The Grape Varieties
Chardonnay brings brightness, acidity and length to a sparkling wine. It is the main white grape in champagne, ubiquitous in all the finest and longest-lived examples. When produced on its own the wine will be called a blanc de blancs - literally a white from white.
The generosity and breadth of Pinot Noir is the perfect counterpart to Chardonnay's finesse. The harmony between these two grape varieties is the key to the success of any blend. 100% Pinot Noir sparkling wines are called blanc de noirs.
The 'third' grape of Champagne is actually widely planted in the region, although it is quite rare for other regions to plant large quantities. Its undeserved reputation for modest quality stems from its friendly, fruity nature, often adding to the enjoyability of a classic blend in youth. 100% Pinot Meunier blanc de noirs are increasingly seen from growers in Champagne and England.
These two grapes are occasionally found in Champagne (under the names blanc vrai and fromenteau ). Pinot Blanc is common in Crémant d'Alsace and, to a lesser degree, in Franciacorta and sparkling wines from Austria and Germany. It is rounder and lower in acidity than Chardonnay.
Pinot Gris displays a distinctive aromatic profile. It is rare to find it as a prominent variety in traditional method wines.
Spanish Sparkling Wine is an ever-shifting picture, but Cava and the new breakaway Corpinnat appellation usually contain a combination of Xarel-lo, Macabeo and Parellada. Xarel-lo is perhaps the most distinctive of the three, whilst Macabeo offers a more gentle fruitiness. Parallada is usually a minor partner.
Wherever there is still Chenin Blanc there is also sparkling. The Loire is Chenin's home, with its distinctive waxy, apply (and occasionally slightly wild) side coming through in Crémant De Loire as well as sparkling wines from specific villages such as Vouvray and Montlouis.
Although much of Germany's sparkling wine output is Tank Method, Riesling is used to produce many of the finest sekt via the Traditional Method. Its high acidity and powerful aromatics make for an exciting, unique style. It is also used in other parts of Europe where Riesling is grown for still wine.
There are hundereds of other grapes you might encounter in sparkling wines, from other obscure Champagne varieties to red varieties such as Gamay, Nebbiolo and Shiraz. Adventurous producers working with local grapes can produce unique expressions that relate closely to the still wines of their region.