Why are Sparkling wines not all created equal?


Colm Carter, Honest2Goodness Wine Team

One question I’m always asked as a so called ‘wine expert’ is  - what’s the difference between Prosecco, Cava  and Champagne?
All sparkling wines are not the same and here are some of the reasons why:

  • Method of production
  • Area of vineyards and grape varieties used
  • Levels of quality implemented by governing bodies
  • Perception and market position

Champagne is made by introducing the sparkle in the wine by means of a second fermentation in the bottle. Cava is made by the same method.
Both are made in a ‘batch’ process which leads to better quality of bubbles and after ageing in bottle to more complexity in the final wine. Both have a minimum ageing requirement, Champagnes’ being longer than Cava.

Prosecco is a tank fermented sparkling wine, so is made in a more mass-produced way. Most Prosecco is not aged and is consumed young so doesn’t build up the layers of complexity that bottle fermented sparkling wine does.

Champagne is made in a limited area to the North East of Paris on chalky limestone soils. One reason Champagne retains its edge is that weather conditions here for ripeneing grapes is right on the limit so Champagne possesses plenty of acidity.
The name Champagne is enshrined in law and can only be used to market the sparkling wines from this region.

Only 3 grape varieties are authorised to make Champagne; Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay.
Cava is mostly made in hills of Catalonia is North East Spain. To maintain the acidity levels a lot of good Cava’s are made from grapes grown at altitude. The Cava we import for instance, is made from grapes grown inland from Valencia at almost 1000M above sea level.
There are many grape choices to make Cava .Most either use traditional Spanish grapes (Macabeo, Parrelada  and Xarel-lo) or International grapes like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  

Prosecco is made from a grape of the same name to the north-west and inland from Venice in the province of Veneto. Prosecco does not tend to have the natural acidity levels of Champagne or Cava so it tends to be favoured by people who have a tendency towards the sweeter things in life!

Champagne is an AOC regulated area. This means they have strict limits on grapes used, yields, growing conditions etc. Cava and Prosecco also have rules set down by the local authorities in Spain and Italy. The quality rules tend to be stricter in Champagne (i.e. min. ageing requirements)  

Lastly, there is the quality perception. Champagne has a reputation of the being the quality benchmark, and is associated with times of celebration and revelry. Our consumption of Champagne in Ireland went up hugely during the Celtic Tiger years, but as the roar has become more of a low purr our consumption has dipped!

Although the famous Champagne houses have great brands, one area that’s worth discovering if you're a Champagne lover is the Recolt-Manipulant (RM) segment. This means the maker of the Champagne also grows the grapes, one example being Michel Arnould et Fils amognst many others.
The RM  can control the quality as he uses his own grapes, unlike the Champagne Houses who buy the vast majority of their grapes from individual growers.
RM wines are great value too, generally being considerably less than similar standard wines from the big houses.

Cava and Prosecco have an inferior quality image but well made Cava can be great value at half to one-third the price of Champagne! Prosecco has a huge following too and makes a great alternative for a lighter and refreshing sparkling wine.

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