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Sparkling Wine Basics — A Beginner’s Guide

Get the low-down on how the best bubbles from around the world are made

Vicki Denig By May 24, 2022
white champagne sparkling wine being poured at Champagne vineyards
Tasting brut and demi-sec white champagne sparkling wine at Champagne vineyards in France. Image by barmalini/iStock.

Gone are the days when sparkling wine was only to be popped for parties and celebrations. Today, bubbles are finding their way into regular occasions — and rightfully so. Crafted from a range of grape varieties in a number of styles, the world of sparkling wine offers so much to discover, though as always, knowing a bit about the category goes a long way.

Quick Facts

  • Main regions: Champagne, Veneto, Catalonia, California, and beyond.
  • Styles: traditional method, Charmat method, ancestral method.
  • Main grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Glera, Xarel-lo, and more.

Sparkling wine-producing methods

Not all sparkling wines are created equal. There are a handful of ways in which bubbly wines are made. Here are the three main styles to know.

Traditional method

Otherwise known as the méthode champenoise, this traditional method of producing sparkling wines is used around the globe, from Cava to Champagne. The traditional method incorporates bottling still wine, adding a combination of sugar and yeast, often referred to as the liqueur de tirage, then allowing the wine to undergo a secondary fermentation in the bottle. As carbon dioxide is a byproduct of fermentation, the gas is trapped within the bottle, creating a sparkling final wine. French wines labeled crémant are traditional method, as are Italian wines labeled metodo classico.

Charmat method

As with the traditional method, the Charmat method lets wine undergo a secondary fermentation, though in tank rather than bottle. These pressurized, stainless-steel tanks allow the final wine to come out bubbly, though there is much less contact with the dead yeast cells, known as lees, than via the traditional method. The Charmat method is most popularly used in Prosecco production. 

Ancestral method

Unlike the two methods above, the ancestral method, known as the méthode ancestral or pét-nat method, only has one fermentation. Wines vinified using the ancestral method are bottled prior to the completion of fermentation. These wines are allowed to finish fermenting in bottle, which results in a slightly fizzy, often cloudy, and oftentimes slightly sweet wine. 

Major areas for sparkling wine

Sparkling wines are produced in basically every wine-producing area in the world, though some regions are more popular than others. Here are four major sparkling wine-producing regions to look out for. 

Europe

Champagne

In the world of sparkling wine, Champagne reigns king. This top-tier region is home to some of the most sought-after vineyard sites and most talented producers in the world. The majority of wines made in Champagne are crafted from a combination of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and/or Meunier using the traditional method. 

Elsewhere in France, sparkling wine is generally known as crémant. Alsace, Burgundy, and Jura are particularly known for their crémant.

Italy

Prosecco production spans a good chunk of northeastern Italy, specifically within the Veneto province. Here, Glera grapes are vinified using the Charmat method to create lively, easy-drinking bubbles that are most commonly consumed in their youth. 

Franciacorta in Lombardy makes excellent traditional method sparkling wines, while Trento DOC is home to Ferrari, Italy’s most prestigious sparkling wine house.

Catalonia

Cava is Spain’s claim to sparkling wine fame. Bubbles here are produced via the traditional method, though rather than Champagne’s famous trio of grapes, the native varieties of Xarel-lo, Macabeo, and/or Parellada are most commonly used. 

U.S.A

Sparkling wines are produced all over the United States, though the bulk of its production is found in Northern California. Outside of the Golden State, bubbles are made in New York’s Finger Lakes region, Oregon, and beyond — even in the state of New Mexico.

Other notable regions

The South of England is rapidly becoming known for its extremely high-quality sparkling wines. A new wave of German producers are making some of the continent’s most elegant sparkling wines, while Tasmania, Australia’s southernmost region, also makes small quantities of extremely fine sparkling wine.

12 bottles to try:

France

bottle of Bérêche Champagne Brut Reserve NV

Bérêche Champagne Brut Reserve NV (~$57)

Now spearheaded by the dynamic Raphael Bérêche, these eponymous Champagnes are taking the industry by storm. Fruit for the estate’s Brut Reserve wine comes from organically-farmed vines that average 40-plus years in age. The blend is essentially equal parts of the region’s three main grape varieties and ages for anywhere from 24 to 36 months on the lees prior to disgorgement. This complex and consistent wine seriously over-delivers for the price. For those looking to get in on excellent and affordable grower Champagne — that is, smaller producers versus larger houses — this is your opportunity to jump. 

bottle of Pommery Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut NV

Pommery Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut NV (~$57)

Although a handful of grape varieties are permitted in Champagne, a Blanc de Blancs designation on the label means that the wine is crafted entirely from Chardonnay. This exceptional bottling hails from Pommery, one of the region’s most respected names. The estate was created in the mid-19th century by Alexandre Louis Pommery, though was left in the hands of his pregnant wife, Louise, after his unexpected death a few years later. This palate-coating wine shows full-bodied flavors of stewed apples, citrus rind, and freshly baked bread. Those who like their bubbles on the weightier and toastier side, this bottle is just the ticket. 

bottle of Champagne Fleury Blanc De Noirs Brut Champagne France

Champagne Fleury Blanc de Noirs Brut NV (~$43)

While Blanc de Blancs wines are crafted entirely from Chardonnay, Blanc de Noirs are crafted entirely from clear juice pressed out of red grapes — in the case of Champagne, Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier. This full-bodied wine from Champagne Fleury is made entirely from Pinot Noir and sees very little dosage upon bottling. Flavors of red fruits, blood orange rind, and sweet spice lead to a smooth and silky finish. Fleury is also one of the leading pioneers of organic and biodynamic farming in Champagne, of which the estate has been certified since 1970 and 1989, respectively.

bottle of Laurent Perrier Rose

Laurent Perrier Champagne Rosé NV (~$79)

Although Laurent Perrier was originally founded by André Michel Pierlot in 1812, make no mistake — this winery’s history is strongly female-forward. After André’s son’s accidental death, his wife Mathilde took over and spearheaded the founding of the estate’s zero dosage bottlings. Her daughter Eugénie followed in her footsteps, then ultimately sold the estate to a woman, Marie-Louise Lanson de Nonancourt, whose family members still run the house today. The Laurent Perrier lineup consists of a number of world-class wines, though their rosé is simply exceptional. Produced entirely from Pinot Noir sourced from 10 different crus, the wine shows flavors of ripe red fruits, brioche, and a hint of smoke. 

bottle of Les Capriades Loire Valley Pet’Sec NV

Les Capriades Pet' Sec Blanc Method Ancestral (~$30)

Les Capriades was one of the first pét-nats to really put the category on international consumers’ radar. Produced in the heart of the Loire Valley, Pet’Sec is the driest of the winery’s sparkling lineup and is produced mostly from Chenin Blanc, with a smidge of Cabernet Franc thrown in for good measure. On the palate, the wine is incredibly easy to drink, thanks to its flavors of poached apples, crushed rocks, and a touch of lingering sweetness. It’s perfect for pairing with seafood or shellfish, but equally comes to life when served alongside sweet brunch favorites.

bottle of Domaine de Montbourgeau Crémant du Jura Brut Zéro NV

Domaine de Montbourgeau Crémant du Jura Brut Zéro NV (~$27)

This delicious sparkler comes from one of Jura’s most influential producers, Domaine de Montbourgeau. The wine is made entirely from Chardonnay and sees no added sugar, otherwise known as dosage, which is what the Zéro in its name signifies. On the palate, the wine shows flavors of yellow apple, apricot, toast, and a hint of sweet spice. 

Spain

bottle of Bohigas Cava Brut Reserve NV

Bohigas Cava Brut Reserve NV (~$15)

Although this impressive Spanish estate’s roots date back to the 13th century, Bohigas did not begin making Cava until 1936. Their Brut Reserve wine is a non-vintage blend of 50% Xarel-lo, 30% Macabeo, and 20% Parellada, all of which come from organically-farmed vines. The wine ages for 24 months on its lees prior to disgorgement, which adds pleasant texture and weight to this bone-dry sparkler. Expect typical flavors of yellow fruits, citrus, and brioche. 

Italy

bottle of Bisol Desiderio Jeio Prosecco

Bisol Desiderio Jeio Prosecco NV (~$15)

Bisol is one of the leading producers of Prosecco, and their Jeio lineup of wines — produced both in white and rosé format — provide a tasty, entry-level look into what the estate is all about. Fruit for their Desiderio Jeio cuvée comes from various plots scattered around the hills of Conegliano-Valdobbiadene. Fresh and easy-drinking, this wine’s zesty flavors of green apple and white flower blossoms are pleasant both when sipped solo or mixed into classic brunch cocktails. 

bottle of Ferrari Brut Trento DOC

Ferrari Brut Trento DOC (~$25)

Look out, Prosecco — the Trentodoc category is on the rise and promises to give global sparkling wine regions a run for their money. Produced in the heart of Trentino-Alto Adige, these wines are vinified using the metodo classico, which is simply the Italian way of saying traditional method. Ferrari is a leading producer of Trentodoc bubbles. Crafted entirely from Chardonnay, this luminous, easy-to-drink sparkler shows pronounced aromatics and a palate laden with flavors of juicy citrus, peach skin, and a touch of yeast. 

Germany

bottle of Peter Lauer Mosel Riesling Brut Sekt 2017

Peter Lauer Mosel Riesling Brut Sekt 2017 (~$39)

Although Sekt may not be one of the more popular styles of sparkling wine in the United States, this renowned German category of bubbles is absolutely one worth seeking out — especially when produced at the hands of renowned winemaker, Peter Lauer. Produced using the traditional method, this bone dry, Riesling-based sparkler shows flavors of citrus rind, yellow plums, honey, and crushed rocks. The wine is always produced from a single vintage, is hand riddled, and shows the disgorgement date — that is, the day on which the lees were removed from the wine — on the bottle.

U.S.A

bottle of Domaine Carneros Brut

Domaine Carneros Brut NV (~$33)

Domaine Carneros is the California-based project of the famed Champagne house, Taittinger. Unsurprisingly, these American sparkling wines are produced using the traditional method, and are crafted from a combination of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This classic estate Brut is made from nearly equal parts of each grape and shows flavors of apple, peach, and buttered toast on the palate. The wine is suitable for popping and enjoying now, though could certainly withstand a few years in the cellar.

England

bottle of Nyetimber Sussex Classic Cuvée NV

Nyetimber Sussex Classic Cuvée NV (~$40)

Those in the know are aware that England’s sparkling wine producing scene is on the rise. Nyetimber was one of the original pioneers of the country’s bubbly production, as they were the first to craft bottles from Champagne’s famed trio of grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Their Classic Cuvée is produced from a majority of Chardonnay, rounded out with 30% to 40% Pinot Noir and 10% to 20% Meunier. The wine spends an impressive 30 months on its lees prior to release. Golden hued in the glass, the wine shows flavors of baked apples, pastry dough, marzipan, and toast on the palate. Lively acidity and pleasant weightiness lead to an elegant, lengthy finish. Champagne aficionados, this bottle promises to please.