From now until New Year’s Eve we will be whitewater rafting down a river of bubbles. With this in mind, it’s a good idea to get a sense of the current. Here’s a seasonal primer about the finer points of bubbles to enhance your recreational sipping.

The term Champagne is traditionally reserved for bubbly from the Champagne region of France. In Spain, sparklers are called cava, and in Italy, Prosecco, while most all other bubbly is called sparkling wine. But every year, when you see Korbel with champagne on its label, don’t assume the winery has gone rogue. Korbel was grandfathered into a provision under U.S. law, allowing it to call its bottlings California Champagne or Russian River Valley Champagne.

Bubbly is born during a secondary fermentation that takes place right in the bottle, during which the yeast devours the sugar, releasing carbon dioxide. This French method, known as “méthode Champenoise,” is widely used in the top sparkling wine houses.

When shopping for quality bubbly, it’s important to find bottles that are made in the traditional Champagne method. Look for this wording on the label: “Traditional method,” “methode champenoise,” or “fermented in this bottle.” If you see a label that says “Charmat Process” beware. The sparklers’ secondary fermentation was in a big container or a tank and this process will create big soda-pop bubbles, not to mention a less complex, refined sparkler.

If you’re curious as to what grapes find their way into these frothy sparklers, here’s the skinny: Bubbly is produced from chardonnay, pinot meunier and pinot noir grapes. Blanc de blancs are made exclusively from a base of chardonnay, while blanc de noirs are made exclusively from a base of red wine. Bruts, however, are a blend of white and red wine.

Finally, the uncorking. Contrary to common belief, the best way to open a bottle of bubbly is not to pop the cork. It’s better to slowly allow for the cork’s release, achieving an ideal “sigh” as the cork exits the bottle.

You can reach Wine Writer Peg Melnik at and 707-521-5310.