Sparkling into the new year: A primer on bubbly—how it’s made, and where it’s made 

Napoleon is credited with saying, “Champagne! In victory, one deserves it; in defeat, one needs it!”  

I couldn’t agree more. Bubbles are magical, and the pair with nearly every food, every emotion and every event. 

But not all sparkling wines are created the same. Different production methods affect everything from how a wine looks and tastes, to the amount of bubbles it has, and even the mouthfeel. There are four common methods of creating sparkling wines—the traditional method, the tank method, the ancestral method and carbonation.  

The ancestral method is the original way to create sparkling wine. This process was discovered because some wine can continue to ferment in the bottle—creating carbon dioxide after the cork is installed. The pressure in the bottle is on the low end—two to four atmospheres (ATM), or 30 to 60 PSI, which means fewer and larger bubbles. These wines will often say méthode ancestrale, méthode rurale or pétillant naturel (pet-nat) on the label. 

The most common method of producing quality sparkling wine is the traditional method; it’s also the most labor-intensive and the most expensive, with the sparkling wine produced exclusively inside a bottle. This method involves seven steps, one of which is aging the wine in the bottle on its lees. Lees are mostly the spent yeast cells created during the fermentation process. Typically, the longer the wine spends on its lees, the better the sparkling wine is. The pressure in the bottle is between five and seven atmospheres, or roughly 75 to 99 PSI. That is more pressure than a semi-truck tire. (In other words: Be careful while opening one of these bottles!) The labels of sparkling wines produced using this method will include a term such as méthode champenoise, méthode traditionnelle, methode cap classique, metodo classico, or klassische flaschengärung. 

The tank method, developed in the early 1900s, involves a secondary fermentation and carbon dioxide production in a large stainless-steel tank, not the bottle itself. This method does not involve aging or the wine setting on lees, so the resulting wines are lighter and brighter. This method is far less expensive than the traditional method and is typically used to produce prosecco and lambrusco. These sparkling wines will have on the label a term like Charmat method, metodo Italiano or cuvée close. The pressure in the bottle is between two and four atmospheres, or 30 to 60 PSI.  

If you are buying a sparkling wine at your local drug store in the sub-$12 range, it was most likely made by injecting carbon dioxide directly into it, like soda-makers do. This is called the carbonation method, and most wine-lovers will tell you these wines should be avoided, even if you are just making mimosas. Winemakers usually don’t reveal the use of this method on the label, so if you are looking at a sparkling-wine bottle that doesn’t mention one of the other methods, consider yourself warned. 

Now that we know how sparkling wine is produced, let’s discuss how the name of a sparkling wine can tell you where it was made.  

Champagne: Champagne only comes from the Champagne region in northeastern France, about a 45-minute train ride out of Paris. Most Champagnes are made from a blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and meunier grapes. Most Champagnes are made in a non-vintage style, meaning the wine comes from different harvest years and is identified with “NV” on the label. Champagne must be produced using the méthode champenoise. 

Crémant: If a sparkling wine is from France and not from Champagne, it is most likely a crémant. Crémants are made in the same style as Champagne, but can be made from different grape varieties. Crémants are generally less expensive than Champagne, and some of the best come from the Loire Valley, Alsace and Burgundy. 

Cava: Cava is a sparkling wine produced in several regions in Spain. Cava can be made with local grapes or from chardonnay or pinot noir grapes. Cavas are generally less acidic than Champagnes and crémants, making them easy-drinking and affordable sparklers.  

Prosecco: Prosecco is produced in northeastern Italy with a grape known as glera. Prosecco is the most-produced sparkling wine in the world by volume. Slightly sweeter than a cava or a French sparkling wine, prosecco can be a great, affordable option. This is the sparkling wine used by most restaurants that pour bottomless mimosas for brunch.  

Asti: Asti, also known as Asti spumante, is a sweet and refreshing wine from northern Italy. Made from moscato grapes, Asti is a lower-alcohol sparkling wine with flavor notes closer to peaches than citrus. Moscato d’Asti is a less-sweet, lightly sparkling wine from the same region. 

Lambrusco: Lambrusco is also from northern Italy. While other types of sparkling wines are whites or rosés, lambrusco is a red sparkling wine produced from the lambrusco grape. Yes, they look amazing on a holiday table. Lambruscos range in color from pale to deep purple and in sweetness from dry to semi-sweet.  

Whatever your sparkling-wine preference is, let’s all pop a cork and give toast to a happy 2024!