The best Champagne, Prosecco, Cava, and other sparkling wines for any budget


What is Champagne and sparkling wine?

With a few exceptions, Champagne is sparkling wine that comes from Champagne, France. The Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) oversees production and enforces the strict regulations that govern virtually every aspect of the process.

“When you’re paying for Champagne, you’re paying for some of the techniques that are used,” said Crystal Hinds, owner of Effervescence. “They can only pick at a certain time. They can only pick so much per hectare.”

If you pick up a bottle, and it has the word “Champagne” on it, the wine is almost certainly from this region and was made in accordance with the rules. “California Champagne” is quite different and is essentially the product of a loophole.  

Cava, Prosecco, and other sparkling wines are made from a variety of methods, with different grapes, and in different regions and countries. Consider this glossary a crash course in Champagne 101.  

Assemblage: The process of blending wines from different vineyards, grapes, and years. You might see the assemblage listed as a percentage of each type of grape. 

Blanc de Blancs: It means “white of whites,” so these wines are made from all-white grapes; in the Champagne region, this usually means 100% chardonnay. 

Blanc de Noirs: Noir is French for black, and only red grapes go into these wines, but the resulting wine is still a pale golden color because it uses the juice and not the skin, which is where the reddish color comes from. 

Brut: In the traditional method, Champagne goes through two fermentations. After the second, winemakers add sugar, which is known as “dosage.” Drier, less sweet sparkling wines will have the word “brut” on the label. Here’s the scale, from driest to sweetest:

  1. Brut Nature 2. Extra brut 3. Brut 4. Extra dry or extra sec 5. Dry or sec 6. Demi-sec 7. Doux 

Brut Nature: The driest of the dry, brut nature has no added sugar. It may contain some leftover sugar, up to three grams per liter. 

Cava: Cava is sparkling wine from Spain. However, not all sparkling wine from the country is labeled as such. Compared to Prosecco, Cava is more similar to Champagne. Winemakers mainly use three varieties of white grapes to make Cava: macabeo, parellada, and xarel·lo. 

Champagne, France: This region is in the northeast of the country, about 90 miles from Paris.  

Cru: Traditionally, Champagne houses purchased their grapes from growers. There are 319 crus, which are also known as villages or vineyards, in the region. There are some grower-producers that use their own grapes, and so you won’t find these designations on some very good bottles of wine. 

Crémant: Crémants are sparkling wines from France but made outside of the Champagne region. “Crémant is a really great way to go if you’re looking for a good glass of sparkling wine, but without the cost of the Champagne tag, if you will,” said Chevonne Ball of Dirty Radish.

Cuveé: In Champagne-making, the first pressing is considered the best, and it’s known as the cuvée. Subsequent pressings are the taille. Some winemakers also call their special blends cuvées, but there’s no guarantee that something labeled with that word will be spectacular.   

Disgorgement: During riddling, the yeast sediment collects in the neck of the bottle. To get it out, winemakers submerge the neck into a freezing solution. Then they turn the bottles right-side-up, take off the cap, and the carbon dioxide inside pushes the frozen chunk of sediment out. 

Fermentation: For the second fermentation — which gives the wine its bubbles — producers add the liqueur de tirage, a solution of sugar and yeast. Champagne and Cava undergo this second fermentation in individual bottles. For Prosecco, it happens in a tank, so it’s a much less labor-intensive process. 

Grapes: Some types of sparkling wine use a limited amount of grape varieties. Champagne is most often made from chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier grapes. Cava are mainly macabeo, parellada, and xarel·lo grapes. Glera grapes are typically used for Prosecco. 

Lees: After the second fermentation — once the yeast has consumed all the sugar and died — the wine isn’t quite ready. Champagne stays in the bottle for at least 15 months before it’s released. Non-vintage cuvées stay in the bottle with the lees, or dead yeast deposits, for at least 12 months. Vintage cuvées must rest on the lees for three years, minimum. 

Liqueur de tirage: The mix of sugar, yeast, and sometimes a bit of wine that producers add to non-sparkling base wine to start the second fermentation. The yeast consumes the sugar, creating carbon dioxide and alcohol.   

Méthode Traditionnelle: The traditional method of making Champagne, where the second fermentation takes place inside an individual bottle. Many sparkling wines outside of Champagne are made in this way.       

Non-Vintage: The vast majority of Champagne is non-vintage. It’s not about how long the wine was aged. Rather, it means that the wine is a blend of different vintages or types of grapes, or it comes from grapes in different vineyards. Using a mix allows winemakers to create a more consistent wine. 

Prosecco: Prosecco is made in Northeast Italy, primarily using glera grapes. Unlike Champagne, Prosecco is made with the Charmat Method. Instead of the second fermentation taking place in individual bottles, it happens in a tank, in larger batches. The method is faster and less expensive, so the resulting wine costs less than Champagne. 

Pét-nat: Short for pétillant-naturel, this style of sparkling wine has grown in popularity over the past several years. Non-sparkling wine undergoes a single fermentation when yeast transforms sugar into alcohol. The CO2 is released, so the wine is still instead of bubbly. With pét-nats, winemakers bottle up the wine during this first fermentation, retaining some of the CO2. 

Riddling: To get the yeast sediment into the neck of the bottle, winemakers slowly tip the bottle so the bottom is up. It can take a week or months, depending on the quality (and eventual price) of the wine.  

Rosé: There are a few ways to make sparkling rosé or rosé champagne. Winemakers may add still (unsparkling) red wine to give some color or they may “bleed” juice from tanks of macerating grapes that will be used for red wine. Even when it’s described with words like fruity, rosé can still be dry. 

Sec: On the scale from driest to sweetest, Sec is on the sweeter side, while brut has less sugar.

Sparkling wine: Champagne, Cava, and Prosecco are all sparkling wines. They all have bubbles. You can find sparkling wines from practically anywhere. They may be made with different methods and different grapes, which is why they are priced and taste differently. 

Terroir: When people discuss terroir, they mean the climate, soil, grape varieties, landscape, and other factors that make wines distinct. 

Vintage: Vintage wines come from grapes harvested in a single year. That year will be on the label, so it’s easy to tell vintages and non-vintages apart. These are the wines people buy and store in cellars. Non-vintages are meant to be drunk right off the shelf.