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.

Comite Champagne - logo

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

The Booty Call – A Very Short Screenplay

Opening: Night scene – Camera pans a woman’s upscale bedroom. The bedroom is neat and well decorated.  Woman is in bed, alone, and fast asleep. She may be sleeping in the nude, we can’t really tell.  Alarm clock on the night stand reads 1:15.  There is no sound, and then her cellphone rings.
(Groggily) Hello?
Hi.  It’s me, what’re you doing?
(not happy) I was sleeping.  (Testily) What do you want.
Nothing, I was just lying here, thinking how much I miss you, wanting to hear your voice.
Yeah, I miss you too, but we’ve been through all this… I thought we agreed not to call each other.
Are you alone?
(Sigh) Why are you calling?  Have you been drinking?
Yeah, I was out with the crew from work.  It’s what made me think of you, there were so many cute couples.
(Silence, then…) Remember, it was you who decided we should see other people.
Are you?  Seeing other people?
I don’t want to talk about it.
You want to come over and just cuddle?
THAT is definitely not a good idea. (A loud pop is heard over her phone, then a fizz)  What was that?
I just opened a perfectly chilled bottle of Billecart Salmon Brut Rose.  Am I drinking alone?
(long pause) I’ll be right there.
Billecart Salmon Brut Rose - Booty call!

Wines for Your Thanksgiving Feast

thanksgiving-turkeyWithout ever looking at a calendar I can tell when Thanksgiving is near.  This uncanny ability doesn’t come from some innate circadian rhythm.  It comes from phone calls that begin in early November.

The callers usually start with a bit of pleasant small talk, transition into their Thanksgiving menu and guest count, then end with a discreet question like “what wine would you select for a meal like that?

The truth is, if you asked 100 well-trained wine merchants that question, you’d get almost as many answers.  I’ve learned that the best way to get rave reviews on your Thanksgiving wines is to open enough bottles to span the range of possible preferences.

Of course, there’s always the tongue-dead relative who only wants Jack Daniels (or White Zinfandel, or Dry Sack Sherry, or…Diet Coke) a situation I overcome by accepting their offer to bring something with “just bring whatever you’d enjoy drinking that day

But for those with more finely tuned palates, I offer the following suggestions for wines that will compliment your holiday meal.

B_Rose2007Sparkling Wines

I hand a flute of sparkling wine to guests the moment they come in our door – can you think of a happier way to be greeted? But don’t stop there, keep a bottle on ice to enjoy throughout the meal, sparkling wines are under-rated dinner companions!

To help make sure you have a perfect pairing between your meal and your sparkling wine, consider using mushrooms and herbs to accent the flavors of your meal, particularly your gravy and stuffing (or dressing, if you cook it outside the bird).  And keep in mind you’ll want a Brut or Brut Rose with the main course, but something sweeter – say a Dry or Extra Dry – when it comes time for dessert.

Though Thanksgiving is a great time to pull out the expensive Champagne, unless you’re dining with guests who can appreciate the delightful nuance of Grande Marques, you may want to save the pricey bottles for more intimate occasions.  Here are some budget-friendly sparkling wines that deliver a lot of wine for the money!

Pinots from $18 - $50Pinot Noir

If there is to be any agreement among my hypothetical group of wine merchants, it would be that Pinot Noir is a delightful choice for the Thanksgiving table.  But this is a wine that can be inconsistent – you can pay a lot (as in, a LOT) of money and still get a disappointing wine.  So be sure to talk to a trusted merchant who can guide you to a good choice within your price range.  I’d welcome you to consider my hand-picked  selection of pinots, ranging in price from $18 to $65.

Suggested ingredients that make this wine sing include mushrooms and fresh herbs (sage and thyme are particular favorites of mine), and even the cranberry sauce is an equal match for this mouth-watering red wine.  But if you want to serve one wine at your meal, this is the one that most people will find a perfect pairing.


Though a heavily oaked Chardonnay will fight with food, one made with a deft touch of oak works quite well with this meal.  The problem with California Chardonnay is that many of them are formulaic and innocuous.  I suspect they’re  made by uninspired Winemakers responding to management’s demand for “a $19 Chardonnay“.

Nonetheless, it is our nation’s #1-selling wine, and a thirsty nation seems content with the inter-changeable nature of many Chardonnays.  But this noble grape – the soul of White Burgundies – has the ability to turn heads when grown in the right area and crafted by inspired hands.

To enjoy a Chardonnay that will be as memorable as your holiday meal, I recommend seeking the advice of a trusted merchant, one who will find a Chardonnay to make your guests sit up and take notice.  Finding a wine that compliments your specific holiday menu results in the food tasting better AND the wine tasting better.  It’s a synergy thing.  Click here to see our hand-picked Chardonnay’s at prices from $9 to $49.

Viognier_06Other White Wines for Turkey

The traditional holiday meal provides lovers of aromatic white wines the chance to evangelize their favorite grape to a receptive audience.   For those weary of the same-old wines, these delightful but obscure varietals are far from the well-worn Chardonnay path.

While I find many Sauvignon Blancs too herbaceous to pair well with the traditional Thanksgiving feast,  you’ll find joy in such varietals as Pinot Blanc, a dry Riesling or Gewurztraminer.  And the minerality in a Chenin Blanc from the Loire brings smiles all around.

But my favorite white wine with my holiday meal has a bit more mouthfeel to it – the white varietals from the Rhone Valley!  And of these four – Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier and Grenache Blanc – my favorite is Viognier, with its flirtatious nose of spring blossoms and its white pepper spice and bitter finish keep the wine from being a simple, air-headed bimbo.  Fortunately, very good Viognier is available at a reasonable price, though the higher end can offer a truly transcendent experience.  I suggest these three with confidence (priced from $16 to $37).

Wines That Pair With PieNobility Web-Ready

For some odd reason I have yet to figure out, the sweet tooth that defines the American palate does not extend to dessert wines.  Which is fine by me, as every drop of these wines is more precious than hummingbird spit (yeah, I cleaned that up a bit).  And if they were popular, or even if they were to become a small fad, there wouldn’t be enough to go around.

If you were to look at a graph showing who drinks dessert wines, it would look like your classic “barbell curve”, with novices forming the first blip, the mass market forming a dip trough in the middle, and serious wine lovers forming another blip.  No matter, this way there’s more for me!

My favorite wines for the classic apple or pumpkin pies are the late harvest and botrytised wines from grapes such as Muscat, Sauvignon Blanc, or a blend of Sauv Blanc/Semillon.  A small glass of these rich, honey-like wines is dessert in itself, with an intriguing floral-honey-apricot fragrance that makes it difficult for me to pull my nose out of the glass long enough to taste it!

For a wine to go with pecan pie,  much depends on any accompanying flavors.  My favorite recipe for pecan-chocolate pie with brandy requires something with a bit of oompgh, such as the Alcyone sweet Tannat from Vinedo de los Vientos in Uruguay ($31), which is among the best chocolate wines on the planet right now.  For a more traditional pecan pie, I’d opt for an LBV port or even a late harvest Zin or Syrah. Click here to see my hand-picked dessert wines for your holiday table ($15 – $75, mostly in small bottles)

Buy Online?  Or at Your Local Wine Shop?
Shopping for new wines online occurs in an information vacuum, which is why I invest so much time writing my notes for all the wines in my store.  But for the holiday season I’ve also added real-time chat sessions to provide buying assistance in real time.  Whenever I’m at my computer you can ask for my advice from right inside my shopping cart, and even when I’m away from my desk you can send an email.  Test it out – click here and once in my cart look for my smiling face in the left frame.  Then send me a note just to say Hi!

The First S - SeeCheers,
Dave the Wine Merchant

Quote of the Day
“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”
~ John Fitzgerald Kennedy (American President, May 29, 1917 – November 22, 1963)

Sparkling Wine with Tuna Tartare on Chips

Try this once and I think you’ll want to bring it out for all your holiday parties, beginning with Halloween and on through New Year’s eve, or even Valentine’s Day.  I’m betting it is destined for your permanent recipe book, it is just that good.  Sparkling wine loves the saltiness of both the fish and the chip.  Speaking of chips – be sure to use a fresh bag of Ruffles “Naturals”.  (And no, I don’t own their stock!)

1 Egg yolk (as fresh as possible, this is not cooked except by the acid in the vinegar)
1 tsp peeled and grated ginger
½ Clove garlic, minced
1 ½ tsp Japanese hot mustard (or 1 tsp dry hot mustard)
1 Tbsp Mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine)
1 Tbsp Soy sauce
¼ Cup rice vinegar
1/3 Cup peanut oil
2 Tbsp Sesame oil, combined with the peanut oil, above.
¾ Pound Sushi-grade tuna, cut into 1/8 inch dice.  (if no sushi-grade tuna is available, freeze
regular tuna steaks for several hours to kill any unpleasant parasites)
1 Shallot, finely chopped
2 Tbsp snipped fresh chives
Salt and pepper to taste

1 Bag ridged potato chips (I recommend Ruffles “Naturals”)

In a food processor, combine the first six ingredients (up to the soy sauce) and process until smooth.  With the motor running, add the vinegar and when combined, introduce the peanut and sesame oils.  Stop the motor as soon as the oils emulsify.  Cover and refrigerate.

For the tuna, combine the chopped tuna with the shallots, chives, and pinches of salt & pepper.  Mix in enough of the dressing to moisten well, toss again, and add more if needed.  You don’t want the fish to sit in a puddle of dressing at the bottom of the bowl, and you’ll likely have dressing left over – use it as a dip, salad dressing or a topping for grilled fish.

When eaten in a casual setting, I enjoy scooping the fish onto my chip taken from a large bowl, or even the bag, depending on the occasion.  More formal gatherings call for the largest of the chips to be placed on a platter, the fish dropped onto them by the teaspoonful, then topped with one or two chives (cut about 2“ from the tip), or a razor-thin lemon wedge.

Dave the Wine Merchant

NOTE: This recipe originally appeared as an insert to accompany a sparkling wine selected for members of my wine sampling programs.  Click here for membership information.