Brut? Cava? Prosecco?

Searching the sparkling wine section of the wine aisle can feel like learning a new language (or maybe three new languages). Luckily, sparkling wines are about as distinct in their flavor profiles as white wines at large, offering a range of sweetness and dryness for any pairing, palate or occasion.


Isn’t it all just Champagne?

As our French cousins would say, “Non.” Champagne is a designation given to wines grown specifically in the champagne region of France. There are a litany of requirements wine must meet in order to earn the champagne label. This designation has serious international respect, so pay close attention to usage.  However, there are a few main types of champagne, which are generally categorized by sugar content.

Most champagne you and I enjoy is of the “brut” variety. In this context, brut roughly translates to “dry,” which is the most characteristic quality of this nutty, woody sparkling white wine. It’s a clean, effervescent sip with a crisp bite at the end. From Next comes extra dry, which is basically, a slightly juicier brut. From there, we get into the sec and demi-sec varieties, which are appreciably sweeter without the “cotton swab” finish. The French round out their champagne varietals with doux, which has the highest sugar content among bubblies.


So what about Riesling?

For Riesling, we’ll go a little east on the continent to our German friends. Riesling grapes are grown in the Rhine region of central Europe, and they produce a sweet, fruity wine loved around the world. While Rieslings present complexity and profiles with as much variety as Pinot Grigios or Chardonnays, they often lack any sort of woody note and tend to stay sweet and aromatic. Rieslings are known to be light wines, and when carbonated, they can be counted on for a sweet sip after dinner.


Then what is sparkling wine, stateside?

If you weren’t already making it and calling it champagne prior to 2006, your carbonated white wine legally can’t be called champagne. So, more likely than not, the sparkling wine label is there for a white wine made mostly with chardonnay grapes that is fermented a second time in the bottle for the bubbles.


Talk to me about prosecco and cava, then.

Yes, good topics. Prosecco is a staple sparkling wine that is getting more popular all the time. Hailing from Italy, prosecco is sweet and light, often used to create refreshing drinks like bellinis. This fizzy Italian wine is fermented the second time in tanks, rather than in the bottle, giving it a more subtle carbonation.

Cava, on the other hand, can be difficult to distinguish from a brut or extra dry champagne. Made with white grapes in Spain, cava has become a fierce competitor in the sparkling wine industry, typically offering drinkers an analogous flavor profile for a lower price.

If you can get these basic categories down and create some visual map in your mind, the “champagne section” might be a little less scary next time you venture down to grab a celebratory bottle.  American sparkling whites, French champagne, and Spanish cava offer similar flavor profiles—a dry white wine with a crisp effervescence. Prosecco and Riesling, however, are there for a much juicier, sweeter experience with the bubbly effect that symbolizes celebration.