As Christmas approaches and the thought of a glass of bubbly becomes ever more appealing – or justified – here’s a question for you. What separates proper Champagne from Cava and Prosecco? What actually makes them different from each other? Yes, taste and texture should be a big clue. It should be relatively easy to distinguish between a fine Grower Champagne and an everyday bottle of fizz from the supermarket. In fairness, many people might accurately say that it is the way they are made – which is correct. But, as the saying goes, the devil is in the detail and there’s a lot more to it than that. First and foremost, it’s all about where and how a particular sparkling wine is made.
How does Champagne differ from Cava?
Initially, let’s focus on the difference between Champagne and Cava. Well, for a start, they are made in different countries; Champagne in the French Champagne region - whereas Cava is a sparkling wine originating from the Catalonia area of Spain. Both Champagne and Cava can use up to three varieties of grape (although not the same ones). Champagne is predominantly made from chardonnay, pinot noir and pinor meunier grapes, whereas with Cava,you will be typically be drinking macabeo, parellada and xarel-lo grapes. Nevertheless, winemakers tend to be an experimental bunch and are forever tweaking their techniques, which can involve trying out alternative grapes to come up with new flavours.
The Fermentation of Champagne and Cava
From here on, Champagne and Cava do have more in common – certainly more so than with Prosecco. The production process is quite similar. Both involve a two-stage fermentation – a primary one and then one that takes place in the bottle. The initial alcoholic fermentation transforms the grape musts into wine, taking place immediately after pressing, usually in stainless steel tanks. This is where the yeast consumes the natural grape sugars, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide and other by-products that contribute to the wine’s sensory characteristics. With Champagne, during the second fermentation phase - the process which creates the sparkling bubbles, known as the méthode champenoise – the Champagne bottles are filled with the still wine, to which yeast and sugar is added. This produces the right amount of carbonation which sinks back into the wine, making it fizzy. The bottles are then capped, caged and laid down to mature… to work their magic. Just like Champagne, Cava is also fermented in the bottle. However, as it is produced outside France, this process is referred to as méthode traditionnelle. Champagne is stored at a higher pressure than Cava, which not only creates the deviation in flavour and sharpness, but it also accounts for why Champagne bubbles tend to be finer and more persistent.
It’s all in the timing
Once bottled, Champagne must spend a minimum period of 15 months on the yeast lees for a non-vintage cuvee and 3 years for a vintage. In practice, most Champagnes are cellared for longer – up to three years for non-vintage wines, whilst for vintage cuvées, it could be anywhere between four to ten years and sometimes more. Cava is given a shorter time span in bottle - a minimum of nine months, but a gran reserva could be kept for around three years.
Why does Prosecco tend to be cheaper?
Prosecco, meanwhile, tends to be a cheaper sparkling wine option and the main reason for this is that it is quicker to make. Originating from the Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia regions in north east Italy, it’s predominantly made from the glera grape and is created from a bulk method of production, called Charmat. Whilst it involves a two-stage fermentation, during the first one, the grapes are made into wine. Then secondly, the bubbles are trapped in a large pressurised tank from where it is filtered and bottled. Altogether, quicker and less costly to make.
So, there you have it. Impress your friends and relations with your new-found knowledge - depending how many of you will be able to get together over the pre- and post- Christmas period, of course.