A Sparkling Wine Primer
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A Sparkling Wine Primer

Sparkling wines have their roots in northern France of the late 17th century, but are now produced the world over, and account for more than 4 percent of American wine consumption (32 million gallons in 2009). Below is a brief primer to many of the major types of sparkling wines (or “sparklers”) from around the world.

Summer is a good time to take a look at any number of light, chilled wines that are typically more refreshing than their red counterparts, and that often play well in apéritifs, spritzers, cocktails and the like: wines like Pinot grigio, Chardonnay and the wine that practically screams “picnic!”––White Zinfandel. But perhaps best-suited to summer sipping may be the class of wines that needs no sidekicks or additions: sparkling wines.

Sparkling wines have their roots in northern France of the late 17th century, but are now produced the world over, and account for more than four percent of American wine consumption (32 million gallons in 2009). Below is a brief primer to many of the major types of sparkling wines (or “sparklers”) from around the world.


This best-known of all sparkling wines is grown in the cool, chalky-soiled French region of Champagne, and regardless of this name often being used generically to describe any sparkler, it can only be properly used for wines produced in this specific region, using the méthode champenoise, typically on a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Pinot meunier grapes.

The méthode champenoise or “Traditional Method” involves a secondary fermentation taking place in the wine’s bottle itself. A mix of sugar and yeast is added to the base wine (“cuvee”) in its bottle, triggering a new round of fermentation. Over time riddling and disgorgement are used to settle and remove the dead yeast sediment (“lees”), and a final dosage of fresh wine and sugar is added at the end to adjust the wine’s final sweetness. According to the EU, the following terms are used to describe a sparkling wine’s sweetness:

  • Brut Natural or Brut Zéro contains less than 3 grams of sugar per liter
  • Extra Brut contains less than 6 grams of sugar per liter
  • Brut contains less than 12 grams of sugar per liter

There are over 5,000 vineyards producing grapes exclusively for use in Champagne.


This wine is produced in the same style as Champagne, and has to meet similar strict guidelines regarding ageing, quality, sweetness, etc. The principal difference lies in this wine’s region of origin as defined by France’s Appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) regulations. “Champagne” can only be grown in the Champagne region, but there are eight appellations for Crémant, seven in France, one in Luxembourg:

  • Crémant d'Alsace
  • Crémant de Bordeaux
  • Crémant de Bourgogne
  • Crémant de Die
  • Crémant du Jura
  • Crémant de Limoux
  • Crémant de Loire
  • Crémant de Luxembourg

In theory other regions in the EU could legally label a sparkling wine that met all the appropriate criteria as “Crémant,” but this is rarely done.


Cava (from the Latin word for “cave”) is a Spanish sparkling wine dating from the 1870s, fermented by the Traditional Method. It is largely (though not exclusively) produced in the Penedès region in Catalonia, south-west of Barcelona, using Macabeo, Parellada, Xarel·lo, Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Subirat grapes. Cava is integral to many Spanish family traditions, including baptisms and weddings.


This is the Portuguese sparkler, grown throughout Portugal since the early-mid 20th century. The highest-quality, Traditional Method wine, labeled “VEQPRD” (Vinho Espumante de Qualidade Produzido em Região Determinada), comes strictly from the Bairrada region just south of Vinho Verde. Other high-grade sparklers (labeled “VFQPRD”) are available from the country’s five other major wine-growing regions.


Sekt is quality sparkling wine from Germany, as opposed to Schaumwein (cheap sparkling wine made with CO2 injection––the same way soda is carbonated) or the semi-sparkling wine called Perlwein. It is often made from grapes or wines from other countries, but Sekt made from grapes (typically Riesling, Pinot blanc, Pinot gris and Pinot noir) grown only in Germany’s 13 quality wine regions are labeled Sekt b.A. (bestimmter Anbaugebiete).

Unlike French or Spanish sparkling wine, however, only a small fraction (5%) of Sekt is fermented using the Traditional Method. The majority of this wine is fermented using the Charmat method. This process takes place in pressurized stainless steel tanks where a yeast-and-sugar mixture is added to the wine and allowed to ferment. The wine is then cooled, clarified and bottled.

Sekt has been produced in Germany since the 1820s, and similar wines have been bottled in Austria since 1846.


Sparkling wines have been made in Italy since the late 1860s, but the term “Spumante” did not arise until 1908. As with Sekt, most Italian sparklers are fermented using the Charmat method (Asti and Prosecco, for instance), though a few (most notably Franciacorta from the Lombard region) are produced by the Traditional Method.

The Trento region also features several high-quality, Traditional Method-produced sparkling wines that are required to rest on their lees for as long as 36 months, in some cases (similar to Champagne). These wines tend to use blends of Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Pinot blanc and Pinot meunier grapes.


Hungarian production of this sparkling wine dates back to the 1820s around Bratislava, though it is now largely produced in the Budai Mountains near Budapest. Hungary had many thriving wineries through the late-19th century and into the 1940s when Soviet domination stifled the industry after WWII.

Since the fall of communism, Hungarian Charmat method wines, mostly using Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Riesling grapes, have begun to come out of the shadows and reestablish their historic roots. A few Traditional Method sparklers are beginning to emerge, too, as is the use of more native grapes, like Olaszrizling.

North American Sparklers

The Korbel brothers began making sparkling wine using the Traditional Method in California’s Sonoma Valley in 1892, and production has grown steadily since then, especially after several of Europe’s largest Champagne makers (e.g. Moët et Chandon and Tattinger) set up operations in Napa and Sonoma in the 1970s.

American sparkling wines are not subject to the kind of rigorous regulations seen in France, and many are produced using the Charmat method, but most top-shelf producers also make sparklers using the Traditional Method, and apply similar terminology to sugar levels. The major difference is that American wineries tend to use fewer grapes from fewer vintages in their cuvee blends, and do not usually age them as long on the lees.

Australian Sparklers

Australia began making their specialty Shiraz-based red wine sparkler in the 1860s, but the majority of their sparkling wine comes from Chardonnay and Pinot noir grapes grown in Tasmania and the Yarra Valley, utilizing both the Traditional and Charmat methods.

Cap Classique

Though viniculture in South Africa dates back to the late 1650s, their sparkling wine, Cap Classique, was first produced in 1971. This is typically a Sauvignon blanc and Chenin blanc blend, fermented using the Traditional Method. Recently more Chardonnay and Pinot noir grapes have been used in the blends.

Semi-Sparkling Wines

Though fully sparkling wines’ CO2 pressures can vary from 3 to 6 atmospheres, depending on the type, semi-sparkling wines are differentiated by their lower CO2 pressures––often less than half that of equivalent sparkling wines, resulting in less effervescence. Sparklers in this category include German spritzig, Italian frizzante and French petillant wines, and several American clones of these types (particularly frizzante).

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Comments (2)

Thank you. I needed this info. Wines are not labelled as to sparkling or not. Now I know what to look for.

And this just touches the surface, as any good Frenchman could tell you! :)