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A Sommelier’s Guide to Sparkling Wines

The New Year is approaching and with it the age old tradition of ringing it in with a glass or more of sparkling wine with friends. But which sparkling wine is best? What options are there?


Sparkling wine is a broad category of wines produced from all the major wine regions around the world using a number of different grape combinations and production techniques.


You’ve likely heard of Champagne, Cava, and Prosecco, but sparkling wines go by many other names as well - Crémant, Spumante, Espumoso, Mousseux, Franciacorta, Lambrusco, Trentodoc, Sekt, etc. Let’s take a deeper look into some of these, the different production methods, and the hallmark wines of the various sparkling wine producing regions around the world.


A Brief History of Sparkling Wine

The history of sparkling wine goes back to the early 1500s as more of an accident in the Languedoc region of France. Fermentation was thought to have completed, but likely really halted from the cold weather. Wine was bottled and stored for the winter. Spring came, temperatures rose, and the fermentation process began again, only this time in the enclosed bottle where the fermentation process generated enough CO2 to begin to carbonate the wine. This same process is now called the ancestral method, but now clearly used intentionally to produce mostly pétillant naturel, aka pét-nat wines.


Sparkling Wine Production Methods


The production method matters in terms of quality, sweetness, flavor, bubbles/fizz, etc. of the wine. There are 6 primary methods for producing sparkling wine:


●     Traditional Method, aka Champagne Method, Classic Method

●     Tank Method, aka Charmat, Cuvée Close, Metodo Italiano

●     Ancestral Method, aka Méthode Rurale, Pétillant Naturel (pet-nat)

●     Transfer Method, aka Transversage

●     Continuous Method, aka Russian Method

●     Carbonation


The simplest and cheapest approach here is obviously carbonation, which is just adding CO2 to still wine akin to how soda pop is made. There are no quality sparkling wines made via this method.


In our brief historical reference, we already covered the ancestral method, but there are several others worth learning about to truly understand what's currently available and their characteristics.


The transfer method is largely used for producing sparkling wine for small or large format bottles. The process moves the sparkling wine from the bottle following the second fermentation, but before removing the related sediment, into a pressurized tank, from which the wine is filtered and then bottled.


The continuous or Russian method is used by very few producers as means of trying to replicate the textural and flavor profiles of the traditional method at a production cost point akin to the much cheaper tank method. Here yeast is added continually to pressurized tanks to increase the total pressure to that of the traditional method (5 atmospheres). Once the desired pressure is achieved, the wine is moved to another tank where flavor enhancers, including wood chips, are added to try to replicate the richness achieved via the lees aging of the traditional method described later.


The Champagne Method


The traditional or Champagne method is the standard for quality sparkling wine production, regardless of wine region or grape. Most of the quality sparkling wine in the world is made via the traditional method. These include:


●     Champagne - Traditional method sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France largely from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Meunier grapes

●     Crémant - Traditional method sparkling wine made in France outside of the Champagne region made from grapes specific to the region

●     Cava - Traditional method sparkling wine made largely in the Penedes subregion of Catalonia, Spain from the Macabeo, Xarel-lo, or Paralleda grapes.

●     Franciacorta - Traditional method sparkling wine made in the Franciacorta region of Lombardy, Italy from Chardonnay, Pinot Nero (Noir), or Pinot Bianco grapes

●     Cap Classique - Traditional method sparkling wine made in South Africa from any number of different grape varieties


The steps in the traditional or Champagne method include:


●     1st Alcoholic Fermentation - the freshly pressed juice is converted into a dry base wine or vin clair. Each variety that may end up in the final wine is fermented separately here.

●     Blending or Assemblage - all the vins clairs are blended together to make the cuvée, which is the winemaker’s target profile. To ensure consistency from year to year for a specific brand, the winemaker will use reserve vins clair from previous vintages.  

●     Bottling or Tirage - the cuvée is bottled along with a mixture of yeast and sugar, or liqueur de tirage, that will start the 2nd fermentation process (and the associated carbonation). A temporary crown cap is placed on the bottle until disgorgement

●     Storing and Aging - bottles are stored and aged sur lie, or on the “lees,” which refers to the yeast cells that die after fermentation completes in the bottle - the longer the sur lie aging, the finer the bubbles and the richer the wine becomes

●     Riddling or Remuage - the bottles are rotated by hand or machine to move the dead lees to the neck of the bottle

●     Disgorgement or Degorgement - the necks of the bottles are frozen, the caps removed along with the dead yeast cells that had gathered during the riddling process

●     Dosage - when the dead lees are removed, there is space in the bottle that the winemaker will need to top off with a mixture of reserve wine and, in most cases, sugar


Non-Vintage v Vintage and Traditional Method Sparkling Wines


Depending on the winemaker and the quality of the production process, traditional method sparkling wines can age gracefully for decades. Still, most traditional method sparkling wines are non-vintage (NV). Much of the reason for producing wines NV is to ensure consistency year over year. As noted in the assemblage step above, this is achieved by blending several reserve vins clairs from any number of previous vintages to the vin clair of the current vintage to achieve the desired cuvée prior to the 2nd fermentation. Roughly 80% of sparkling wine sold in the US is NV.


Vintage sparkling wines are usually reserved for the best harvest years. Over the past 20 years, the best years for vintage Champagne in order of quality include: 2008, 2012, 2015, 2006. 2002, 2009, and 2015. If you’re lucky enough to land a 2008 Champagne, consider yourself lucky enough. 


Tank or Charmat Method


The tank or Charmat method or Metodo Italiano is the 2nd most used production technique in the world. The major differences between the tank and traditional methods is that with the tank method, the 2nd fermentation takes place in a tank and there is no sur lie aging, or aging on the lees. This eliminates the high cost of aging, etc., associated with the traditional method, and produces wines that are more fresh tasting and more focused on the flavor of the fruit. These wines include:


●     Prosecco - Made from the Glera grape found in the Veneto and Fruili Venezia Giulia regions of Northeast Italy


●     Lambrusco - Made from the various Lambrusco varieties found in the Emilia Romagna region of Central Italy


●     Asti Spumante - Made from the Moscato grape found in the Piedmont region of Northwest Italy


●     Brachetto d’Aqui - A sweet red sparkling wine made from the Brachetto grape found in the Piedmont region of Northwest Italy


●     Mousseux - Charmat method sparkling wines made in several wine regions across France from grapes local to those regions


Most tank method sparkling wines are meant to be consumed within a couple of years of production. As such vintages rarely matter.


Effervescence Levels Of Sparkling Wine


Depending on the production technique, the level of effervescence or spritz or fizz or bubble varies across the different sparkling wine types. This mainly affects the taste and mouthfeel of the wine. The greater the spritz, the finer the bubbles. This is measured in bottle pressure atmospheres (ATM), which can be translated into pounds per square inch (psi). The ATM/psi by production method is as follows:


●     Traditional Method - 5-7 ATM / 75-99 psi

●     Tank Method - 2-4 ATM / 30-60 psi

●     Ancestral Method - 2-4 ATM / 30-60 psi

●     Transfer Method - 5-7 ATM / 75-99 psi

●     Continuous Method - 4-5 ATM / 6–75 psi

●     Carbonation - 3 ATM / 45 psi 


Sweetness Levels of Sparkling Wine


Sweetness levels in sparkling wine vary widely across wines from bone dry to dessert sweet. This is largely driven by the residual sugar (sugar remaining in the wine when fermentation completes) or the sugar added via the dosage process we talked about earlier. On the wine label this shows up in 2 ways; the 1st may in small letters on the back of the label that reads something like “Dosage 6g/l.” It also shows up on the front of the label as “Brut,” “Extra Brut,” “Brut Nature,” etc. These descriptors refer to the sweetness level of the wine as follows:


●     Brut Nature - no sugar added and <3g/l in the wine - ultra dry

●     Extra Brut - <6 g/l - very dry

●     Brut - <12 g/l - dry - ∼80% of Champagne exported to the US is Brut

●     Extra-Sec - 12-17 g/l - Sec actually means dry, but not here

●     Sec - 17-32 g/l - sweeter

●     Demi-Sec - 32-50 g/l - much sweeter

●     Doux - >50 g/l - syrup


Nearly 80% of sparkling wines sold in the US are Brut.


Occasional Wine New Year’s Sparkling Wine Favorites

These sparkling wines currently in our inventory all represent excellent choices to celebrate the new year, and are available for purchase now:

●     2008 Krug Vintage Brut Champagne - 100 Points - $660

●     2015 Pol Roger Vintage Brut Champagne - 95 Points - $120

●     Cuvee Ange Blanc de Blancs Brut NV Champagne - $115 - only 720 bottles produced

●     Nathalie Falmet Brut Champagne - 91 Points - $60

●     Dumanjin J. Fils La Cuvee 17 Brut Champagne - 91 Points - $50


Uniquely Curated Subscription Plans and Fine Wines by the Bottle

At Occasional Wine, we are passionate about wine and love sharing our knowledge with others so they too can enjoy the pleasures of an exceptional wine. The holidays are one of the best times to get to share that pleasure with family and friends, whether it’s giving the gift of wine or planning a big holiday dinner.


We offer three different tiers of biannual wine subscriptions, each with curated selections of six wines from six wine regions delivered each Spring and Fall to give you and yours samples of some of the best wines in the world.





We also offer fine wines by the bottle from our private stock, a constantly updated wide selection of top rated wines from around the world. We offer some of the best red wines and white wines at any price point, from budget options up to the very finest wines you can buy.


Stay tuned for more helpful content in finding that next great wine for you, and as always feel free to contact us with any questions.

Sources for Additional Info

Wine Scholar Guild, Society of Wine Educators, Wine Folly, Wine Spectator


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