When it comes to sparkling wine, three names shine prominently on the global stage: Cava, Prosecco, and Champagne. I am often asked “What’s the difference between them?” and “Why is Champagne so expensive?!”
This blog post is not exhaustive for each area, but more of an overview to discuss the main differences between each style.
Each has its own unique charm, crafted in distinct regions and with different techniques. Understanding the nuances of these effervescent delights will enhance your appreciation for their diverse flavors and styles. In this guide, we’ll explore the origins, winemaking techniques, aging processes, and pricing differences that set them apart.
Cava: The Spanish Sparkler
Cava hails from Spain, primarily the Penedès region in Catalonia. Spain’s warm climate allows grapes to ripen fully, resulting in a wine with a lighter body.
- Macabeo (Viura): Known for its delicate floral and citrus notes.
- Xarello: Adds body with flavors of green apple and lemon.
- Parellada: Offers freshness and acidity with apple and pear notes.
Cava uses the Traditional Method, the same technique employed in Champagne. See below for the Champagne winemaking method. This process involves a second fermentation in the bottle, imparting complexity and finesse. Typically, Cava ages on the lees (dead yeast cells) for anywhere between 9-12 months. Then, a big machine called a Gyropalette (which Spain invented) turns about 800 bottles at a time, slowly upside down to get the yeast cells to fall to the top of the bottles. Then, they will be disgorged and topped off with fresh sparkling wine.
Cava typically undergoes a minimum of nine months of aging. However, premium Cava often ages for much longer, enhancing its richness and depth.
Cava often offers exceptional value due to lower labor costs (due to the gyropalette), making it a more affordable option. Look for producers like Dibon for accessible choices, or explore Gramona for higher-end selections.
Prosecco: The Italian Elegance
Prosecco is proudly Italian, with its heart in the Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia regions. The cooler climate in these areas contributes to grapes with balanced ripeness and crisp acidity.
- Glera: Known for its bright green apple and floral notes.
Prosecco primarily uses the Charmat or tank method. In this approach, the second fermentation occurs in large, pressurized, tanks, preserving the wine’s freshness and adding carbonation through the pressurized tanks.
Prosecco is typically aged for a shorter period, maintaining its youthful and fruit-forward character.
Prosecco is often more budget-friendly due to its cost-effective production method. By doing both fermentations in large tanks instead of individual bottles it cuts down on a lot of time and container space. Consider brands like Corazza Prosecco Extra Dry from Treviso Italy for accessible choices or indulge in Bisol’s premium offerings.
Champagne: The French Classic
Champagne, the epitome of luxury, calls the Champagne region of France home. The region’s cooler climate results in grapes with high acidity and delicate flavors. Now, for Champagne to be “Champagne” it needs to be from Champagne. Everywhere in the E.U. acknowledges this, so anyone selling in or out of the E.U. has to accomodate this.
The people in California? They don’t really care (which is rude in my opinion). So if you see “Champagne” on a label, but it’s made in the United States – it might be in the same method of Champagne, France, but it’s not a guarantee – and it’s not – well – Champagne. While it can be exceptional quality sparkling wine, it’s not Champagne.
So, we are talking purely about Champagne from Champagne, France. The real deal.
- Chardonnay: Imparts citrus, green apple, and mineral notes.
- Pinot Noir: Adds red berry and structural elements.
- Pinot Meunier: Contributes fruitiness and roundness.
Champagne employs the traditional method, which is labor-intensive. First, the winemaker crafts a still base wine. Then he/she adds a small amount of active yeast to each bottle before closing it with a crown cap (think a beer bottle style cap). Then, the bottle ages with those yeast cells for a minimum of 9 months. Each bottle undergoes individual riddling where the bottles are gently shaken and slowly turned upside down (over the course of weeks).
Once the aging on the lees time is finished, the neck of the bottle (where all that yeast is now) gets flash frozen. The pressure from the sparkling wine (carbon dioxide was created as a byproduct by the yeast eating the sugars in the wine creating alcohol) allows the frozen sediment to shoot out of the bottle. The bottle is then topped with a small amount of house sparkling wine and sweetness if desired. This entire process leads to complexity and elegance.
Champagne demands extensive aging, with non-vintage varieties aged for a minimum of 15 months and vintage varieties for several years.
Champagne often commands a higher price due to its meticulous production. For accessible options, explore Nicolas Feuillatte, or my personal favorite, M. Brugnon Selection Brut Champagne ($40), or splurge on prestige cuvées like the vintage 2009 Billecart-Salmon Cuvee Louis Blanc de Blancs Millesime Champagne ($250). Vintage Champagnes are made only in the best years, with grapes picked solely from that vintage.
The world of sparkling wine is as diverse as it is delightful. Cava, Prosecco, and Champagne each offer a unique experience shaped by their region, winemaking technique, aging process, and pricing. Whether you’re raising a glass to celebrate or savoring a quiet moment, understanding the differences between these three sparkling gems will guide you to the perfect bottle for any occasion.
Indulge in the effervescence of Cava, the elegance of Prosecco, and the luxury of Champagne—each a sparkling star in its own right.
What is your favorite style of sparkling wine? I’d love to hear about it!
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