It’s common to find Champagne and Sparkling Wine used interchangeably. Very few people know the nuances between the two, and some even believe it’s just a branding play.
However, the easiest way to explain what champagne is and how it’s different from sparkling wine is to understand that all champagnes are sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wines are champagne.
Whether it’s called Prosecco, Cava, Champagne, or Sparkling Wine, they are all part of the same family. It’s just a matter of what blend of grapes was used in making them, the method of production itself, and where it is made.
Of course, the clear feature of any of these is the bubbles. The fermentation is done in a sealed environment and any carbon dioxide stays in the wine. Cheaper methods may manually pump carbon dioxide into the wine, a process known as carbonation.
Now that the bubble has burst, let’s dive into what exactly are the nuances that separate champagne from sparkling wines.
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What is Champagne?
The easiest way to define champagne is by discussing where it comes from. It’s produced from a particular region in France called, you guessed it, Champagne.
Champagne was originally made during the Roman era. History traces the earliest forms of champagne dating back to 400 AD where it was grown in the region across roughly 80,000 acres. What makes Champagne unique is its flavor that comes from the mild climate it’s made in where the grapes grow in mineral-rich and chalky soil.
Any bottle that’s made within a 100-mile radius of the Champagne region and follows specific standards in its production are legally allowed to be labeled as a Champagne bottle.
Standard 1: Use of select grapes
To make Champagne, one can’t use just any common grape and only a select few varieties qualify. Seven specific grapes to be exact.
The most widely used are Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. Less popular, but also used, are Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Petit Meslier, and Arbane.
These are the only grapes used in creating what’s the base (a highly concentrated juice formed from pressed grapes) used to make Champagne.
Standard 2: Méthode Champenoise
The second nuance of Champagne is how it’s made.
Champagne goes through what’s known as Méthode Champenoise (“fermented in a bottle”). This is a two-step process that involves fermenting the juice into alcohol and then bottling the alcohol to allow carbon dioxide to be trapped and create the bubbles.
Throughout this process, winemakers carefully add sugar and yeast and then monitor and remove dead yeast cells to create the final Champagne product. As you can see, it requires a lot of time and patience to create a great bottle of Champagne.
Other Sparkling Wines such as Prosecco might have a second fermentation process, but it’s usually done in a tank instead of within the individual bottle, known as the Charmat Method.
Standard 3: Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) certification
The other standard that makes Champagne so different is the strict quality control that is applied to how Champagne is produced. The AOC sets rigorous standards on how grapes are grown in the Champagne region, how they must be harvested, and how they are processed.
A few examples of these rules are that the grapes can only be hand-picked and can only be pressed twice in a covered environment.
It’s estimated most of the store-shelf Champagne that’s available to purchase comes from a blended mix of the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. And what most of us know as the taste of ‘Champagne’ is usually due to this mix.
It’s important to note though that vintage Champagne or collectible Champagne may taste quite different and this is because most vintage Champagne can be aged for many years. Vintage refers to the fact that all the grapes come from the same growing season and generally represent the highest quality Champagne from the producer. This is usually the best quality Champagne and therefore the most expensive.
To sum it up, remember that Champagne is all about the region from which it’s made, the specific grapes used, the techniques used in production, and the strict standards applied to how the grapes are grown, harvested and processed.
What is Sparkling Wine?
Sparkling wines can be made of the exact same type of grapes as used to make champagne, but also many more. It can take on any blend of grapes to form different flavor profiles. It could be a rosé that’s drier all the way to a sparkling dessert wine that is super sweet. This means there’s a wide variety of sparkling wines out there that take on different characteristics. Some are extra fruity while others are made to be very bubbly.
Let’s discuss a few of the different common types of sparkling wine.
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Sekt, for example, is Germany’s version of sparkling wine and is generally less alcoholic than Champagne. It’s considered the “Champagne of Germany,” with some variation in dryness or sweetness, depending on the Sekt.
In fact, when the Treaty of Versailles was signed, it was agreed that France would have ownership over what’s known as the classification of Champagne. Germany, on the other hand, held onto to Sekt as their own version of it.
Similarly, Prosecco is another form of sparkling wine that takes on a much more fruity profile and is known to be fizzier. Prosecco is commonly made with Glera grapes and Bianchetta Trevigiana. It’s considered a drier form of sparkling wine.
Cava has a similar flavor and style to champagne but is far more affordable. Known to be aged for a minimum of 9 months, Cava hails from Spain and is made from a set of Cava grapes such as:
- Macabeo: a white grape that takes on an intense citrus and stone fruit profile.
- Paralleda: a while grape exhibiting citrus fruits and yellow flower tones in its flavor profile.
- Xarello: a white grape that’s under-ripe with apple fruit aromas.
French Sparkling Wine
With the name giving it away, French Sparkling Wine hails from France, and it’s the categorization given to any form of sparkling wine that isn’t from the Champagne region.
American Sparkling Wine
American Sparkling Wine is used to describe any wines that are made in the U.S. They also span a variety of sparkling wines that use a blend of traditional champagne grapes or it could be they are using experimental flavors.
We’ve talked about how and where these wines are made, but you might be wondering, are there discernible taste differences?
Let’s start with Champagne.
What’s unique about Champagne is the region and thus the soil used for the grapes that end up becoming champagne. The Champagne region, with its climate and soil, allow for acidic grapes that release a sought-after taste. Secondly, the longer duration of cultivation and fermentation adds to the quality of wine one’s getting. Some common descriptors for Champagne are bright, crisp, and citrus notes.
With the other sparkling wines, you’ll find a broad spectrum of flavors and styles available so it’s easier to find one that fits your palate and preferences. You can find almost any flavor profile when it comes to sparkling wines.
Champagne, France is only so big. Given the considerable effort and quality control involved in creating Champagne, it’s no surprise it can be considerably more expensive than other sparkling wines. Some of the best Champagne bottles easily cost thousands of dollars, especially in a great growing season when more vintage Champagne is able to be produced.
The complex process used to create Champagne can mean it’s a much more manual and labor-intensive process. Prosecco and other sparkling wines can be produced using more automated systems and in a batch process such as through second fermentation in a tank. This means the entire cost to produce a bottle is cheaper and can be priced lower.
If you are looking for the cheapest sparkling wines on the market, do know these are usually produced in a way not much different than carbonated soft drinks. Carbon dioxide is pumped into the wine in a large tank as opposed to going through a natural fermentation process.
So there you have it, Sparkling Wine vs. Champagne. The major takeaway is that Champagne has earned its reputation thanks to its rigorous Champagne-making process and while sparkling wine doesn’t have to follow the same rigorous process, there are still a number of sparkling wines that are definitely worth your time and they will most likely come at a more affordable price point.
If you love wine as much as we do, be sure to check out our wine tours in Sonoma and Napa Valley! We’d be happy to include some of our favorite Sparkling Wine producers in both Napa and Sonoma for you to enjoy.