Although we love a refreshing glass of rosé, there are some occasions that call for something a bit more celebratory—something bubbly. While buying wine is notoriously tricky, it's especially challenging when it comes to the sparkling wine versus Champagne debate. So we tapped Bianca Bosker, a certified sommelier and the best-selling author of Cork Dork, to break it down for us. Don't be fooled by her showy sommelier status. Bosker isn't an elitist. "My motto is that wine doesn't need to be saved for special occasions; it can make occasions special," says Bosker.
What Is Champagne?
Champagne is a sparkling wine that comes specifically from the Champagne region in France. It's made using the traditional method with a combination of chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier grapes.
Bosker's accessible approach to wine has even garnered her a cult following on Instagram for her weekly #PairDevil posts, which offer wine pairings for everyday foods. She has cheekily paired wines with everything from Bagel Bites to McDonald's Filet-o-Fish to Campbell's Tomato Soup.
We asked Bosker to spill the details on sparkling wine versus Champagne so we can walk down the wine aisle with confidence. Ahead is everything you ever wanted to know about sparkling wine, including sommelier-approved bubbly for every occasion (and budget).
Meet the Expert
Certified sommelier, NY Times bestselling author, and award-winning journalist Bianca Bosker grew up in Portland, Oregon, graduated from Princeton University, and currently lives in New York City.
Comes from: Anywhere. Sparkling wine is the generic term for bubbly wine, and it can come from anywhere in the world.
Made from: Most sparkling wines are made with chardonnay and pinot noir grapes.
How it's made: There are several methods for making sparkling wine, including the carbonation method, the tank method (or the Charmat method), and the traditional method.
Yes, sparkling wine can be made in the traditional method, which is also known as the Champagne method, but these wines cannot officially be deemed Champagne because they are not produced in the Champagne region of France.
"One way that you can get sparkling wine is by carbonating a still wine," says Bosker. "Another way to do it, which is called the tank method, or the Charmat method, is this sort of middle ground between the slapdash carbonation and the labor intensiveness of the [traditional method]."
In the tank method, you add the tirage, which is a mixture of sugar and yeast, to a still wine, which can also be called a base wine, in a large tank. The tirage causes the wine to undergo a secondary fermentation, which releases carbon dioxide and causes the tank to pressurize. The sparkling wine is then bottled without aging.
Tastes: They all vary, depending on how they're produced. "Oftentimes the Charmat method is used when you want to accentuate fresh and fruity notes," Bosker explains. "The Champagne method develops the nutty and toasty qualities of the wine."
Comes from: The Champagne region of France.
Made from: Champagne is usually made using some combination of chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier grapes.
How it's made: Champagne is, of course, made in the Champagne method (méthode champenoise, in French), which is also referred to as the traditional method (méthode traditionnelle, in French).
In the Champagne method, the tirage is added to the base wine while it's in the bottle, rather than while it's in a large tank. When the tirage is added to the bottle, the wine undergoes the secondary fermentation process. This produces both carbon dioxide (which gives Champagne its signature bubbles) and dead yeast (which gives Champagne its signature taste).
"As unappetizing as it sounds, having wine sit on dead yeast cells adds additional complex flavors to the wine, which can add an extra dimension to the wine," explains Bosker. But don't worry—winemakers go through the laborious process of removing the yeast bottle by bottle before it's shipped to your local wine shop.
Tastes: Nutty and toasty. "When you think about Champagne or wines that are made using the Champagne method, they'll often have a sort of nuttiness or toastiness to them," explains Bosker. "Which people sometimes refer to as brioche—because who can resist describing wine in terms of fancy pastries?"
Sparkling Wine for Every Occasion (and Budget)
Buying sparkling wine can be a daunting task, so we asked Bosker to share her go-to bottles of bubbly at every price point. Whether you're popping a bottle to toast a promotion or to watch the latest episode of The Bachelor, Bosker has you covered.
If You're Drinking Bubbly On a Weeknight
Opt for an affordable bottle of François Baur Crémant d'Alsace Brut Réserve. This sparkling wine is made in the traditional method, but it will only set you back about $15. "It's mostly delicate; it's celebratory, and it's elegant," Bosker says. And for under $20, it's a steal.
If You're Hosting a Dinner Party
Pick up a bottle of Analemma 2012 Atavus Blanc de Noirs Sparkling, which you can usually find for about $60. "This is a midrange bottle I love to bring out at dinner parties," Bosker explains. "It's just such a crowd-pleaser, and it tastes like something far more expensive than it is. It's fresh, but it's also rich. It has those nutty flavors you find in great Champagnes, but it's a good bang for your buck."
If You're Celebrating a Special Occasion
Splurge on a bottle of Larmandier-Bernier Vieille Vigne du Levant Gran Cru-Brut. "If a friend is celebrating something big and important, I think that this is such a great wine for marking a special occasion," Bosker recommends. "It costs around $90, but it tastes even better than that."