Guide to Champagne, France’s Quintessential Sparkling Wine

Champagne — the name of both France’s most northern wine region and its only appellation — is world-renowned as the source of world’s finest sparkling wines; the area’s cool temperatures yield grapes with substantial acidity, a prerequisite for successful sparklers. Remember, while there are high quality sparkling wines from around the world, only Champagne can come from the 33,000 hectares of land that comprises Champagne, France.

Grape Varieties, Regions, and Soils

Chardonnay (29% of plantings)

Chardonnay grows predominately in the Côte des Blancs (and the Côte de Sézanne), where it is the only authorized variety of grape. Soils are chalky limestone topped by a layer of sandy clay (in slightly greater concentrations than in Montagne de Reims, discussed below). Chardonnay gives the wine its fresh acidity; typically displaying floral and mineral elements in its youth, it offers notes of honey and toast as it matures.

Pinot noir (39% of plantings)

Pinot noir is dominant in the Montagne de Reims and the Côte des Bar (Aube), where slightly warmer temperatures enable full ripening of this finicky grape. Soils are comprised of chalky limestone and a rockier limestone-clay (Kimmeridgian marl), respectively; pinot noir from the latter’s soils are more full bodied. Pinot noir contributes structure and fullness, providing red fruit notes.

Pinot meunier (32% of plantings)

Pinot meunier grows in the Marne River Valley and the Côte des Bar (Aube). Soils consist of chalky limestone and limestone-clay (Kimmeridgian marl), respectively. Low in acidity, the thick-skinned pinot meunier has an intense, fruity bouquet and a full-bodied character that add to the wine’s overall balance.

Map of Champagne, France

Map of Champagne, France

Méthode Champenoise

Méthode champenoise is the traditional Champagne production process. After primary fermentation and bottling (the creation of the still wine base, or vins clairs), a second fermentation occurs in the bottle, induced by adding an incremental dose of yeast and sugar; the carbon dioxide released from this process gives the wine its trademark bubbles. The wine is then aged on the yeast remnants, or lees, resulting from this bubble-adding fermentation, which add freshness, body and complexity. During the aging process, bottles are slowly rotated from a horizontal position to nearly vertical, neck down, guiding the lees into the neck of the bottle. The inverted bottles are then disgorged, releasing the lees, and recorked for final aging before release.

Types of Champagne

Blanc de blancs

Blanc de blancs (“white of whites,” that is, Champagne from white grapes) designates Champagne made exclusively from chardonnay. Lighter and more elegant than other styles, these wines are an ideal pre-dinner option. That said, they are best after years of aging, as only then do their flavors open and reveal complex toasty notes and bright fruit.

Blanc de noirs

Blanc de noirs (“white of blacks,” that is, Champagne from red grapes) designates Champagne made from pinot noir. As red grapes have clear juice (the red colored juice is derived from contact with the red colored skins), the juice used to make these wines has minimal skin contact. As you might expect, these Champagnes display rounder, richer profiles, particularly at a young age.

Rosé

Champagnes are produced either by leaving the clear juice of red grapes to sit on its skins for a brief time (saignée method) or, more commonly, by adding a small amount of still pinot noir red wine to the sparkling wine cuvée. These wines often display notes of delicate stone fruits and cherries.

Non-vintage vs. vintage

Most of the Champagne produced is non-vintage — typically abbreviated NV on labels — meaning that it is a blended product of grapes from multiple vintages (usually 15-25% from older vintages, designed to add complexity); there is a predominant base vintage, however, that some producers are choosing to reveal to consumers (along with disgorgement dates) in order to increase transparency. As a result, more so than other regions, the art of blending is critical to the success of the wines, as winemakers aim to reproduce a consistent style and taste from year to year.

Non-vintage Champagne typically includes all three primary grape varieties and is aged for a minimum of 15 months (12 of which must be on the lees) prior to release. However, if the conditions of a particular vintage are particularly favorable, some producers will make a vintage wine (millésime) that must be composed of at least 85% of the grapes from that particular year; the vintage wines are aged for at least three years (on or off the lees) prior to release; these elite wines typically consist only of chardonnay and pinot noir.

Premier Cru and Grand Cru

The top Champagnes are classified as Premier Cru or even higher-end Grand Cru, indicating that the grapes used to produce the wine are sourced from select villages (specific vineyards are not part of the classification) deemed to have superior or ideal growing conditions, respectively; there are 44 Premiers Crus villages and 17 Grands Crus villages (versus 296 other basic cru villages).

Sweetness

Champagne comes in a range of sweetness levels, determined by the amount of sugar (aka dosage) added immediately before final corking: dry (Brut Nature, Brut and Extra Brut; Brut, with less than 15 g/l of sugar, is the most popular), modestly sweet (Extra Sec, Sec, and Demi-Sec), and very sweet (Doux).

Know your Producer Types

A unique feature of Champagne winemaking is that many of the leading Champagne producers do not their own vineyards and rely on purchased grapes. This has created a highly fragmented network of buyers (winemakers) and sellers (grape growers); in such a environment it is helpful to know who has had a hand in the wine you are drinking. Fortunately, Champagne labels give you some critical information in this regard on the matriculation number in small print usually located at the base of the label (these codes are followed by a 7-digit number):

  • NM (Négociant Manipulant) indicates wines made by the largest and best-known producers; they are made from both grapes they grow themselves (usually a small percentage) and those they buy from third parties; keep in mind, while NMs represent 2/3 of overall production, they own only 1/10 of the vineyards.
  • RM (Récoltant Manipulant), responsible for approximately 1/4 of total production, indicates wines made exclusively from grapes grown by the producer (a maximum of 5% of purchased grapes is permitted). These “grower champagnes” are often very good values and more respectful of terroir; we advise experimenting in this category. Look for those marked as “Special Club” for the absolute pinnacle of RM wines; they are made by a select group of growers and undergo two rounds of evaluative tasting prior to being able to be released as Special Club.
  • CM (Cooperative Manipulant) indicates wines from a cooperative of grape growers who pool their grapes, produce the wine, and sell under the general cooperative label. There are over 100 of these cooperatives in Champagne.
  • RC (Récoltant Coopérateur) indicates wines from a single cooperative member that were produced by the cooperative from pooled grapes, but sold under its own name and label.
  • SR (Société de Récoltants) indicates wines made by an association of growers from pooled grapes; they are not part of a formal cooperative.
  • ND (Négociant Distributeur) indicates wines from a merchant (not a grower or producer) sold under its own label.
  • MA (Marque d’Acheteur) indicates a wine from a brand name unrelated to the producer, grower, or wine merchant; it takes the name of the end-market buyer.

Learn about the wines of France with Approach Guides wine app for iPhone and iPad. The app profiles all of France’s winemaking regions, grape varieties, appellations, and vintages, giving you everything you need to know to choose a wine that meets your preferences.

Four Little-Known White Grapes From Piedmont

When you think of Piedmont (Piemonte in Italian), its world-class reds — Barolo and Barbaresco — naturally come to mind.  But Piedmont has got some lesser-known whites that are worth giving a swirl.  Here are some great white options from Piedmont.

Map of Italy's wine regions

Map of Italy’s wine regions

Nascetta

The rare nascetta, potentially related to favorita/vermentino/pigato, is indigenous to Piedmont’s Langhe and was only recently saved from extinction. Early to mid ripening, the grape delivers full-bodied, often unctuous wines with flavors of wildflower, white peach, herb, honey, sage, salt and mineral. Despite their rich characters, these aromatic wines possess sufficient structuring acidity to maintain balance, making them pair well with richer seafood dishes. Look for varietally-labelled wines in the Langhe DOC.

Timorasso

The rare timorasso is planted chiefly in Piedmont’s Colli Tortonesi and Monferrato DOCs. Brought back from near extinction by winemaker Walter Massa, the grape is making a comeback among wine aficionados (although perhaps only 20 hectares are under vine). The thick-skinned, early- to mid-ripening grape yields massive wines with a distinctive creaminess. Flavors include candied fruit, toasted hazelnut, honey, spice, bitter mountain herb and mineral. Timorasso’s rich, full-bodied character allows it to pair with dishes that most other whites simply cannot, such as poultry, pork, veal, smoked meats and sausages. It is worth seeking out for lovers of powerful whites that are looking for a new favorite.

Arneis

Thin-skinned arneis is Piedmont’s finest white, grown chiefly in the Langhe and Roero. Arneis-based wines offer low acidity, floral aromas and a rather strong fruit-driven palate that includes ripe pear, orange, apricots and peaches. You may also get an edge of smokiness and a touch of bitter almond on the finish. Due to the grape’s relative obscurity outside of Italy, these full-bodied whites are often great values. Arneis is a perfect accompaniment to heavier pasta dishes. Wines reach their greatest heights in varietal offerings from the Roero Arneis DOCG.

Erbaluce

Thick-skinned, early- to mid-ripening erbaluce is indigenous to northern Piedmont — the Erbaluce di Caluso DOCG and Canavese DOC zones northeast of Torino — and this is where you will find the best pure varietals. The grape produces wines with high acidity and delicate flavors of wildflowers and green apple, coupled with a distinctive minerality. They are ideally paired with simply grilled fish. Erbaluce also makes for very tasty sweet and sparkling wines. Made to consistently high standards, they are a reliable option. Look for it also in varietal wines from the Colline Novaresi and Coste della Sesia DOCs.


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Understanding Alsace Grand Cru

Alsace’s Grand Cru covers fifty-one individual vineyard sites and the AOC laws dictate which grapes can be grown in each. The yield specifications are much lower than regular AC wines (60 hl/a). In general, Grand Cru sites must be made from one of the four ‘noble varieties’: riesling, gewürztraminer, pinot gris or muscat; though exceptions have been made for Zotzenberg, where sylvaner is permitted, and for Altenberg de Berheim where blends are permitted.

Map of Alsace

Map of Alsace

The Alsace Grand Cru wines are controversial and the convention is not accepted by all growers in the region. Some producers elect to forgo the Grand Cru appellation they are entitled to in favor of traditional or brand names. Theoretically, a Grand Cru should be a guarantee of quality, but this is not necessarily the case. The rule of thumb here is similar to the one in Burgundy: find a producer you trust. There are many sub-par wines grown on Grand Cru sites and many exceptional wines that do not use the Grand Cru system.

That said, we have provided a list of all fifty-one cru vineyard sites in Alsace, with their prevailing soil types and vineyard areas (in hectares) in order to give readers an efficient means of assessing the general profiles of the wines produced therein. Larger Grand Cru sites have more variable conditions throughout the vineyard and are less likely to be consistent throughout the site. Further, we have placed asterisks by those crus that are producing the highest quality wines.

Remember the following basic rules when trying to gauge the wines from the list below:

  • In general, rockier flint, granite and schist soils tend to give wines an oily, petrol and gunflint character (especially with riesling).
  • heavy clay and marl give weight and broad fruit flavors.
  • sandy limestone soils give wines with finesse.

Listing of Grand Cru Vineyard Sites:

Altenberg de Bergbieten : marl – limestone – gypsum, 29 ha.

Altenberg de Bergheim : marl – limestone, 35.1 ha; very good riesling and gewürztraminer.

Altenberg de Wolxheim : marl – limestone, 31.2 ha.

*Brand : granite, 17.7 ha; exceptional gewürztraminer.

Bruderthal : marl – limestone, 18.4 ha.

Eichberg : marl – limestone, 57.6 ha; particularly good gewürztraminer.

Engelberg : marl – limestone, 14.8 ha.

Florimont : marl – limestone, 21 ha.

Frankstein : granite, 56.2 ha.

Froehn : clay – marl, 14.6 ha; muscat wines are exceptional.

Furstentum : limestone, 30.5 ha.

Geisberg : marl – limestone – sandstone, 8.5 ha; very good riesling.

Gloeckelberg : marl – limestone, 23.4 ha.

*Goldert : marl – limestone, 45.4 ha; excellent muscat.

Hatschbourg : marl – limestone – loess, 47.4 ha.

*Hengst : marl – limestone – sandstone, 75.8 ha; exceptional gewürztraminer.

Kaefferkopf : granite – limestone – sandstone, 71.7 ha.

Kanzlerberg : very heavy clay – gypsum – marl, 3.2 ha.

*Kastelberg : shale, 5.8 ha; very good riesling.

Kessler : sand – clay, 28.5 ha.

Kirchberg de Barr : marl – limestone, 40.6 ha.

*Kirchberg de Ribeauvillé : marl – limestone – sandstone, 11.4 ha; very good riesling and muscat.

Kitterlé : sandstone – volcanic, 25.8 ha.

Mambourg : marl – limestone, 61.8 ha.

Mandelberg : marl – limestone, 22 ha.

Marckrain : marl – limestone, 53.4 ha.

Moenchberg : marl – limestone – gravel, 11.8 ha.

Muenchberg : stone – sandstone – volcanic, 17.7 ha.

Ollwiller : sand – clay, 35.9 ha.

Osterberg : marl, 24.6 ha; very good riesling.

Pfersigberg : limestone – sandstone, 75.5 ha; good muscat.

Pfingstberg : marl – limestone – sandstone, 28.2 ha.

Praelatenberg : granite – gneiss, 18.7 ha.

*Rangen : volcanic, 18.8 ha; outstanding pinot gris and riesling.

Rosacker : dolomitic limestone, 26.2 ha; site of Trimbach’s Clos Ste-Hune; Trimbach does not support the Grand Cru classification, so the wine made from this site only indicates Clos Ste-Hune and will not say ‘Grand Cru Rosacker’.

Saering : marl – limestone – sandstone, 26.8 ha.

Schlossberg : granite, 80.3 ha.

Schoenenbourg : marl – sand – gypsum – limestone, 53.4 ha.

Sommerberg : granite, 28.4 ha; very good riesling.

Sonnenglanz : marl – limestone, 32.8 ha.

Spiegel : marl – sandstone, 18.3 ha.

Sporen : stone – clay – marl, 23.7 ha; very good pinot gris and gewürztraminer.

Steinert : limestone, 38.9 ha.

Steingrubler : marl – limestone – sandstone, 23 ha.

Steinklotz : limestone, 40.6 ha.

Vorbourg : limestone – sandstone, 72.6 ha.

Wiebelsberg : sand – sandstone, 12.5 ha.

Wineck-Schlossberg : granite, 27.4 ha.

Winzenberg : granite, 19.2 ha.

Zinnkoepflé : limestone – sandstone, 68.4 ha.

Zotzenberg : marl – limestone, 36.4 ha; only Grand Cru site allowed to use sylvaner; very high quality sylvaner produced.


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AG Wine Pick: Pigato from Liguria, Italy

The wines of the Liguria region of Italy can be difficult to find — only the reclusive Valle d’Aosta region produces and exports less bottles. Plus, given the naturally high costs of production in Liguria (due to its mountainous landscape), its wines can tend to the more expensive side. While the reds are certainly good, the real strengths of Ligurian winemaking lay in its whites, both the world-class vermentino and the distinctive pigato.

You will find that the wines from the Ponente (western Liguria) are typically derived from indigenous grapes, while those from the Levante (eastern Liguria) lean toward Tuscan varieties; that said, we would point you toward the Ponente for truly distinctive, Ligurian wines.

Map of Italy's wine regions

Map of Italy’s wine regions

About Pigato

While pigato is genetically identical to the region’s trademark vermentino (and Piedmont’s favorita), it nevertheless achieves unique expression: pigato favors the earthy side of the flavor spectrum, is a bit more acidic and has a touch more body weight; by contrast, vermentino shows more exotic fruit and has more developed aromas. In addition, pigato is inclined to have more pronounced saline notes, making it ideal for local seafood and shellfish. While it might not prove to be your favorite everyday wine, pigato is sure to be a unique experience and might pair so well with seafood dishes that you will be sure to return to it again.

Look for varietal wines from the Riviera Ligure di Ponente DOC. In this denomination, there are two primary sub-areas: Albenga (at lower elevation, where wines assume fruitier, fuller-bodied profiles) and Ranzo (at higher elevation, where wines take on more restrained, aromatic qualities).


Learn about the wines of Italy with Approach Guides wine app for iPhone and iPad. The app profiles all of Italy’s winemaking regions, grape varieties, appellations, and vintages, giving you everything you need to know to choose a wine that meets your preferences.

Guide to Godello: Galicia’s Great White Wine

Early-ripening, normal-skinned godello (aka verdello) is another up-and-comer and one of our favorite whites. Godello-based wines have the big fruit and acidity of albariño (peaches, citrus, apple), but with a bit more body and slightly higher alcohol. While Galicia’s star albariño grape has become increasingly well known internationally, godello continues to fall below most consumers’ radar screens; this has served to make godellos excellent values. The best are from Galicia’s Valdeorras and Monterrei DOs and Castilla y León’s Bierzo DO, although quality offerings can also be found in Galicia’s Ribeira Sacra and Ribeiro DOs.

Map of Spain's wine regions

Map of Spain’s wine regions

Wines from Galicia, Spain

Galicia is one of our favorite regions in Spain, due in large part to its tremendous whites based on the albariño and godello varieties. Look to the excellent Rias Baixas DO for albariño and the Valdeorras DO for godello. However, red lovers need not despair: the mencía variety produces high quality wines, with a rich, earthy character. The best mencías are from the Ribeira Sacra and Valdeorras DOs.


Learn about the wines of Spain with Approach Guides wine app for iPhone and iPad. The app profiles all of Spain’s winemaking regions, grape varieties, appellations, and vintages, giving you everything you need to know to choose a wine that meets your preferences.

Discovering Wines from Spain’s Balearic Islands

While most of the wines from the Balearic Islands (Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza, and Formentera; located off the east coast of Spain) are nothing to actively seek out, the distinctive, full-bodied manto nero grape variety is an exception to this rule and worth trying. We would recommend wines from the Mallorca’s Binissalem DO, specifically. If you are looking for a white, try the local prensal blanc grape which yields light, herbal white wines.

Map of Spain's wine regions

Map of Spain’s wine regions

About the Balearic’s Binissalem DO

Created in 1991, the Balearic Islands’ Binissalem DO is located on Mallorca, occupying the center of the island.

  • Vineyards. Vineyards sit on a flat plateau at elevations of 250-300 meters.
  • Soils. A rich topsoil of sandy alluvium covers a limestone and clay base; the limestone is critical as it absorbs much-needed moisture for the vines during the island’s dry summer months.
  • Climate. The climate is mild and Mediterranean, with relative stability in intra-day temperatures.

Red Wines

Binissalem is oriented toward red wines, which account for 60-70% of total production.

  • The best reds are based on the indigenous manto negro, which accounts for nearly 40% of total vineyard planted area; all of the denomination’s red wines must include at least 30% of this variety. They are well-suited for extended aging in oak barrels; there is a wide selection of wines at crianza, reserva and even gran reserva designations. They are bold wines with smooth tannins.
  • The denomination also grows cabernet sauvignon, callet, tempranillo, monastrell, syrah and merlot. They are typically blended in varying degrees into manto negro-based wines to add tannins, body and aromatic complexity.

White Wines

Despite its red focus, Binissalem delivers some quality whites wines.

  • The best are based on the indigenous prensal blanc (aka moll), which represents approximately 60% of total white production. Generally simple wines made for immediate consumption, they nevertheless reveal pleasant white fruit aromas and subtle flavors of green apple, ginger, honey, almond and herbs.

Learn about the wines of Spain with Approach Guides wine app for iPhone and iPad. The app profiles all of Spain’s winemaking regions, grape varieties, appellations, and vintages, giving you everything you need to know to choose a wine that meets your preferences.

Wines from Casablanca Valley (Chile)

First planted in the early 1980s, the Casablanca (ka-sa-BLAHN-ka) Valley sits northwest of Santiago along a dry area of Pacific coastline on the western side of the Coastal Range. Only 18 kilometers / 11 miles from the coast, Casablanca is well known as one of Chile’s premier cool-climate regions, as its growing conditions are directly impacted by the sea. Heavy, cool fog enters in the evening and does not burn off until early afternoon, adding to the region’s already cool temperatures.

Although varied, soils are comprised of clay over a decomposed granite base in the flat areas and granite pebbles and sand on the hills. Further, since no major rivers run through Casablanca, the loose quality of the ancient soils allows vines to penetrate and establish deep root systems, which affords the resulting wines greater subtlety.

Casablanca can be informally divided into three sub-areas, all of which experience varying exposure to the sea’s influence:

  • Lower Casablanca sits on the lowest lying land in the far west of the region. The center of Casablanca’s production, it has the greatest exposure to ocean winds and is therefore the coolest. To draw a distinction: the region is less impacted by the sea’s temperature-stabilizing effects than neighboring San Antonio — another exceptional region for cool-climate style wines — so it experiences greater daily swings in temperature (slightly warmer days and slightly cooler nights).
  • Upper Casablanca sits at the highest elevation on the eastern edge of the region. The least impacted by the sea, it gets the greatest amount of sunshine and experiences the widest daily fluctuations in temperature.
  • Central Casablanca has a mix of the conditions experienced in the Upper and Lower sub-areas.
Map of Chile’s wine regions

Map of Chile’s wine regions

White Wines of the Casablanca Valley

Casablanca has built a reputation for attractively-priced whites that are simple, fruity, and crisp, perfect for everyday consumption.

However, more recently, there is a new class of white wines emerging that is serious and very high quality. Further, they continue to hit attractive price points, making them tremendous values.

  • For the absolute best wines in this elite category, go with those based on sauvignon blanc, some of the best in Chile.
  • The bar is also similarly being raised for chardonnay; excellent steely versions prevail.
  • Aside from its two focus varieties, Casablanca is actively exploring a number of new white grape varieties, including riesling, viognier, and gewürztraminer, all of which have the potential to yield interesting results in the cooler temperatures.

Red Wines of the Casablanca Valley

While Casablanca’s cooler climate has led its innovative winemakers to focus on white wines, there are still some high quality reds being made.

  • Syrah is a variety of particular interest, delivering consistent, complex wines, packed with spice and herbs.
  • Cabernet sauvignon also yields respectable results in a cool-climate style.
  • Finally, in a very positive development, pinot noir is beginning to yield good results from select vineyards in cooler Lower Casablanca. Executed in an Old World style, they are the region’s most exciting new wines.

Learn about the wines of Chile with Approach Guides wine app for iPhone and iPad. The app profiles all of Chile’s winemaking regions, grape varieties, appellations, and vintages, giving you everything you need to know to choose a wine that meets your preferences.

Eating Jamon? Reach for a Cava (Catalunya, Spain)

There a few wines that pair as well as cava sparkling wine and Spain’s famous jamon iberico (click for a detailed guide to jamon iberico).

Map of Spain's wine regions

Map of Spain’s wine regions

Region: Catalunya

Created in 1959, Cava — named for the underground caves in which the wines are crafted — produces Spain’s premier sparkling wines.

  • Vineyards. The production zone is spread out across 159 municipalities in the provinces of Barcelona (63), Tarragona (52), Lleida (12), Girona (5), La Rioja (18), Alava (3), Zaragoza (2), Navarra (2), Valencia (1) and Badajoz (1). That said, 95% is produced in the area between Tarragona and Barcelona, with most cultivation occurring at 200-300 meters in elevation around the city of Sant Sadurní di Anoia in Penedès Central, roughly 20-25 kilometers from the Mediterranean.
  • Soils. Soils are generally sandy and rocky clay over a limestone base.
  • Climate. Although there is fair degree of variation given the expansive landscape over which vines are cultivated, for the most part the climate is warm, wet and Mediterranean.

Cava: Catalunya’s Sparkling White Wine

Cava is based chiefly on the traditional Catalunyan white grape triad consisting of xarel-lo, macabeo and parellada: xarel-lo provides the structuring body and almond flavor notes; macabeo the crisp acidity and herbaceous edge; and parellada the soft, creamy finish.

Although Cava sparklers use different grape varieties, the production method is the same as with French Champagne (méthode Champenoise), in that the wine undergoes its secondary, bubble-creating fermentation in the bottle (rather than in large pressure tanks, as with Italy’s prosecco). As far as a comparison versus France’s Champagnes: while they exhibit similar gentle fruit flavors, good body and underlying creaminess, they are more approachable due to their lower relative acidity.

Cava sparklers spend a minimum of nine months aging on their lees, which affords their flavor profiles greater complexity; after 18 months, wines can be labeled as reserva; after 30 months, they can be labeled as gran reserva.

Best of all: Cavas are the most attractively priced sparkling wines in the world. That said, we recommend opting for the driest available versions — Brut Nature (0-3 grams per liter of residual sugar) or Extra Brut (3-6 grams per liter of residual sugar) — as they best express Cava’s true terroir, showcasing crisp acidity and good minerality.


Learn about the wines of Spain with Approach Guides wine app for iPhone and iPad. The app profiles all of Spain’s winemaking regions, grape varieties, appellations, and vintages, giving you everything you need to know to choose a wine that meets your preferences.