SMACK DOWN: Champagne, Cremant, Prosecco, Franciacorta, Cava and Pet-Nat!

Line-up for 2019 blind tasting: Global Sparkling Wines. Dave the Wine Merchant

Since December sales accounts for about 33% of all sparkling wine sales, it seems a good time to explain some basic differences between the most popular types of Sparkling wine – Champagne, Cremant, Prosecco, Franciacorta, Cava, and Pet-Nat! 

To see our selection of sparkling wines, click here.

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Champagne: Though this is often used as the generic term for any sparkling wine, it is actually highly regulated. For a sparkling wine to be called champagne (the word is lower case when referring to the wine, upper case when referring to the region) it must come from the demarcated region due East of Paris. Other distinctive features of champagne is that the wine is made from three primary grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (moon yay), a mutation of Pinot Noir. In addition, these wines must undergo their secondary fermentation in the very bottle you buy, as described in the steps, below.

This process used to be called “Method Champenoise” around the globe, but champagne producers lobbied the EU to require the term “Method Traditionelle” be used unless the wine is from the demarcated Champagne region. But the process is the same:

  1. Harvest occurs early while the grape’s natural acids are still high and sugars are low
  2. Dozens of lots of still wine are produced, not intended for consumption, these wines are quite astringent and searingly crisp!
  3. Master blenders then go to work to pull from various lots, creating the house style, intended to be consistent year after year
  4. The blended wine is bottled with some yeast and a small dose of sugar and then the bottle is capped so the CO2 from the fermentation can’t escape
  5. The resulting fermentation goes into the wine and creates the joy of the bubbles!
  6. After the yeast have consumed all the sugar, the spent yeast cells are left for years in the bottle, adding dough/bread notes and softness that offsets the astringency of the base wine
  7. When time to bottle the final product, the spent yeast cells are moved to the neck of the bottle, which is then frozen, the cap is popped off, and the force of the bubbles pushes the ice plug out leaving the remaining wine crystal clear.
  8. Finally, the bottle is topped off, and a final dose of sweetness may be added at this point before the bottle is corked, cleaned, labelled and sent out for celebrations everywhere!

Cremant de __________: This is the term applied to most French sparkling wines that originate outside Champagne and are produced using the “Methode Tradionelle” process (above). Other than the region and the allowance of additional grape varieties beyond Champagne’s traditional threesome, the wines are generally of excellent quality and value. The most common include Cremant de Bourgogne (Burgundy, using Chard and/or Pinot), Cremant de Loire (Chenin Blanc and a smattering of red grapes), Cremant de Alsace, Cremant de Savoie…

Prosseco: One of the most popular sparkling wines due to its affordable price and light fresh taste of apples and pears, Prosecco is the one sparkling wine on the global stage that does not ferment in the bottle. Instead, fermentation takes place in large tanks after the initial fermentation. Because this process can occur on an industrial scale, Prosecco is far less expensive than most global sparkling wines. There are two style, Spumante (sparkling) and Frizzante (lighlty fizzy), but the highest expression comes from the small region of Conegliano Valdobbiadenne.  The grape, formerly called “Prosecco”, was changed to Glera in 2009. Same grape, different name. Because Italy.

Franciacorta: This is Italy’s finest sparkling wine and is limited to the Province of Brescia in the beautiful Lombardy region (right), granted DOCG status in 1995. Allowable grapes number almost 20, and the dosage (final addition of sweetness) categories are the same as those of Champagne, but the Non Vintage wine can’t be released until at least 18 months in bottle, and Vintage Franciacorta for 30 months.

Cava: The majority (95%) of the cava is produced in Spain’s Penedes region in Catalonia. But there are also cava cellars in the regions of Aragón, Castilla y León, Extremadura, La Rioja, the Basque Country, Navarre and Valencia.

Typical grapes include a very different trio than those used in Champagne – Macabeo (white), Parellada (white) and Xarel-lo (also white!) – though Pinot is also allowed. The Rose version of Cava is made by bleeding off juice from red wine (Garnacha, Pinot noir, Trepat or Monastrell). Cavas must undergo secondary fermentation in the bottle, or else be designated as Sparkling Wine.

Pet-Nat: Hipster wine bars are over-flowing with Pet-Nat wines, described as the world’s trendiest sparkling wine. I find they are divisive among many wine lovers. The term is short for Petillant Naturel a sparkling wine that is fizzy, easy-drinking and intended for near-term consumption. Unlike all the wines above, you’ll find bottles of Pet-Nat are closed with a crown cap (like you’ll find on a Coke bottle). The secondary fermentation is started (yeast and sugar added to the bottle), and after several months, that bottle is sent to market without any disgorgement, dead yeast cells still in the bottle, leaving the wines hazy and flavorful. Because the wine is a natural product undergoing changes from week to week, Pet-nats seldom taste the same from bottle to bottle or month to month, and can often be a bit, um, ‘enthusiastic’ upon opening – be sure to have a towel handy and open over a sink!

Pet-nat wines can be a bit, um, enthusiastic upon opening!

Post by Dave the Wine Merchant