Champagne 101: A Beginner's Guide to Navigating the Sparkling Wine Aisle
What’s the difference between champagne and sparkling wine? This primer has everything you wanted to know about everyone’s favorite bubbly, including how to use it in dazzling cocktails.
We all enjoy popping a bottle of bubbly during the holidays or on special occasions—but can you confidently say you know and understand what’s in that bottle? Champagne and sparkling wine terms can be confusing so we’re here to break it down: From the different types of sparkling wine like prosecco, brut, and cava, to champagne cocktail recipes to try out at your next party, we’ve got you covered on all things sparkling.
What is Champagne?
Though we tend to use the term for all sorts of bubbles, Champagne is a specific sparkling wine from Champagne, a region in the northeast of France. The region’s geography, chalky soil, and location mean the grapes are picked with higher acidity—affecting the taste of your bubbly. The most common grapes used in champagne are Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay (though Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Petit Meslier, and Arbane are also used, very occasionally). Champagne is typically a white wine, but rosé Champagne or pink Champagne is usually made by adding a little bit of red wine, or letting the grape skins ferment for a little while with the juice.
Champagne vs. Sparkling Wine
A general rule of thumb: While all Champagne is sparkling wine, not all sparkling wine can technically be called Champagne—it all comes down to how and where it’s bottled. Here’s what they all have in common: They’re all wines that bubble when poured, due to carbon dioxide incorporated during the bottling process. They’re usually white wines that are on the brut/dry side (though technically, they can be any color and any sweetness). And they usually contain between 5.5% and 12% alcohol content.
But here’s how they differ. Sparkling wine can come from any part of the world, while Champagne must be from the Champagne region in France and made using the traditional Champagne method. In other words, you’ll never see a sparkling wine from Italy labeled as "Italian Champagne" or prosecco Champagne. Sparkling wines vary based on the country of origin and the method by which they’re prepared. Here are a few types of sparkling wines that you’re probably familiar with:
Cava: This sparkling wine comes from Spain, and is made by the traditional Champagne method. It has an earthy aroma because of the low-altitude locations of the vineyards in this region.
Prosecco: This is a grape variety that’s now used in mostly sparking wines from northern Italy made in different fermentation process from Champagne called charmat. These sparkling wines usually have a bitter finish because of the cooler climate of the region.
Sekt: This dry variety of sparkling wine comes from Germany and Austria. Pinot and Riesling grapes are usually used in this variety.
Moscato d’Asti: This lightly sparkling wine made from Muscat grapes is from the Piedmont region of Italy. It’s sweet and has gentle bubbles, which is why it’s often served as a dessert wine.
Types of Champagne
If you stand stumped in the wine aisle, here’s a primer: There are three major types of champagne and they can all vary dramatically in price, quality, and taste.
- Non-vintage/multiple vintage champagnes tend to be the cheapest, and are usually a blend of more than two grape harvests, with a majority of the wine base coming from the current harvest, while 20% to 40% comes from previous, vintage harvests.
- Vintage Champagne comes from a single vintage harvest, and tends to be middle-ground in terms of price and quality.
- “Prestige” cuvee Champagnes are the most expensive—they are made from a single vintage harvest, are usually made from the best grapes (meaning less of it is made), and have longer aging requirements.
While Champagnes are usually a blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay grapes, there are three specific styles to choose from that you’ll see on the bottle labels.
Blanc de Blancs: These Champagnes are made from entirely from Chardonnay, a white grape—“blanc de blanc” literally means “white of whites” and is often described as having mild citrusy notes and can pair well with food.
Blanc de Noirs: Meaning “White of blacks,” blanc de noir is usually a blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes and has more of a pronounced berry flavor than the blanc de blanc. These Champagnes still appear white, though—the grape skins are removed immediately after pressing the grapes so they don’t color the wine.
Rosé Champagne: Rosé Champagne is made by blending a little bit of red Pinot Noir wine with a blanc Champagne which is what gives it a festive pink color. These tend to taste crisp, fruity, and acidic.
A mixture of sugar and wine called dosage is added to the bottle before the final corking, and it’s what determines the Champagne’s sweetness. Check out these labels on the bottle to know exactly what level of sweetness or dryness you’re getting.
Source: Food Lover's Companion
Champagne and Sparkling Wine Cocktail Ideas
While some purists may argue that Champagne should only be enjoyed alone, we argue that champagne and sparkling wine cocktails are fun, flavorful, and festive ways to enjoy your bubbly. Here are some of our favorites that are guaranteed crowd-pleasers for parties and entertaining.
Champagne and moonshine may seem like an unlikely combo, but it works together perfectly in this festive sparkler. Lemon bitters and limoncello tie it all together.
Aatxe Aperitivo (Sparkling Cava Cocktail)
We use a brut cava for this sparkling cocktail but a good prosecco would work just as well.
You’re probably familiar with a classic OJ mimosa—we take the boozy brunch favorite a step further by mixing blood orange juice and blood orange bitters with sparkling wine for a new twist.
While peach bellinis are tradition, this berry spin is equally perfect for summertime sipping. Bonus: You can make the strawberry base in advance, so this cocktail works well when entertaining for a crowd.
If you aren’t familiar with the distinctly tropical taste of litchi, it’s likely to become your new favorite. This cocktail only has three ingredients, and looks stunning to serve.