What Should I Buy… Champagne, Prosecco, or Cava?

With the holiday season fast approaching, you want to pick up some sparkling wine to have on hand or to give as gifts. What do you buy? For that matter, what’s the difference in any of the sparkling wines?

People often call any sparkling wine Champagne, but in reality, only sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France can be called Champagne. It must be made from Pinot Noir (a blanc de noirs is a Champagne made predominantly from Pinot Noir grapes), Pinot Meunier, or Chardonnay (blanc de blanc is made from Chardonnay), and is most often a blend of all three.

Champagne is produced by méthode champenoise. This method is said to have been fortuitously invented by a certain monk called Dom Perignon and refined by the widow (veuve) Cliquot. Both of these names should be familiar to any Champagne enthusiast (or even non-enthusiast) because they are still the two most famed houses of Champagne.

Méthod champenoise involves adding more yeast and sugar to a base of wine, then bottling the wine for a second fermentation. During this process, the wine sits on the dying yeast and sediment that forms, called the lees, and the bottle is gradually tipped and spun so that all the lees collect in the neck of the bottle. The bottle is then flash-frozen, the lees are popped out, and the bottle is sealed again, to be popped once more at a wedding, or engagement, or housewarming, or some other important occasion.

Due to the lengthy process of sitting on the lees, Champagne takes on richness and complexity and its signature biscuit-y or yeasty notes. And, while some styles of Champagne are crisp with notes of lemon, apples, and flint, fine champagnes frequently become bold with flavors of toasted brioche, roasted fruit, and toffee.

Prosecco: Prosecco is Italy’s most widely known sparkling wine. For many years, it played a second fiddle to Champagne because much of the Prosecco available just wasn’t good. But fine Proseccos have become more widely available, and it now runs neck and neck with Champagne for popularity. When looking at the labels, check for DOC or DOCG found on the neck label. While both are indications of the quality of the communes of vineyards, the DOCG is a higher standard and, in my opinion, a better bottle.

Prosecco is made in the Veneto region of Italy from a varietal of grape called Glera.

The production method of Prosecco is notably different from Champagne or Cava in that the secondary fermentation that gives bubbly wine its fizz happens in steel tanks rather than in bottles. This impacts the flavor notably, making it lighter and less yeasty. Prosecco can tend to be a little sweeter than Champagne or Cava, with bigger loser bubbles and buoyant flavors of apple, pear, lemon rind, light flowers, and even tropical fruit.

Cava: Cava is Spain’s most notable contribution to the world of sparkling wine, and a most excellent contribution it is. Cava is usually made with a few grape varietals that you probably haven’t ever heard of—Macabeu, Parellada, and Xarello—though it can also be made from Chardonnay or Pinot grapes.

Though you’ll mostly see Cava at a price point similar to Prosecco, it’s actually more similar to Champagne in character and production. Like Champagne, the effervescence-producing secondary fermentation happens in the bottle (rather than a tank), but outside of the French region, the method cannot be called méthode champenoise and is instead known as méthode traditionnelle. Usually, in Spain the tirage, rotating and tipping the bottles during secondary fermentation is mechanized. In France, it is still done by hand.

But since doesn’t sit on the lees for as long, Cava is lighter in style than longer-aged Champagnes. Instead of toffee and biscuit notes, Cava will hit you with balanced citrus, melon, pear, and a pleasant acidity.

Sparkling wines can only be called Champagne if they are made in the Champagne region.

Sparkling Wines: Sparkling wines can only be called Champagne if they are made in the Champagne region. Technically, Prosecco and Cava are sparkling wines. So are many others made in many areas of the world, including right here in Napa Valley.

Back to the question of which one to buy. In the debate of any and all sparkling wines, there is no clear winner. It’s a matter of taste, what you happen to be serving, your palate, your budget, and your preference.

I happen to like them all…and I have definite favorites in each one.


About Wendy VanHatten

Wendy VanHatten is editor-in-chief for Prime Time Living, a published author, international travel writer, wine, food, and travel editor, and professional editor.