A bottle of bubbly is a universal symbol of celebration. Like its still counterpart, sparkling wine encompasses a wide range of styles, regions, production methods, and grape varieties. It also spans a staggering array of price points—you may not find vintage Champagne on a beer budget, but there are endless high-quality options to be found in French crémant, Italian metodo classicos, or a Spanish cava.
If you’re ready to expand beyond your go-to bottle of prosecco, or just want to learn more about the expansive world of sparkling wine, let this guide act as a roadmap to your next favorite pour.
What Is Sparkling Wine?
Sparkling wine is simply wine that has absorbed significant levels of carbon dioxide. However, the means by which this carbonation occurs can range in complexity.
Most sparkling wine begins with a base of still wine. During the fermentation process, yeast converts the natural sugars of the pressed grapes and its juice into ethanol and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide typically escapes into the atmosphere, though in the case of ancestral method sparkling wine (usually referred to as pétillant-naturel), the wine is bottled before primary fermentation has completed, trapping the carbon dioxide and producing a lightly carbonated wine.
Other sparkling wines, like Champagne and cava, undergo a second fermentation, in which sugar and yeast are added to the base wine either in the bottle (for the traditional method) or in pressurized stainless steel tanks (for the tank, or charmat, method).
Methods of Making Sparkling Wine
For pétillant-naturel wines (also called pét-nat, a catch-all term for wine made using the ancestral method), still wines are bottled before fermentation is over, trapping carbon dioxide and producing a lightly carbonated wine. This is the simplest and oldest way of creating sparkling wine, which has led to the technique being described as the ancestral method.
Pét-nats have risen in popularity over the past decade and are produced across the globe, though certain regions of France have become particularly associated with the style’s resurgence. Loire Valley winemakers began to experiment with the ancestral technique again in the 1990s, and Montlouis-sur-Loire Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) granted legal status to its Pétillant Originel bottlings in 2007 to help differentiate them from the region’s traditional-method sparklers. Gaillac AOC and Limoux Méthode Ancestrale AOC both produce pét-nats from the mauzac grape, and the latter is created within the larger Languedoc region specifically for ancestral method sparkling wine production.
Representatives from the Syndicat des Vins AOC de Limoux also claim the region is where sparkling wine was first accidentally created in the 1500s (via the ancestral method). They say a Benedictine monk noticed bubbles had formed inside of a bottle of still wine, after fermentation had inadvertently restarted due to warm weather.
Also known as méthode champenoise in France and the metodo classico in Italy, the traditional method is most popularly associated with wines produced in the Champagne region of France. However, the technique has gone global and is used in the production of wines that include Spanish cava, those of Italy’s Franciacorta and Trentodoc denominations, and South Africa’s méthode cap classique, to name a few.
In the traditional method, still wine undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle, remaining in contact with lees (deposits of dead yeast cells and other particles) to produce creamy, rounded flavors that may present as toasted or nutty. Bottles made using the traditional method will often have finer, more persistent bubbles than wines made using the tank method, and they tend to be more expensive due to the hands-on and time-consuming nature of production.
To create this secondary fermentation, the still wine is bottled with a small liquid solution of additional wine, yeast, and sugar, called the liqueur de tirage. The sealed bottle is placed on its side to age, where the liqueur de tirage induces a second fermentation, creating additional alcohol (around 1–2% of the final ABV) and carbon dioxide that becomes trapped in the wine. The bottle is gradually tipped and spun so the lees collect in the neck, then are removed in a process called disgorgement. The resulting liquid is dosed with an additional mixture of wine and sugar (the amount of sugar will depend on the sweetness of the intended expression). After it’s corked, the sparkling wine may be aged longer.
Also known as the charmat or martinotti method, the tank method is most commonly associated with prosecco, but it’s also used for other sparkling wines, including lambrusco. A base of still wine undergoes a secondary fermentation in a large pressurized stainless steel tank rather than in a bottle. After the second fermentation is complete, the wine is filtered to remove any sediment, then dosed with a mixture of additional wine and sugar to create the desired balance of sweetness before it’s bottled.
Because tank-method wines rely on much less contact with lees than those made using the traditional method, the resulting liquid tends to be cleaner-tasting, more youthful, and fruit-forward; the grapes’ natural aromas aren’t as impacted by the complexity and toasted/brioche notes that lees can impart. The comparatively industrialized nature of the process also means tank-method wines often cost less to produce and buy.
Asti is a sparkling wine made from muscat blanc à petit grain (or moscato bianco) grapes in Italy’s Piedmont region. The style boasts its own method, which differs slightly from the tank method. Although Asti is tank-fermented like prosecco, it only undergoes one fermentation. Muscat grape juice, rather than still wine, is directly transferred to a pressurized tank. Partway through fermentation, the tank is sealed to trap carbon dioxide, and fermentation is stopped early to retain some sweetness from unfermented sugars.
Some mass-produced sparkling wines may rely on forced carbonation, in which carbon dioxide is injected into a base wine from an external source, rather than being created and trapped through natural fermentation.
Common Types of Sparkling Wine
Made in the Piedmont region of Italy, which is known for its limestone-rich soil, Alta Langa employs the metodo classico technique, the Italian name for the traditional in-bottle fermentation method.
Like most other metodo classico-producing denominations, Alta Langa is similar to Champagne in its winemaking processes, the grape varieties used, and its contact with lees. It’s made with either chardonnay and pinot noir grapes, or a blend of the two, and must be aged on the lees for at least 30 months. Alta Langa is always a vintage wine, which means it is made with a blend of grapes harvested in the same year. You’ll find both white and rosé versions, as well as dosage (sweetness) levels that include brut nature (no dosage), brut (dry), and extra dry (semi-sweet). Alta Langa also boasts a DOCG (Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin), meaning the Italian government recognizes it as being especially high-quality.
Traditional-method sparkling wine, in which secondary fermentation occurs inside the bottle, is also made throughout South Africa, where the technique is called méthode cap classique (MCC).
Cap classique is a relatively new style, dating to 1971, when Stellenbosch winemaker Frans Malan used the knowledge he had acquired in Champagne, France to make a sparkling wine with local chenin blanc grapes. Today, cap classique can be made with any grape or blend, but most are made with the classic varieties used in Champagne, including pinot noir, chardonnay, and pinot meunier. Cap classique wines must sit on the lees for a minimum of 12 months, and they come in a range of styles including rosé. The dosage (or sweetness) ranges from no dosage to brut (dry) and demi-sec or nectar (semi-sweet).
Cava is produced the same way as Champagne, using the traditional method. The Spanish sparkling wine is primarily produced in Catalonia’s Penèdes region, commonly employing local varieties like macaebo, paralleda, and xarel-lo grapes, although chardonnay and pinot noir are also sometimes used.
The youngest cava classification, cava de guarda, must be aged for a minimum of nine months. These tend to offer a fresher, lighter, more fruit-forward profile. Beyond this is the cava de guarda superior range, which includes cava reserva (minimum age 18 months in bottle), cava gran reserva (aged over 30 months), and cava de paraje calificado (minimum 36 months of aging, with the classification limited to cava produced from smaller, particularly noteworthy, and specially designated growing sites).
Aged cava will bear similarities to Champagne, though many bottles can be found at a lower price point. Stylistically, cava can come in a range of sweetness, including brut nature, extra brut, brut, and semi seco.
Champagne is perhaps the most recognized style of sparkling wine in the world, and its production is guided by a strict set of parameters.
As a protected appellation, Champagne must be produced in the Champagne region of northeast France. Champagne houses employ the traditional method, or the méthode champenoise, in which wine undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle. Although seven grape varieties are legally permitted, 99% of Champagne is made using pinot noir, pinot meunier, and chardonnay grapes.
Champagne is characterized particularly by its fine, persistent bubbles and its extended contact with lees during the secondary fermentation. The wine must mature on the lees for a minimum of 15 months for non-vintage Champagne and three years for vintage Champagne, which is longer than the periods required for many other sparkling wines. Champagne can be consumed immediately after release, but many are meant to be aged for decades, and produce even more complexity as secondary and tertiary notes evolve.
Although most Champagnes blend white and red grapes, you’ll also find blanc de blancs (made with 100% white grapes) and blanc de noirs (a white wine made with 100% red grapes). Rosé Champagne, meanwhile, is either made by blending a smaller amount of still red Champagne into a bottling, or through maceration, by allowing the juice of red grapes like pinot noir or pinot meunier to retain contact with their skins for a few hours. Champagne comes in varying levels of dosage, or sweetness, including (from dry to sweet) extra brut, brut, extra dry, dry, demi-sec, and doux.
Known as a quality and more affordable alternative to Champagne, crémant is another traditional-method French sparkling wine. But while Champagne must be made in the Champagne region, crémant is produced across eight regions of France, as well as Luxembourg. Bottles can typically run for around half the price of a similar-quality bottle of Champagne.
As with Champagne, crémant often features brioche notes that come from extended contact with lees. It’s also subject to stringent regulations, such as manual harvesting of grapes and a minimum of nine months lees aging, while some bottles like eminent crémant de Bourgogne must age for a minimum of 24 months. Grape blends will vary by region; the most famous include crémant d’Alsace (made commonly with pinot blanc, pinot gris, auxerrois, chardonnay, riesling, or pinot noir), crémant de Loire (made with chardonnay, pinot noir, chenin blanc, orbois, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, grolleau, or pineau d’Aunis), and crémant de Limoux (made with chenin blanc, chardonnay, mauzac, or pinot noir). You’ll find crémant in white and rosé styles, as well as a range of sweetness levels, from brut nature to doux.
Although prosecco is often presented as the Italian version of Champagne, Franciacorta in fact bears more similarities to the French sparkler. Made in the temperate Franciacorta territory of the Lombardi region, it employs the traditional method of Champagne (metodo classico), and like Champagne, Franciacorta employs chardonnay and pinot noir grapes, but pinot blanc and erbamat grapes are also permitted.
Franciacorta must rest on the lees for a minimum of 18 months, while vintage bottles labeled millesimato and riserva must rest on lees for a minimum of 30 and 60 months, respectively. Franciacorta has more glacial soil than Champagne, which generally results in wines that show more minerality. Sweetness levels include dossagio zero, extra brut, extra dry, and demi-sec. Franciacorta has a DOCG (Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin), meaning the Italian government recognizes it as being especially high-quality.
Lambrusco is a type of fruit-driven frizzante (slightly sparkling) red wine produced in northern Italy, mostly in the Emilia-Romagna region. It’s named for the lambrusco grape from which it’s produced. There are more than 60 varieties of the grape, but the most common in wine production include lambrusco di sorbara, lambrusco maestri, lambrusco grasparossa, and lambrusco salamino.
Like prosecco, many lambruscos are carbonated using the charmat or martinotti method, in which they undergo a second fermentation in pressurized tanks. However, some lambruscos will employ the ancestral method, in which carbonation occurs in-bottle during the primary fermentation, and others may use the traditional method, like Champagne. Lambrusco comes in secco (dry), semisecco (off-dry), amabile (semi-sweet), and dolce (sweet) styles. They are often considered very food-friendly and will display notes of strawberries, black jam, and violets.
Dating to the 16th century, pétillant-naturel (roughly translating to “naturally sparkling”) is the oldest example of sparkling winemaking. The wine is made using the ancestral method, meaning it’s bottled while it’s still undergoing its first fermentation, trapping the naturally occurring carbon dioxide to produce lightly fizzy sparkling wine.
Pét-nats can be produced all over the world with a wide variety of grapes. Because they aren’t as regulated as protected designations such as Champagne and cava, they tend to be less consistent, and you won’t always find the words “pétillant-naturel” on the bottle, instead seeing terms like “bottle fermented,” “méthode ancestrale,” or “col fondo” in the case of Italian pét-nats. Sediment from fermentation is often left inside the bottle and, as such, expressions can vary widely in their cloudiness.
Prosecco is a sparkling wine commonly associated with the Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia regions of Italy. It is made with the glera grape (which must account for a minimum of 85% of the wine), and it uses the tank (martinotti) method.
In the tanks, the wine has minimal lees contact, which causes it to retain more of the grapes’ primary aromas and flavors. The method also results in larger, less persistent bubbles. Prosecco is typically meant to be consumed within the first few years of production, rather than being aged for decades.
These factors contribute to prosecco’s budget-friendly reputation compared with wines made in the traditional style. Although prosecco is generally affordable at all levels (you can easily find a good bottle for under $20), Prosecco DOC is the entry-level offering, while Prosecco Superiore DOCG refers to wine made in a specialized region. Prosecco comes in brut, extra dry, and dry styles. Although sparkling prosecco is called spumante and accounts for 95% of the bottles on the market, it also comes in frizzante (semi-sparkling) and tranquillo (still) styles.
Sekt encompasses a wide range of German and Austrian sparkling wines. It can be made from any grape, and comes in white, red, and rosé styles. It can also be made using different methods. Bottles on the budget end of the spectrum will typically undergo the second fermentation in large tanks, while high-end sekts are bottle-fermented like Champagne. Although sekt itself is not a protected term, certain labels aim to indicate a higher-quality product. Deutscher Sekt can only be made from German grapes; Sekt bestimmter Anbaugebiete (Sekt b.A.) must be grown in one of Germany’s 13 premier wine-growing regions (such as the Mosel Valley); and Winzersekt denotes wines that are bottle-fermented and lees-aged for at least nine months. Sekt is often made with well-known German grapes like riesling and gewürztraminer, resulting in notes of green apple, stone fruit, and citrus.
Trentodoc is made in the Trentino region of Italy using only chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot blanc, and pinot meunier grapes. This metodo classico wine employs the in-bottle fermentation method that is also used to make Champagne, which is no accident. At the turn of the 20th century, winemaker Giulio Ferrari identified similarities between the Champagne wine-growing region and the high-altitude vineyards of Trentino, and in 1993 Trentodoc became the first wine in Italy to officially be classified as metodo classico (Franciacorta and Alta Langa are other common metodo classico denominations).
Trentino is known for its unique mountainous vineyards, in which drastic day-night temperature shifts yield aromatic grapes with bright acidity. When you’re shopping for Trentodoc, you’ll find bruts, rosés, vintage millesimato bottlings, and longer-aged riservas. Non-vintage Trentodoc ages on the lees for a minimum of 15 months, while vintage Trentodoc ages for at least 24 months and riservas for at least 36 months. Trentodoc also has a DOC (Denomination of Controlled Origin) from the Italian government.