Photo Courtesy of Unsplash | Tristan Gassert
Don’t let the bubbles fool you. Although sparkling wine and Champagne both possess a refreshing effervescence and a similar trademark “pop” when uncorked, there are a few main reasons why the two labels display different names. We’re helping to decode the differences between these two bubbly beverages, so you’ll be more informed the next time you pop that bottle and click glasses (this New Year’s Eve, perhaps?).
True Champagne Comes From France
Champagne, the wine, is named after the region where it is grown, fermented, and bottled: Champagne, France. Nestled in the country’s northeastern corner, near Paris, the only labels that are legally allowed to bare the name “Champagne” are bottled within 100 miles of this region (according to European Law). Outside of the Champagne region, French sparkling wine is known as Crémant.
Sparkling winemaking in Champagne dates to the 1700s, and today, vineyards span 84,000 acres throughout the hillsides and plains of its five main growing regions: Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne, Côte des Blancs, Côte de Sézanne, and The Aube.
In addition to location, Champagne also receives its distinguished name because of the grapes used to produce it (and the distinct flavors that result from grapes grown in Champagne’s cooler climate and chalky, mineral-rich soils). Only a handful of grapes across Champagne are allowed to be used for its base or “cuvée” (a blend of the first and most concentrated extraction of juices from pressed grapes).
Grapes allowed in Champagne production:
- Pinot Noir (most widely used)
- Pinot Meunier (most widely used)
- Chardonnay (most widely used)
- Pinot Blanc
- Pinot Gris
- Petit Meslier
Although the ratios vary, about 90% of all blended Champagnes use 2/3 red and 1/3 Chardonnay mixes. This is based on the structure, fruitiness, body, aroma, delicacy, freshness, and complexity of the grapes. The best cuvees offer a harmonious combination of all of these revered characteristics.
Champagne Making Practices
The process in which Champagne is made is called Méthode Traditionnelle, formerly known as the Méthode Champenoise, which is also referred to as “The Classic Method”. In a nutshell, Champagne gets its sparkle from a second fermentation that takes place in the bottle, but the entire process is very technical and labor intensive:
Grapes are picked and fermented into still wine, then yeast and sugars are added to the cuvée to start the second fermentation as it is bottled. Over time, trapped CO2 gas carbonates the liquid to form the trademark bubbles while yeast cells start to die. The wine in bottle is then aged for at least 15 months “on the lees” (with the dead yeast cells) to add texture and complexity. During this time, clarification occurs via a process known as riddling, which basically rotates the bottle slowly to capture the dead yeast cells at the neck before the yeast is removed through disgorgement, topped off with sugar and wine known as the dosage , then sealed. Like we said, it’s a long, intricate process.
Champagne making is also controlled strictly by the Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC). From dictating how one may grow the grapes to how they may be harvested and processed, the rigorous standards distinguish Champagne. For instance, all grapes that are used in Champagne must be hand picked and pressed in a covered environment. They may only be pressed twice, once to make the ultra concentrated cuvée (which is high in sugar and acid) and the second time to make the taille (sugary, lower in acid, and higher in minerals and pigment). A Champagne may be classified as vintage or non-vintage—respectively—when wines are made with grapes of one year’s harvest or a mix of grapes from different years.
“All Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne”
When determining whether a wine is truly Champagne or sparkling, one only needs to identify the region where it was produced. While true Champagnes can only be made in the Champagne region of France, from seven distinct grapes and in the Méthode Traditionnelle, sparkling wines aren’t held to the same restrictions. Sparkling wine may be made with the exact same grapes as Champagne or an entirely different blend, and can be made using the Classic Method, the “Tank Method” (a more affordable process where the second fermentation happens in tank), or the Ancestral Method aka Pétillant Naturel (a method that uses icy temperatures to pause fermentation and then wines are bottled to finish the fermentation later).
While most Champagnes are Brut, or dry in style, both Champagne and sparkling wine are made in a vareity of styles, from Brut Zero (bone dry with no added dosage) to Doux (the sweetest style of bubbly).
Sparkling Wine Across the World
The style of winemaking which produces sparkling wine is practiced all over the world. With differing emphasis on fruitiness, bubble size, and methods, each country is home to a distinct version of its own. Some popular varieties from different regions are:
This German version of sparkling wine can vary in sweetness and dryness and is typically less alcoholic than Champagne. During the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, France was given ownership of the classification “Champagne.” Germany’s sparkling wine has been known as Sekt ever since.
This popular Italian sparkling wine has large bubbles and a fruity aroma—making it a common choice for mixed drinks like mimosas or bellinis. Made with Glera grapes as well as Bianchetta Trevigiana, this is most often a dry or off-dry sparkling wine (though its fruit-forward character can make it seem sweeter).
A Spanish sparkling wine made from Macabeu grapes, this variety is said to have very similar flavor to Champagnes.
- French sparkling wine:
Sparkling wines can come from France (outside of the Champagne region) and are made in a variety of sweet, dry and rosé varieties.
- American sparkling wine: From blends using traditional Champagne grapes to vintages with a completely different recipe, there are endless flavors to discover in sparkling wines.
Champagne Vs. Sparkling Wine Pricing
The most expensive Champagnes can cost thousands, while sparkling wine is often much more affordable. This all comes down to the grape quality as well as the methods used to produce the sparkling wine. While most sparkling wines do implement the labor intensive Méthode Traditionnelle, others cut costs, increase speed of getting products into the market, and up production numbers by creating tank wine. When choosing a sparkling wine or Champagne, it’s important to determine what you’d like to get out of it. If it’s quality and care, a Champagne or higher quality sparkling would make an excellent choice. If your budget is something to consider or the sparkling wine is going to be mixed into other juices, a less expensive and lower quality sparkling is perfectly fine.