Cava, Sparkling Wine, Champagne: What’s the Difference?

Sparkling wine is the hardest working wine in the business. Your average bottle of bubbly is expected to be fun, elegant, luxurious, mysterious, playful, and food-friendly all at once. Pop the cork on your favorite bottle of fizzy wine and you’re likely to find all of those things along with a healthy dosage of confusion.

The big name in the field is Champagne, a label that used to be applied to many different kinds of fizz. Today – after years of negotiation and some fairly aggressive litigation by the Champenoise – the “Champagne” name is restricted to wines that:

  • Come from the Champagne region of France
  • Are made from seven authorized grapes (but mainly Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and the red Pinot Menieur)
    Get their bubbles from a secondary fermentation that takes place in bottle
  • Rest on the lees – dead yeast cells – from that secondary fermentation for at least 15 months for non-vintage or 30 months for vintage dated wines

The story of how Champagne was first created and popularized is long and winding and full of myth but it’s ended up with Champagne holding the title of the best sparkling wine in the world and certainly the most expensive. So while drinking “real” Champagne is a treat – and something we all should do more often! – it’s not surprising that many other sparkling wines have emerged to try to slake our thirst for fine fizz at more reasonable prices.

Sparkling wine can be made using four distinct methods and the most labor-intensive, traditional, and expensive way to make sparkling wine is employing the method used by producers in Champagne. This is, fittingly, called the méthode champenoise, but EU rules have begun to restrict the use of that name for wines sold in Europe, so more and more producers are using the term méthode traditionnelle as a synonym. Méthode champenoise/méthode traditionnelle wines are made by creating a still wine (this is the first fermentation) then bottling that still wine and adding yeast and sugar to the bottle before it’s closed off with a beer cap. The added yeast and sugar affect a second fermentation, a by-product of which is carbon dioxide and since the bottle is closed off, the carbon dioxide cannot escape and dissolves into the wine. The wine is aged thus for a minimum of a year and a half, after which time the bottles are riddled (either manually or mechanically), meaning the yeast and other sediment in the bottle is slowly worked into the neck over the course of several days or weeks.

During the riddling process the bottles are inverted over time, positioning them so that the yeast and sediment can be easily removed in a process called disgorging. Called dégorgement in French, this process was invented by Madame Clicquot in 1816 and involves freezing the wine in the neck of the bottle (containing the yeast and sediment) and then using the inherent pressure of the wine to expel this frozen plug from the bottle. Before this process was invented all Champagne was cloudy, a style sometimes seen today under the designation méthode ancestral.

Immediately after disgorging, the bottle is topped off with some wine and a little extra sugar in a practice called dosage. If no sugar at all is added during doage the wine can be designated with the terms nature or zéro dosage.

This is the méthode champenoise/méthode traditionnelle. All sparkling wine from Champagne is made in this way and any wines from other regions with either one of these terms on the label are made in this way too. But that’s not all. Sparkling wines made in other regions in France but using the méthode champenoise/méthode traditionnelle are called . All Cava, from Spain, is made using the méthode champenoise/méthode traditionnelle as are the Italian sparkling wines Franciacorta and Trento, even though they may not indicate so on their labels. Sekt from Austria is generally made using the méthode champenoise/méthode traditionnelle. Though Sekt from Germany usually is not.