Most sparkling wines and all champagnes are made predominantly from two types of grapes, pinot noir and chardonnay. Pinot meunier is sometimes added to enhance the character of the wine. The following is a brief description of those three grape varieties followed by a breakdown of grapes used in other sparklers from around the globe.
Pinot Noir is one of the oldest grape varieties to be cultivated for the purpose of making wine. Ancient Romans knew this grape as Helvenacia Minor and used it to make wine as early as the first century AD. Recognized worldwide as a great wine grape, pinot noir is grown throughout the world.
Chardonnay The aroma of chardonnay is distinct, delicate and easy to recognize. It can smell like apples, lemons, peaches or tropical fruits. Its delicacy is such that even a small percentage of another varietal blended into a chardonnay will often completely dominate its aroma and flavor. Oak commonly takes over chardonnay if the wine is fermented or aged in new barrels or for too long in seasoned barrels.
The best locations in California for chardonnay and pinot noir are: Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara County; Russian River Valley in Sonoma County; Carneros in both Sonoma and Napa Counties (this is the only California appellation to hold the distinction of bounding two counties); Anderson Valley in Mendocino County; the Pinnacles in Monterey County and Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County.
Pinot Meunier, like pinot blanc and pinot gris, is one of the many variations of pinot noir. The name comes from the appearance of its leaf undersides, which look as though they’ve been dusted with flour (meunier is French for “miller”). It is also simply called meunier in France.
Pinot meunier has a slightly higher natural acidity than pinot noir and gives some brightness and fruitiness to champagne blends.
There are many countries that produce their own distinctive sparkling wines using grapes that most Americans have never heard of such as the macabeu, parellada, xarel·lo and subirat varieties of grapes that can be found in Cavas from Spain. Moscato grapes can be found in Asti Spumante and it’s interesting to note that pinot blanc and pinot nero are used in Franciacorta Spumante. Pinot blanc can also be found along with riesling, pinot gris and pinot noir grapes in some Sekt wines.
Welschriesling, blaufränkisch and grüner veltliner grapes are used in the Austrian version of Sekt. Also, chardonnay, pinot noir, riesling, muscat ottonel, muscat lunel, olaszrizling, kékfrankos, furmint, királyleányka, hárslevelű, kéknyelű and juhfark can be found in Hungarian sparklers.
Shiraz, which is also known as syrah is used to make a red sparkling wine in Australia. There are also a few places in California that make sparkling shiraz.
Finally, it’s interesting to know that cabernet sauvignon is used to make sparkling wine at a few wineries in the Napa Valley.