Cork Out Guide 5

A Beginner's Guide to Sparkling Wine

For many, the idea of exploring their taste in wine can be daunting. Anybody who has walked down the wine isle in their local supermarket can attest to getting lost in a blur of red, white and sparkling wine bottles.

To help, we have put together this little guide to give you a steer on where to start, particularly if you want to explore your taste for sparkling wine. As with our guide to red and white wines, we’ll make the assumption that you’re happy to start your exploration of sparkling wines in the supermarket and let it develop from there. We’ll also assume that you’re happy to avoid the big-name brands as there are some great little gems just waiting to be discovered if you’re prepared to branch out.

As always, we will be enlisting the help of Ned Halley’s Best Wines in the Supermarkets 2020 edition to provide you with a couple of suggestions on where to start for each grape variety if you’re in the UK. Where possible, we have provided a vintage year but that may now be out of stock. If that is the case then you should be fine purchasing whatever vintage is available.

Whilst this guide is particularly tailored for UK market, the descriptions of the grapes are universal so it will be of some use to those outside of the UK. If you want to learn more about where to buy sparkling wines from outside the UK then I can’t recommend our friends, Sparkling Wino’s, enough. Stop by their website and give them some love.

Before we dive in, it is worth noting some of the phrases that appear on the label and their meanings:

What to Look for on the Label

These phrases will often only appear on French and English sparkling wine labels though you may see them dotted on some Cava bottles from time to time:


Blanc de Blancs

Sparkling wine that is 100% white grape varieties such as Chardonnay.

Blanc de Noirs

Sparkling wine that is 100% black grape varieties such as Pinot Noir.

N.V or Non-Vintage

Sparkling wine that will have multiple vintages in the blend.


Year of harvest will appear on the bottle and is often the best quality.



Sweetness also plays a role in Sparkling wine and you’ll often find the level of sweetness described on the label. Look out for the following descriptors on any of your sparkling wine labels:


Brut Nature

The driest of the sparkling wines – 0-3 grams of sugar per litre.

Extra Brut

A touch sweeter though still very dry – 0-6 grams of sugar per litre.


The most common word on the label – 0-12 grams of sugar per litre.


A touch sweeter than the Brut – 12-17 grams of sugar per litre.


Getting sweeter – 17-32 grams of sugar per litre.


Sweeter still – 32-50 grams of sugar per litre.


The sweetest of all sparkling wines – 50+ grams of sugar per litre.



Champagne is by far the most iconic of the sparkling wines in this guide and it's likely we have all experienced a taste of Champagne at some point. Ever since Dom Perignon honed and perfected secondary fermentation techniques in the late 18th century, Champagne has become synonymous with drinking the finest of wines and is especially savoured at celebrations. But what exactly is Champagne and how is it made?

Champagne is a region in the north east of France and it is here that all sparkling wine labelled as Champagne comes from. There are many well-known producers in this region such as Moet & Chandon, Bollinger etc. but there are also many less prominent producers who produce Champagne of equal quality.

Champagne can only be made from three grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. These grape varieties excel in the chalky limestone soils found in the region, allowing the Champagne to develop a higher acidity and lower alcohol content that contributes to its unique taste.

Making Champagne is a complex process and is produced in the following stages:

  1. Harvest – The grapes will always be harvested by hand.
  2. Primary Fermentation – This will create the base wine which is not yet sparkling.
  3. Blending – Winemakers will blend together the permitted grape varieties at this point. This is vital for Champagne classed as Non-vintage and allows winemakers to produce a specific style of champagne each year with little variations on previous years.
  4. Second Fermentation – This is where the fizz is produced! The alcohol level can often raise at this point too.
  5. Yeast Autolysis and Initial Ageing – Ever had bready or toasty flavours from your Champagne? If so then this will be caused by yeast cells breaking down and releasing compounds into the wine once bottled. This can be a long process lasting 5 years or longer.
  6. Riddling – This is when the dead yeast cells or “lees” are removed. This can also be painstaking as one of the ways to remove it is to tip the bottle and leave it in varying positions over a matter of weeks so the yeast slides from the foot of the bottle to a special cap in the top.
  7. Disgorgement and Corking – This is the point where the bottle is corked with the support of the wire cage around the top of the bottle.
  8. Ageing – some Champagnes benefit from further ageing in the bottle but many can be sold and consumed once corked.

The above method is known as the traditional method and can be very time consuming. Time is money in this instance which is why Champagne is often more expensive than its nearest rivals.

But with the expense comes an array or aromas and taste characteristics that you can look forward to, such as:

  • Green Apple
  • Yellow Apple
  • Citrus
  • Bread
  • Toast
  • Nuts

Expect high levels of acidity and some minerality as the wine goes down too. Champagne has excellent ageing potential and can be cellared from anywhere beyond 10 years. I recently tasted a 30-year-old Veuve Clicquot and the bottle was brimming with apple and toasty flavours!

Where to Start:

Sainsbury’s Blanc de Noirs Champagne Brut, 12% ABV, Sainsbury’s, Approx. £20

Finest Premier Cru Champagne Brut, 12.5% ABV, Tesco, Approx. £20

Extra Special Champagne Premier Cru Brut, 12.5% ABV, Approx. £21


We’ll stick to France for this next one. Crémant shares a few similarities with its more expensive cousin, namely that Crémant is made much in the same way as Champagne, the only major difference being the minimum amount of time that it can age for. As Crémant spends much less time ageing, it is a much cheaper alternative to Champagne that, depending on the style, can offer similar tasting characteristics.

The Crémant-making regions are spread right across France so there are varying styles to choose from. The most prominent regions of Crémant are:

Crémant d’Alsace

Over 50% of all Crémant is made in Alsace which is situated not too far away from the Champagne region. Both white and rosé Crémant is produced using grapes such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris (though rosé will be 100% Pinot Noir). Even Riesling can be used in the blends! Tasting profiles can be varied but for Crémant d’Alsace white you should look out for:

  • Apples
  • White peach
  • Bready flavours

For Crémant d’Alsace rosé:

  • Apples
  • Lemons
  • Chocolatey flavours such as cocoa or caramel.

Crémant de Bourgogne

Crémant de Bourgogne wines also share striking similarities to their cousins in Champagne. They are often aged for longer on the lees which allows subtle bready and biscuit notes to develop. Again, they can be made in a range of styles, often from Pinot Noir or Chardonnay and the sparkling whites will often have characteristics of:

  • White Flowers
  • Citrus
  • Minerals

Blanc de Blancs Crémant de Bourgogne will have characteristics of:

  • White flowers
  • Apples
  • Peach
  • Biscuit

Blanc de Noirs will have characteristics of:

  • Cherries
  • Spice
  • Honey

Sparkling rosé should give you notes of:

  • Strawberry
  • Raspberry
  • White cherry

Look out for the phrases “Eminent” and “Grand Eminent” on the bottle, with Eminent meaning that the wine has spent a minimum of 24 months aging on the lees and Grand Eminent denoting a minimum of 36 months aging on the lees. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir will also dominate the blend in “Grand Eminent” bottles.

Crémant de Loire

Situated in North Western France, the Loire valley is steeped in winemaking history. Sparkling wines here can be made from a variety of grapes including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Grolleau and Chenin Blanc among others. As with other Crémant featured in this list, both white and rose is made in the Loire valley. Given the range of soils and microclimates in the region, tasting profiles can greatly vary. However, you can’t go wrong if you’re getting the following from the whites:

  • Lemon
  • Apples
  • Lychee
  • Nuts
  • Vanilla

The rosé will often have characteristics of:

  • Strawberry
  • Raspberry
  • Cherry

Acidity levels will vary with each style but will often be medium to high and there could well be a touch of minerality on the palate too. The ageing potential for all Crémant is limited so you want to be drinking within 3 years of purchasing and don’t forget that they provide a much cheaper alternative to Champagne without the hefty price tag!

 Where to Start:

Extra Special Crémant de Loire, 12% ABV, Asda, Approx. £9

Crémant de Loire Blanc de Noir, 12% ABV, Aldi, Approx. £8

Finest Crémant de Limoux Rosé, 12.5% ABV, Tesco, Approx. £12



Cava is Spain’s take on sparkling wine. Again, there are some similarities with Champagne in that it is made using the same process and there is some ageing potential but there are also a number of differences including, the grapes used to produce Cava and the much warmer climate of North-Eastern Spain.

Most Cava is produced in Catalonia (Not too far from Barcelona) and consists of a blend of Macabeu, Parellada and Xarel-lo grapes with Macabeu dominating the blend. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir also feature in the blends and you’ll often find Monastrell or Garnacha in the rose blend too. Much of it is produced in the Penedès region of Catalonia and two of the more well-known brands are Cordoniu and Freixenet.

Cava literally means “Cave” in Spanish and the wine is named after the caves and cellars where it is aged. Cava has a history dating back to the 1850’s though it wasn’t until the 1870’s, when Phylloxera had wiped out much of Catalonia’s red grape vines, that Cava began to be produced in larger quantities with the dead vines being replaced with vines that produced white grapes.

Cava is a cheaper, easier drinking alternative to champagne and for the white blends you should look out for aromas and taste characteristics of:

  • Lime
  • Lemon
  • Apple
  • Almonds
  • Brioche

The wines will almost always be dry, contain some minerality and be lower in acidity than champagne owing to the warmer climate.

Rosé Cava or Cava Rosado will often have flavours of:

  • Strawberry
  • Raspberry
  • Rose petals

Most Cava is ready to be drunk immediately though many producers have now started ageing their wine. Both white and rosé Cava can age gracefully and will develop notes of bread, toast and biscuit if allowed to age. Look out for “Cava Reserva” or Cava Gran Reserva” on the label with “Reserva” indicating aging for a minimum of 15 months on the lees and “Gran Reserva” indicating a minimum of 30 months aging on the lees.

Where to Start:

Tesco Cava Brut, 11.5%, Tesco, Approx. £7

M&S Cava Brut, 11,5% ABV, Marks and Spencer, Approx. £8

Waitrose Cava Brut, 11.5% ABV, Waitrose, Approx. £10



Prosecco is the most prominent sparkling wine of Italy and stands apart from its rivals’ champagne and cava in several ways. Prosecco is very popular in the UK given its lower price tag and is a good place to start on your sparkling wine journey.

Prosecco predates any of its rivals and has been around for approximately 2000 years where it was originally known as “Pucinian”in Roman times. It was rediscovered in the 16th century and was called “Prosecho” by English traveller Fynes Moryson in 1593. The first mention of the name Prosecco dates to 1754 in a poem by Aureliano Acanti who wished to “wet my mouth with that Prosecco with its apple bouquet”.

Prosecco is made in Veneto, in north-east Italy with the best grape growing area residing between the towns of Valdobbiadene and Conegliano. Glera is the prominent grape variety and it is made using the Tank method which is summarised as follows:

  1. First fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks to retain pure fruit flavours of the grapes.
  2. The base wine created will not undergo any oak aging so additional flavours aren’t added.
  3. Sugar and yeast are added to the wine just before second fermentation takes place in sealed tanks.
  4. The resulting CO2 dissolves in the wine throughout the second fermentation process.
  5. The wine is then filtered to remove the yeast before it is bottled.

The tank method is much cheaper and less labour intensive than the traditional winemaking method so Prosecco is almost always cheaper than Champagne and Cava. The process used to make Prosecco also means that the resulting wine is usually fruit forward and will rarely possess and bready and toasty notes.

A good example of a fruit-forward Prosecco should include notes of the following:

  • Green apples
  • Pear
  • Melon
  • Peach

Prosecco will often be light to medium bodied and come in three variations; Spumante, Frizzante (with less fizz) and Tranquillo (with no fizz at all). It does not benefit from ageing and can be drunk immediately upon purchasing.

Where to Start

Finest Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Brut, 11.5% ABV, Tesco, Approx. £10

The Best Prosecco, 11% ABV, Morrisons, Approx. £8

Alberto Nani Organic Prosecco, 11% ABV, Asda, Approx. £9


English Sparkling Wine

We can’t have a sparkling guide without mentioning the rise of English sparkling wine. With approximately 500 wineries producing over 3 million bottles a year, England is now a considered a serious player in the sparkling wine industry. The majority of vineyards are located in the south and they are noted for producing some outstanding premium sparkling wines. Wineries such as Nyetimber and Bolney are now producing sparkling wines that rival Champagne and though they command a similar price tag, there are some fine examples to be had when browsing the supermarkets.

English sparkling wine is made in exactly the same way as Champagne so it shouldn’t be overlooked if you want a Champagne alternative or even if you just want to support your local winery.

For a typical English sparkling wine look out for the following aromas and tastes:

  • Apple
  • Pear
  • Lemon
  • Nuts
  • Brioche

On the palate you can also expect high acidity balanced well with some ageing giving you bread and biscuit notes.

Where to Start:

Balfour 1503 Foxwood Cuvee, 11.5% ABV, Co-op, Approx. £18

Finest English Sparkling, 11.5% ABV, Tesco, Approx. £20

Extra Special English Sparkling, 12% ABV, Asda, Approx. £21