Sparkling wine and champagne often go hand in hand when drinking the bubbly. It is not surprising for many to be confused about the difference between the two. After all, how many people in the world are experts at bubbly besides the handful of sommeliers. Many people will be unable to identify a sparkling wine and a champagne without looking at the label.
Well to put it bluntly, all champagnes are sparkling wine but not all sparkling wines are champagne. So, how do you differentiate them? What are the requirements for a bottle of sparkling wine to be qualified as champagne? This article will tell you all you need to know about the difference between sparkling wine and champagne.
What is sparkling wine?
To make things clearer, we have to be able to define what is sparkling wine. To define it simply, sparkling wine is wine with carbon dioxide bubbles in it.
Imagine the soft drink version of wine, carbonated wine. So, if you are drinking that has effervescence in it that is not made in France, you are drinking sparkling wine.
What is champagne?
On the other hand, champagne is a version of sparkling wine that must originate from France. The grapes and production of champagne must be within the region of Champagne (note the capital C) in northeastern France.
When it comes to bubbly, there are many categories and types of champagne. Due to the many laws and regulations guarding champagne, it has been elevated to a higher level as compared to other sparkling wines.
For further understanding, read ‘What is champagne?’
Sparkling wine vs Champagne
So, what makes a sparkling wine ‘champagne’? First of all, let’s talk about the differences in origins between sparkling wine and champagne.
As mentioned above, the most basic way to differentiate champagne from other sparkling wines is to make sure that it originated from the Champagne region in northern France because of its wet, cool climate and soil that is rich in minerals.
Types of grapes
The types of grapes used are an important factor when it comes to determining whether a bottle is champagne or sparkling wine.
For champagne, there are only certain types of grapes allowed during production. Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay are the most widely used. The three main champagne grapes make up 99.7 percent of all champagnes in the entire world. Other grapes include Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Petit Meslier as well as Arbane.
As for sparkling wine, common sparkling wines include prosecco, cava and sparkling wine from the United States.
The types of grapes used in sparkling wine varies greatly. The Prosecco sparkling wine is Italian and it is made from the Glera grape. The Cava sparkling wine is Spanish and it is commonly made from a blend of Parellada, Macabéo, and Xarel-lo grapes. The Sekt sparkling wine is of German origins. The word ‘sekt’ is the German word for sparkling wine and it uses the Riesling, Silvaner, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir as well as Gewürztraminer grapes.
Difference in production method
The difference in production methods also make a huge difference when it comes to classifying champagne and sparkling wines.
Production of Champagne
Champagnes must also undergo a process Méthode Champenoise, which translates to “The Classic Method” in English. This method consists of a very long, technical and labour-intensive process.
After the grapes are harvested and fermented into still wine, yeast and sugars will be added to the cuvée in order for the second fermentation to start as the wine is bottled. Carbon dioxide gas (CO2) will be trapped over a period of time and it will carbonate the wine to produce the bubbles as the yeast cells start to die.
In order to add more texture and complexity, the wine in the bottle will be aged for at least 15 months with the dead yeast cells still inside although some producers let it age for longer periods of time.
During the aging process, the bottle will be rotated slowly in order to collect the dead yeast cells at the neck of the bottle. This process is called riddling and clarification will occur. Finally, the yeast will be removed through disgorgement, topped off with sugar and wine known as dosage and then sealed.
Not all who can produce champagne, can produce champagne. The production of champagne is strictly monitored and controlled by the Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC). They dictate everything – from how the grapes may be grown to how they are harvested and processed. These extreme standards distinguish champagne from other sparkling wines.
Production of Sparkling Wine
The most widely known sparkling wine from Italy is the Prosecco. It is made in the Veneto region of Italy and is made from the Glera grape. The Charmat Method is used during the production of Prosecco.
While the second fermentation for champagne takes place in each individual bottle, the second fermentation for Prosecco takes place in stainless steel tanks. This allows for the production to take place in bigger batches compared to champagne.
The Charmat Method gives Prosecco a lighter and less yeasty flavour. It can be a little sweeter compared to champagne or Cava with bigger, looser bubbles and fruity flavours such as apple, pear, lemon rind, light flowers or even tropical fruit.
Cava is the sparkling wine that majorly originates from Catalonia, Spain and it is normally made from the Parellada, Macabéo, and Xarel-lo grapes. Some cava are also made from more popular grapes like Chardonnay or Pinot as well.
Similar to the production of champagne, the second fermentation takes place in each individual bottle of cava. Unfortunately, it is produced outside of the Champagne region, hence it cannot be called Champagne and is only known as cava or sparkling wine.
The method used to produce Cava can also only be called méthode traditionnelle instead of méthode champenoise. Plus, cava is more affordable compared to champagne because during the second fermentation, the Spanish uses machines to rotate and tip the bottles whereas the French often uses their hand.
Cava is lighter in flavour compared to champagnes and it will give you a balanced citrus, melon, pear and pleasant acidity.
Sekt is the German sparkling wine. In fact, ‘Sekt” actually translates directly to ‘sparkling wine’ in English. This sparkling wine can be made from Riesling, Silvaner, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, and Gewürztraminer grapes. The majority of the produced Sekt is produced using the Chamat Method like Prosecco.
However, there are premium Sekts that are made with the méthode traditionnelle as well.
When it comes to pricing, champagne is generally more expensive when compared to sparkling wine. When it comes to determining the price of each bottle, be it champagne or sparkling wine, producers usually use three factors to determine it – value of land, how much labour is involved and how many bottles are produced.
Based on these three factors, it is obvious as to why champagnes are more expensive compared to other sparkling wines. The quality of the land that the grapes are grown on, which includes grand crus and premier crus, to the process of producing a single bottle of champagne is a differentiating factor. It elevates champagne to a whole other level. Champagne is more time intensive during production and therefore more expensive.
The price of each bottle of Champagne usually costs double the price of other sparkling wines. The price of a decent-quality bottle of champagne can range from $50 to $300. Vintage champagne, depending on the rarity and producer, can even be sold for thousands of dollars as they take a lot longer than the minimum 15 months to age. Some vintages have to age at least 36 months!
The process of producing sparkling wine is a lot less complex, which plays into the final price for consumers. Sparkling wines are also not subject to the different regulations which means that the production process is not as strict, thus, deemed as less valuable.
In a nutshell, all champagnes are sparkling wines but not all sparkling wines are champagnes. Although they have similar properties, the particular factor that sets champagne apart is the fact that it must only be produced in the Champagne region of France and it must comply with the multiple laws and regulations that govern champagne production. It must go through the long and intricate process of the production method, the Méthode Champenoise.
Sparkling wines outside of Champagne cannot use the term ‘Méthode Champenoise’ even though it is produced in the same way. It can only be called the Méthode Traditionnelle. Because of the exclusivity of all the factors involved in the production of champagnes, a bottle is more expensive than that of other sparkling wines. However, this does not mean that sparkling wines are not delicious. Sparkling wines are just as flavourful and if you are unable to afford a champagne bottle, you can try sparkling wines like cava or prosecco instead.