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4 Things That Make Your Sparkling Wine Pop

What is so special about sparkling wine?

“It’s only a champagne blog post if it’s written in the Champagne region of France. Otherwise it’s just sparkling content.”

—An internet meme, adapted.

You may have seen this meme make its way around the internet, not-so-subtly poking fun at that one person you know who needs to act as gatekeeper for the word “champagne.” As a guy who co-owns a wine company, I admit to being that person now and then. But that also means I’m laughing at whoever started this meme, because it still gets the distinction wrong. 

It’s not an either/or scenario. Yes, champagne only comes from the Champagne region of France. But otherwise? It could be prosecco. Or asti. Or cava. It’s only when a bottle is none of the dozens of named sparkling wines in the world do we actually call it sparkling wine. 

Sparkling wine seems to have a lot of confusion around it—maybe even more than still wine—no matter where it comes from. And that makes sense: there are a confounding number of sparkling wines being produced across multiple continents. Most are made using a few different methods, with standards governed by law in some regions while others take a more freestyle approach. The labels seemed designed to deliberately infuriate. Do you like extra-dry sparkling wine? Don’t get a bottle labeled Extra Dry, then, because that will be too sweet for you.

No, there’s nothing wrong with being the “Well, actually” person. Just make sure you’re actually right. To help you with that, here are four things to look for to help you get the most enjoyment out of drinking sparkling wine.

1. Deciphering a sparkling wine label: three things to look out for

Let’s start with the basics: yes, it’s only champagne if it comes from the Champagne region of France. But this doesn’t mean that it’s the best sparkling wine you can buy. The best sparkling wine is the one you like the most. Flavor is subjective and only you get to decide what you like. 

Understanding what’s on the label doesn’t tell you how good the product is. It’s more of a matter of assigning words to your preferences. There’s actually quite a bit of information on a label. However, there are three things to look for that will clue you in as to what’s in the bottle.

  • The Name — This is where the whole “champagne is from Champagne” thing starts, but the name doesn’t always refer to a specific region. Prosecco is named after a small village in the Trieste province of Italy, but bottles of Prosecco can be from any of nine different provinces in the northeastern part of the country. There’s no Cava region in Spain. Instead, they call their sparkling wine that because it was originally made in caves. In all cases, the name can tell you a lot—where it’s from, how it’s made, and what kind of flavor to expect.
  • The Year — Actually, it’s less about the year, and more about whether there’s even a year on the label. Sparkling wines that cite a year on the label are typically of higher quality than those that don’t list a vintage [aka year]. Most sparkling wines are a mix of different years, as its makers aim for a consistent house style, regardless of how well the grapes grow in a given season. In Champagne, the weather isn’t that great for grape growing [go figure]. They’ll have maybe two seasons for every ten where the grape quality is good enough to produce a batch from grapes grown in the same year. In Spain, they like to make fun of the French by pointing out they’ll have maybe two seasons for every ten where the grapes aren’t good enough to produce a single vintage cava. In any case, if you see a year on the label it actually is telling you something about the quality.
  • The Sweetness Level — As mentioned earlier, this part of the label is the most frustrating, a handful of terms telling you how sweet the wine is all based on words that have little to do with taste. The sweetest will be labeled Demi-Sec, which translates to “half-dry.” Below that is Extra Dry, which is sweeter than Brut, a French word meaning “dry” or “raw.” Finally there’s Extra-Brut, the driest of them all.

2. The Glass Matters When Tasting

The first step when tasting a sparkling wine is choosing your glass. We have a quick video explaining this, but the short version is you should ditch the flutes and coupes and stick with a basic, stemmed, white wine glass. This will do the best job of preserving those bubbles while allowing you to fully experience the aromas and flavors in the wine. 

Speaking of flavors, there are many different styles of sparkling wine from every part of the world, but the key to any good sparkling wine is balance. Acidity, sweetness, and richness should work in harmony, with no one flavor dominating. This varies depending on what kind of sparkling wine you’re drinking- for example, proseccos tend to be more acidic and Champagnes more rich, but nothing should be so far out front as to ruin the overall experience.

3. Dispense with the Swirl, but Always be Sniffing Sparkling Wine

Because of TV and movies, the preflight ritual of a wine connoisseur is pretty well known to anyone plugged into pop culture. You hold the glass by the stem, swirl the wine around and then put your nose in the glass, deeply inhaling. With sparkling wine, the sniff is still important—it’s your first line of defense against a drink that’s been corked—but swirling isn’t necessary. In fact, it’s overkill: the point of the swirl is to release aroma compounds into the air, where you can more precisely pick up the different notes of the aroma. With sparkling wine, the bubbles do that for you, rising to the surface and popping.

What if there aren’t many bubbles? Then your sparkling wine might be flat, which you can confirm by drinking it. Flat sparkling wine isn’t the same as corked, by the way. When the sparkle goes flat, it’s due to improper storage—which could mean the cork wasn’t fully sealed, but this still isn’t “corked” wine. This happens when the wine has been tainted by a tiny molecular compound with a boring molecular name that can attach itself to corks. If it’s only been slightly corked, you may not even notice it.

But when it’s really off, it’s really off. And because corked sparkling wine isn’t the same as flat sparkling wine, those bubbles may bring a host of aromas to your nose that you won’t like.

4. What Those Bubbles Can Tell You

After you pour a glass, take a moment to look at the bubbles as they rise to the surface. Are they slowly making their way to the top, or is there some kind of kamikaze swarm of bubbles racing to their end in the atmosphere outside the glass? Are they fine little spheres or big clumsy pearls of gas?

  • Size Matters — When we say size matters, it’s not a matter of supremacy. Bigger isn’t necessarily better, nor is the opposite true. We’ll leave “better” to matters of opinion, and just note here that the size of the bubble hints at both the mouthfeel and the secondary fermentation process. Modern day wines with no regional traditions are infused with CO2 gas when they’re bottled, resulting in larger, more soda-like bubbles that are sharper on the tongue. More traditional methods, like the Méthode Champenoise used for Champagne, can sometimes result in a smoother, more foamy texture, like the head on a beer.
  • Speed Kills — It might surprise you to know that until you open the bottle, your sparkling wine isn’t yet sparkling. There are no bubbles. This is because the bottles are sealed at very high pressure, resulting in very cold temperatures inside the bottle. Carbon dioxide dissolves in liquid at low temperatures; as warm air is introduced to a newly open bottle, the CO2 “undissolves,” creating the bubbles that carry the gas to the surface and into the air. This is why it’s best to serve sparkling wines on ice. The warmer the wine is, the faster the bubbles will release all the carbon dioxide—resulting in a flat drink. And, no, good sparkling wine doesn’t become good wine when it goes flat. It’s just bad sparkling wine. 

Another thing to take note of when you’re tasting is how the bubbles feel in your mouth. Are they sharp on your tongue, or soft and velvety? Do they persist or dissipate quickly? The character of the bubbles is referred to as the wine’s mousse. A soft mousse is considered a sign of quality. 

The world of sparkling wine is vast, with white, rosé, red, and orange styles, and sweetness ranging from bone dry to dessert. Keep an open mind, taste as many different styles and producers as you can, and enjoy discovering your new favorites. If you don’t like a wine, don’t write off the varietal entirely–we can dive into that discussion (when you’re ready).