Demystifying Sparkling Wine

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Zach Ranger

There’s no wine that causes more confusion to the average consumer than sparkling wine — or as most people refer to it, Champagne. But are you really drinking Champagne? And what the hell does “Brut” mean? And why do you have such a bad hangover?

Let’s begin by defining the term “Champagne.” Champagne is actually not a wine, but a region in Northeast France. Sparkling wine that is made in this region and follows strict wine making laws is labeled “Champagne.” So how can you tell if you’re drinking real Champagne? It’s easy. Sort of.champagne3If the label on the bottle says “Champagne” along with the name of a French town such as Reims or Epernay, then you have the real stuff. If it says “California Champagne” and costs $8 a bottle, it’s not. Long ago, California producers put Champagne on their labels to make consumers think they were drinking high quality sparkling wine. The French didn’t like this (obviously) and had the law changed so only sparkling wines made in Champagne, France could be labeled as such. However, any California producer that was already putting it on their bottles was grandfathered in and is allowed to use the term “California Champagne.” Price is usually a good indication as the real stuff typically starts around $30.


Another common mistake that people make, is referring to all sparkling wine as Champagne. Hopefully by now you know enough about Champagne to never make that mistake again. But what about all those other names you see on sparkling wine bottles? Here are some other popular types of sparkling wine and their meanings:

Cremant -­ usually refers to a sparkling wine made elsewhere in France, such as Burgundy (Cremant de Bourgogne)

Cava -­ sparkling wine made in designated regions of Spain

Prosecco -­ region in Northern Italy where sparklers are made using the Glera grape

Asti Spumante -­ sweeter sparkling wine from the Asti region of Northern Italy, made using the Moscato grape

These are only a couple of examples, and seeing as sparkling wine is made around the world from countless varieties of grapes, it would be quite exhausting to name them all.

Now what about those other confusing terms on the label. If you’re like a majority of the population, you see “Brut” and “Extra Dry” and wonder, what’s the difference? Simply put, they refer to the sweetness level of the wine. Here are the terms from driest to sweetest:

Brut Nature

Extra Brut


Extra Dry

Sec (dry)

Demi­sec (semi­dry)

Doux (sweet)

These are just general guidelines since each level has some leeway as to how much sugar is added but they will give you a good indication as to the style of the wine.

Lastly, I’ve heard a number of people complain about sparkling wine giving them a bad hangover. Usually my response is, anything will give you a bad hangover if you drink enough of it. But there actually is some truth to this. The carbon dioxide in the wine not only gives the wine its bubbles, but it also accelerates the rate at which the alcohol is dissolved into the bloodstream. Therefore, carbon dioxide could be to blame for those bad life choices made on New Years. Mystery solved. You’re welcome.
Hopefully you now have a greater appreciation for the world of sparkling wine. Try a crisp Prosecco with a grilled chicken salad, or a bright Cava with fish. Don’t wait until wedding season, make every meal a little celebration.


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