There's nothing more festive than a glass of Champagne or sparkling wine. We toast the old and new years with glasses of bubbly, send brides and grooms into their new lives with raised glasses and kick off holiday celebrations with that well-known popping cork sound. While Champagne holds pride of place in the lexicon of sparkling wines, there are several affordable alternatives available, including Prosecco from Italy and Cava from Spain. Let's take a closer look at Champagne, Prosecco and Cava.
Champagne takes its name from its region of origin in northeastern France. According to French wine law, only three wine grape varietals may be used in Champagne; namely, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Typically, producers use up to 60 still wines, perhaps including reserve wines from prior years' vintages, to create a particular Champagne. After the harvest, individual wines are fermented either in old oak casks or in stainless steel. The winemaker blends these wines and then adds yeasts and a wine/sugar combination, which kicks off the fermentation process once the soon-to-be-Champagne is bottled. This second fermentation, which takes place in individual bottles, gives Champagne its signature bubbles.
The Champagne must be aged in the bottle for an amount of time specified by French wine law. Nonvintage Champagnes rest on the lees for at least 15 months, while vintage (single-harvest) and prestige cuvée Champagnes age for a minimum of three years. The bottles are riddled, or turned and re-angled, to encourage the yeasts to move toward the necks of the bottles. The angle is gradually increased until the bottles are completely upside down. The necks are then frozen so that the yeasts may be removed. The resulting small space inside the bottle is filled with reserve wine and a bit of sugar. The Champagne bottles are corked, and the distribution process begins.
The hands-on aspects of making Champagne certainly add to its cost, but they also enhance the taste of even nonvintage Champagnes. In-bottle aging decreases the size of the Champagne bubbles (smaller bubbles denote higher quality), as does cellar temperature. The riddling process takes time and requires great care. To many consumers, the extra cost is more than justified by the quality of the product.
Prosecco is a sparkling wine that comes from northeastern Italy. The Prosecco DOC includes the Veneto and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia regions. The Coneglio Valdobbiadene DOCG, the only area that is permitted to produce Prosecco Superiore, encompasses an area in the province of Treviso bounded by the Piave River, near the town of Valdobbiadene, the town of Vittorio Veneto and the town of Coneglio. The name "Prosecco Superiore" indicates a wine from the Coneglio Valdobbiadene DOCG, while the name "Prosecco" indicates a wine from the Prosecco DOC. According to Italian and European Union wine laws, all other wines made from the Prosecco grape must bear its alternate name, "Glera," instead of "Prosecco."
Prosecco is made from Prosecco grapes, of course; some producers blend in Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco and other varietals. Producers use the Charmat process to make Prosecco. This method, which involves using large stainless steel tanks rather than individual bottles for the second fermentation, results in a sparkling wine which should be drunk within a year or so of purchase. Wine critics hold widely-varying opinions on the quality of Prosecco wines, but there is no question about the soaring popularity of this Italian sparkling wine, particularly in the export market.
Cava, Spain's famous sparkling wine, dates back to the middle of the 19th century. Cava wine labels often include the words “método tradicional,” which, of course, means “traditional method," the same method used by Champagne producers in France. In 1872, Josep Raventós i Fatjó of Cordoníu, used this method, including a second fermentation in the bottle, to create Spain's first true Cava wine. Spanish sparkling wines were called "Espumosos" until 1983, when the name "Cava" was officially given to the wine.
Cava, although it has an official Denomination of Origin (DO), does not come from a geographically-limited region. Instead, the DO designation pertains to the location of the vineyards used and to the method of production. Cava wines must be made from grapes grown in vineyards in one of seven Spanish political regions, and they must be produced using the método tradicional. Traditionally, Cava wines were made using a blend of Macabeo (Viura), Xarel.lo and Parellada wine grapes. Today, blends may also include Chardonnay, Garnacha, Monastrell, Pinot Noir, Subirat or Trepat.
Top Champagne, Prosecco and Cava Picks
To help you choose a sparkling wine for your celebration, IntoWine.com spoke with two wine professionals and asked them which Champagnes, Cavas and Proseccos they recommend for this holiday season.
Wine expert and business consultant Gary Vaynerchuk, whose Wine Library TV and Wine Library website are Internet sensations, offers his picks for holiday sparkling wines.
For Cava devotees, Vaynerchuk recomends Cavas Hill Brut at $10 per bottle. He says, "Cava seriously delivers for those who love a drier Champagne style. With lots of peaches on the nose and some delicious green apple flavors on the palate, this sparkler is a great party wine! With the nice acid on the finish as well, the Cavas Hill is superb for food pairings and an absolute steal at this price."
If Prosecco is more to your taste, Vaynerchuk suggests Ca Furlan Prosecco, which also costs about $10 per bottle. "For something interesting and a little different," he says," Prosecco is a great bet. This has a really pretty nose with some pear and white flower notes and what's really cool is...a marzipan fruit note. On the palate, this wine has a touch of sweetness, some mint notes, nice acid and a very interesting sparkler! This is an out and out win for $10 a bottle."
Vaynerchuk suggests that Champagne lovers try something different this holiday season. He recommends Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé, which sells for $75 per bottle. Vaynerchuk says, "So many people are scared of pink wine...especially pink bubbles and that's just ridiculous! The Billecart rose is a super serious rosé Champagne that has delicious citrus and red fruit flavors and a super long (and dry) finish."
Erik Kelley, Sommelier at The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, recommends a pair of holiday sparkling wines.
For a holiday Prosecco, Kelley suggests Costadilá Articoltura. "This wine changes everything you know about Prosecco," Kelley says, adding, "Incredible structure, notes of pear and mineral on the palate. The wine is fermented regularly and then dried grapes are pressed and added to the pressed fruit, then added to bottle for a secondary fermentation. The wine is never disgorged and come to market bearing a crown cap. Unbelievable value at $20."
Kelley's Champagne selection is Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Champagne "Cuis Premier Cru" Brut Blanc de Blancs Nonvintage. This Champagne," Kelley says, "is made from 100% Chardonnay grapes. This Champagne is very angular; light and refreshing with just enough yeast. Typical champagne aromatic with a little bit of citrus. It's light enough to be an apéritif, yet structured to go with food. It would be great with oyster dressing and other holiday foods, including richer white sauces."
 MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. New York: Workman Publishing, 2001. 161 – 175. Print.