottling.”

As for the key to all that bubbly goodness? That lies in the process of secondary fermentation.

According to Monosoff, a base wine is made first. Then, it’s mixed with both yeast and sugar, plus a little more wine, before it’s capped and stored away. And that’s when the magic happens.

“The yeast eats the sugar and produces a little bit more alcohol and Carbon Dioxide (CO2),” explains Monosoff. During the standard wine-making process, the CO2 dissolves; but in making sparkling wine, Monosoff says the CO2 is trapped in the wine, which is what creates all those fun bubbles.

Of course, within that basic process, there are lots of variations, depending on the region each sparkling wine is being made in.

Popular Sparkling Wines

Champagne
So here’s something that might just blow your mind: Champagne is only "champagne" if it was made in Champagne, France. So that $20 bottle you typically get? Most likely, it isn’t really champagne at all. True champagne is also made with three varieties of grapes—chardonnay, pinot noir, and meunier—using a specific method known as the Méthode Traditionnelle, during which secondary fermentation must take place in the same bottle that the champagne will eventually be served from.

Prosecco
While Champagne remains a popular pick all over the world, these days, Monosoff considers Italian Prosecco to be one of the most common sparkling wines out there. It comes from the Veneto region of Northern Italy and uses the prosecco or glera grape. Unlike champagne, prosecco’s secondary fermentation happens in a stainless steel tank before it’s eventually bottled, in a process that’s known as the Charmat method.

Cava
Cava is a Spanish sparkling wine, made largely in the Catalonia region with macabeo, xarel-lo, and parellada grapes that are native to the region. But while the grapes used may be native to Spain, the method Cava uses is not—Cava is made using the Méthode Traditionnelle, just like champagne.

Cremant
Cremant is another sparkling wine that hails from France, but comes from a variety of different regions—including Alsace, Bordeaux, and Bourgogne—using a variety of grapes—including pinot blanc, pinot noir, chardonnay, and more. It too draws upon a method very close to the Méthode Traditionnelle.

Pairing
When it comes to pairing sparkling wines with food, the possibilities are endless.

“One of the best things about sparkling wine is you can find a style to go with just about anything,” says Monosoff. “From the driest most austere champagne with caviar and French fries to a richer pinot noir-based rosé sparkler with a lightly grilled filet mignon. Sipping a delicious off-dry or sweet Italian sparkling wine after dinner? Pair it with a rich chocolate dessert."

According to Monosoff, “there is something for everyone and every food when it comes to bubbles.”