Champagne, cava, prosecco... sparkling wines come in many styles – Toast digs into the differences to help you choose the best bubbly
With the celebration season just around the corner, now is the perfect time to start stocking up on bubbly to enjoy on those balmy summer evenings. While there is an understandable temptation to stick with well-known premium French champagne labels, Master Sommelier and lecturer in wine and beverages at Auckland University of Technology, Cameron Douglas, says price does not always dictate quality.
“I think people who are a little more adventurous should start in the middle ground, around the $30 to $35 mark,” says Cameron. He reasons that at this price people can try different types of sparkling wine – prosecco, cava, champagne, brut – until they find the one they like the most.
“I also think it’s a good idea, if you visit a local store regularly, to ask the wine seller for advice. They should be able to point you in the direction of something that will suit your tastebuds and your occasion.”
So what are the differences between them all?
For starters, champagne is a sparkling wine but not all sparkling wines can be called champagne. Champagne can only legally be labelled as such if it’s made in the Champagne region of France using the method traditionelle technique. According to popular myth, champagne was the result of a happy accident. When winemaking monk Dom Perignon went to check the cellars after a particularly harsh winter in the early 1600s, he found the corks had exploded from many of the bottles. Those remaining intact were carbonated. Expecting the twice-fermented wine to taste awful he instead loved the fizzy sensation and apparently said, “Come quickly, I am tasting the stars”. Thus, champagne was born.
It became renowned as a celebratory drink when French aristocrats switched to it from wine during coronations. Visitors from other parts of Europe began to enjoy this new found tipple and began importing it to drink at their own special events. The British were early adopters and drinking champagne there soon became a status symbol. However, the Spanish and the Italians went one step further developing their own versions, cava and prosecco.
While cava and Champagne are essentially made in the same way using a mixture of bottle fermented chardonnay and pinot noir grapes, prosecco uses a single grape variety and is fermented in a tank. Prosecco tends to have slightly less fizz as a result and a slightly sweeter, more fruity flavour.
“Prosecco is a very specific style of fruity sparkling wine,” says Cameron. “There are a number of different sub regions in Italy making prosecco and these all have a character of their own so take the time to get to know them and experiment.”
Sparkling wines from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and even England are starting to rival their European counterparts. Sparkling wine made using the same process as Champagne will have “methode traditionelle”, “bottle fermented” or “methode champenoise” on the label and they are a great alternative to more pricey French champagnes.
“England is beginning to make its mark as a producer,” says Cameron. With global warming they are now able to ripen their fruit to the right level and in blind tastings English sparkling wine is often confused with French champagne.”
Tips for buying and storing
- Never buy the first bottle on the shelf, always select at least the third one back as it will have had less exposure to sunlight.
- Store it in a cool dark place, never in the kitchen.
- If you are keeping it for a long time it’s best to store horizontally, otherwise it’s okay to keep it vertically for up to a year.
- If possible, keep it inside the cardboard box.
- The key to serving the perfect glass of sparkling wine is in the preparation. If a bottle has been stored lying down, stand it upright for several hours or ideally a day before chilling. This will calm it down and make it less volatile when opening.
- “The perfect temperature to drink sparkling wine is 8°C,” recommends Cameron. “As most fridges are set between 2–4°C it’s a good idea to pull a bottle out of the fridge a good 10 minutes or so before serving to let it to warm up slightly. This allows the flavours to develop a lot more.”
Tips for serving
- Ideally a bottle should be chilled for a day before serving but if you have surprise guests, the process can be hastened by wrapping a bottle in a wet tea towel and pop into the freezer for 15 minutes. Alternatively, half fill an ice bucket with a combination of ice and water and add salt. The ice cools the water and the water cools the bubbly. The salt helps to raise the freezing temperature of the water without actually freezing it and a bottle should be ready to drink within 20 minutes.
- First remove the foil and then – while still holding the cork in place with your thumb, as the pressure inside is the equivalent of five car tyres worth – remove the wire cage.
- Tilt the bottle to a 45-degree angle and then slowly but firmly ease the cork out. Instead of a pop, the aim is a small sigh. A pop means too many of the gasses will shoot out making the contents flatter faster.
- Slowly pour an inch into each glass and then continue to top up bit by bit until each is full and enjoy.
Five ways with sparkling wine
- Add a shot of creme de cassis to a glass of sparkling wine and garnish with fresh thyme to make a Thyme and Cassis Spritz – summer in a glass.
- Make a Bubbles Negroni by placing 45ml each of sweet vermouth and Campari into a chilled shaker, blend and then strain into a glass. Top with prosecco and add a slither of orange zest.
- The Lush was created in New York and is a gorgeous pre-dinner cocktail. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice and add 30ml vodka, 15ml Grand Marnier and 1½ teaspoons of elderflower cordial and shake. Strain into a chilled martini glass and top with sparkling rosé and pop in pomegranate seeds for colour and a hint of bitterness.
- Take the classic mimosa to the next level by using blood orange juice and adding a dash of rosemary syrup. Serve with sparkling wine in a fluted glass and garnish with a spring of rosemary – super refreshing.
- To make a Slushy Bellini for two, blend a cup of frozen peaches together with 60ml peach schnapps, two tablespoons sparkling wine, a teaspoon of sugar and a couple of cubes of ice. Pour into glasses and top off with more sparkling wine and add a sprinkle of dried raspberry.
Story by Nicole Curin-Birch