All that sparkles is not champagne. You may be forgiven for passing off a cheaper fizz as champagne at your holiday party — I, for one, will not reject your hospitality. And there are some sparkling wines from around the world that reach champagne levels in quality. But if you wonder why your wine fiend friend arches his eyebrow when he sticks his schnozzle into a glass you just poured, here's a short primer on the basic categories of bubbly.
Champagne: The real stuff comes only from the Champagne region of northeastern France. The champenois were so successful at marketing their product as the ne plus ultra of sparkling wine that "champagne" became synonymous with bubbles. They also unfortunately marketed and priced themselves into a niche as a luxury item for celebrations, not for dinner. Champagne is special because the second fermentation — which produces the bubbles — is done in the bottle. This produces the fine "bead" of bubbles characteristic of champagne and helps develop more flavor than the tank fermentation method used on less expensive bubblies. Many sparkling wines from around the world follow the champagne method, so much of this discussion applies to those wines, too.
Most champagnes are made from three grapes: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. The latter two are red, but since the juice is separated immediately from the skins (where the color is), the wines are white. A blanc de noirs is a white wine made from red grapes, often just pinot noir, while a blanc de blancs is entirely chardonnay (and almost always exquisite). A typical bottling is "nonvintage," or sometimes now called "multi-vintage," meaning it is a blend of wines from several years. Producers keep wine in reserve to give their blends both consistency and a character of age. In good years they "declare" a vintage and produce a wine from just that year.
The vast majority of champagne is made by "houses," which buy grapes from smaller farmers. These are the familiar labels such as Veuve Clicquot, Mumm, Ruinart, Bollinger, Moet & Chandon and many others. There's nothing wrong with these wines, and many are fantastic. But the trend the past 10 or 15 years has been for "grower" champagnes — wines made by the farmers who grew the grapes. These are supposedly more expressive of place and the personality of the winemaker, and they can be good values. The house vs. grower debate can be quite ideological; I've been trying for years to decide where I fall on this divide, and darn it, I just love them all.
Another trend: Champagne is becoming drier. Brut, or dry champagne, is now joined by extra brut (drier) and brut nature (Saharan). Sweeter demi-secs, already hard to find, are increasingly rare.
You can find decent champagne for around $30 — the popular Nicolas Feuillatte is an example — and good champagne from $40 and way into the triple digits. The higher-end can be mind-blowing.
Crémant: The usual term for bubbly from outside the Champagne region in France. These typically come from Bourgogne (Burgundy), Loire or Alsace, though crémant de Bordeaux seems to be increasingly popular. Crémant can be quite delicious, and is typically considerably less expensive than champagne, though they are made by the same method.
Cava: Spain's answer is made like champagne, with the second fermentation in bottle, but with Spanish grapes: xarel-lo, parellada and macabeo, usually. (Chardonnay sometimes creeps in, and red grapes contribute to rosé blends.) Cava can be a great value, and may be able to fool a champagne geek who isn't paying attention. Here's a fun experiment: Buy a good-quality, inexpensive cava such as Segura Viudas — widely available — and a bottle of a high-end wine from Raventos, a bit harder to find. Raventos, which is not labeled as cava, approaches champagne in quality and price. Taste it alongside the Segura Viudas, and you will understand what Spain can accomplish in making really good bubbly at both ends of the price scale.
Franciacorta: Italy's answer, also made in the champagne method (and costing champagne prices). Franciacorta tends to be fruity, compared with champagne's mineral and spice.
Prosecco: The better-known bubbly from Italy is made differently, with the second fermentation in a pressure tank rather than the bottle. Prosecco's bubbles are softer on the palate, and its price softer on the wallet, than champagne's. Think of it as champagne's affable, casual cousin — Dockers, rather than Brooks Brothers. Quality varies widely, from merely pleasant to quite deliciously fruity.
Petillant-naturel, or pet-nat: A French term for an ancient process (also called "methode ancestrale") that has become trendy around the world, including as close as Maryland. These wines are bottled during fermentation, so bubbles are produced as the process finishes. Pet-nats are the darlings of the millennial crowd. They're usually bottled under crown cap, so you don't get the celebratory pop of the cork, but you'll be as fashionable as the next guy sipping his grower champagne — brut nature, of course.