Sparkling wine cocktails are one of the easiest ways to make a party feel festive. They’re celebratory, they come together in a flash, and they don’t require a stocked liquor cabinet, fancy barware, or even much mixing. And in many cases, you can put together a top-notch version on the cheap. Here we cover sparkling wine basics, share recipes for three classic cocktails (Champagne cocktails, Bellinis, and mimosas), and provide helpful tips that apply to any bubbly cocktail.
Quick Differences between Champagne, Prosecco, and Cava
Champagne, of course, is the gold standard of sparkling wine. It must be made in Champagne, France, using specific grapes and the region’s traditional production method. But even the least expensive bottle of Champagne costs about $40. Great alternatives include prosecco ($8 to $30) and cava ($18 to $30), the second- and third-most-produced sparkling wines, respectively.
Prosecco is made with an Italian grape using a different method that makes it less carbonated. It tends to have more residual sugar and a slightly lower acidity.
Cava, a Spanish sparkler, is produced with grapes indigenous to Spain using the same method used to produce Champagne. It features similar levels of carbonation, acidity, and residual sugar.
The Physics of Fizz
Carbonation doesn’t just give sparkling wine a pretty appearance and create a sharp bite on your tongue. The bubbles convey aromatic compounds to the surface of the wine and deliver fragrance to your nose when they burst. But how do the bubbles form in the first place?
They start with dissolved carbon dioxide that stays in the pressurized wine until the bottle is opened. For a bubble to form, the carbon dioxide needs a trigger, or an interruption in the otherwise homogeneous liquid, called a nucleation site: a microscopic gas pocket that’s already in the glass, on a fleck of dust, a cloth fiber left behind when you wiped the glass clean, or a scratch or etching in the glass (or, in a champagne cocktail, a sugar cube).
The gas pocket is all that’s needed to incite some carbon dioxide to come out of the wine, forming a bubble. The bubble grows as it rises through the liquid and carbon dioxide enters the bubble. This process repeats itself over and over, creating a trail of effervescence from the nucleation site up to the surface of the wine.
When to Splurge on Champagne
Champagne is essential in a Champagne cocktail—and not just to make it true to its name. Made by pouring the wine over a sugar cube drenched in Angostura bitters and garnished with a twist of lemon zest, this cocktail evolves from the first sip to the last—and the flavors of the Champagne are primary until the very end. First, bursting bubbles aromatize lemon oils from the twist to make the initial sip bright and citrusy. Then the Champagne’s flavors and aromas more fully take over, with whispers of the orange-and-spice-scented Angostura. Only in the final sips, when the sugar cube has fully dissolved to create a bitters-infused syrup at the bottom of the glass, does the Angostura supersede the Champagne. For the best experience, this cocktail’s namesake ingredient is a must.
Money MattersAn $8 bottle is entirely acceptable for mimosas and Bellinis.
When a Budget Bubbly Will Do
In virtually all other sparkling wine cocktails, it’s fine to substitute a less expensive sparkling wine. When we poured an $8 prosecco into orange juice and Cointreau to make mimosas and compared them to a batch made with $45 Champagne, all tasters could tell the difference, but most found the cheaper bottle entirely acceptable since the juice and liqueur hid the nuances of the wine. Prosecco is the traditional choice for Bellinis, which are sweetened with peach juice and peach schnapps, and we wouldn’t hesitate to use an inexpensive bottle to mix that drink either.
Tips for Gauging a Sparkling Wine's Flavor
It’s helpful to consult with a well-informed shopkeeper when selecting a sparkling wine, but to make your own educated guess, keep in mind that one of the biggest determining factors in the flavor profile is the grape varietal. Generally speaking, due to the grapes used to make each wine, champagne is only slightly fruity, cava is a little fruitier, and prosecco is fruitier still. To select a quality sparkling wine similar to Champagne, look for the term “traditional method” or “crémant.” Both indicate that the wine was made in the same manner as champagne, so its flavor (and effervescence) will be comparable.
How Sweet Is It?
These terms will give you an idea of the sweetness level of champagne (you’ll find them on some prosecco and cava labels as well), but keep in mind that acidity (both from the grapes and from carbonation) also affects how sweet a wine tastes. (Wines with higher acidity will taste less sweet.) Make a note of the terms before you shop since they can be confusing: Sparkling wines labeled “dry” contain a fair amount of sugar, as do “demi-sec” wines, even though sec means “dry” in French.
Why You Should Chill Your Mixers—and Flutes, Too
Whether you spring for Champagne or opt for something more economical, sparkling wine is best served at about 40 degrees. Cold suppresses sweetness, so wine will taste sweeter at warmer temperatures. Higher temperatures also make the wine lose its carbonation more quickly. This makes it initially fizzier and more aromatic, but the trade-off is that it becomes flat and loses its aroma faster. That's why it's critical to not only chill the wine, but your mixers and flutes as well. Wine poured into an unchilled flute shot from 38 to 48 degrees. But in a chilled flute, it rose to only 43 degrees.
Uncorking: Easy as 1, 2, 3
1. Remove the foil and loosen the cage, keeping your hand on the cork at all times.
2. Tilt the bottle to a 45-degree angle, pointing it away from people, pets, and fragile objects.
3. Grip the cage and cork and twist the bottle until the cork comes free. Continue to hold the bottle at an angle until the foaming subsides; this increases the surface area of the wine, allowing gases to escape without the wine foaming over.
Pre-Party PrepSparkling wine should be opened just before mixing cocktails. But that doesn’t mean you can’t premix liqueurs and juices. Just be sure to keep the mixers chilled in a vessel such as a small pitcher. As guests arrive, simply pour the mixer into a flute glass, add the sparkling wine, and garnish. For the Champagne Cocktail, you can presoak sugar cubes up to 2 hours in advance or make our DIY Bitters Sugar Cubes.
Tips for Mixing Sparkling Cocktails like a Pro
Paying attention to small details will bring your bubbly cocktails to the next level.
TILT THE GLASS
Pour the way you would a beer: down the side of a glass that’s tilted to a 45-degree angle. This shortens the distance the wine falls so there is less turbulence and therefore less foaming.
Mix sparkling cocktails that include liqueurs and juice using a lifting motion with a spoon. Stirring isn’t particularly effective at moving denser liquids up toward the top of the glass. A lifting motion is much more efficient, and the less you agitate the drink, the more carbonation you preserve.
DROP THE TWIST IN THE DRINK
For cocktails garnished with a citrus twist, be sure to drop the twist into the drink before sipping. The essential oils in the zest and bitter compounds in the pith enhance the aroma and flavor of the drink.
- Bartenders use a tool called a channel knife to create these spirals, but you can easily make them with just a vegetable peeler and a knife. Here's how.
- To learn more about how different types of citrus garnishes impact the flavor of cocktails, read about the tests we conducted.
Two Ways to Preserve the Bubbles in Leftover Bubbly
Don’t worry if you can’t finish a bottle of sparkling wine in one go or have leftovers after making our Champagne Cocktail. We found that sealing the bottle with plastic wrap and a rubber band kept sparkling wine surprisingly effervescent for a couple of days. Even better, use a champagne saver. Our favorite, the Cilio Champagne Bottle Sealer, is just $9, and as long as we didn’t repeatedly reopen the bottle, it kept leftover champagne as fresh-tasting and boisterously bubbly as a newly opened bottle for a week.