Greig Santos-Buch

Sparkling Wine vs Champagne – What’s the Difference?

Did you know that Champagne is just one type of Sparkling Wine? Real champagne must come from Champagne, France in order for it to be called Champagne on the bottle.

Any other version of “champagne” isn’t really champagne. It’s just sparkling wine from somewhere else. In fact, it’s illegal to label a sparkling wine Champagne in many countries unless it originated in Champagne France, and was crafted using permitted techniques in the region. 

Crafting Champagne in France

Champagne may display a straw-colored hue, but more often than not, it comes from black grapes! Pinot Noir to be specific. While Pinot Noir is most commonly the grape of choice for champagne production in France, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay can also be used individually or as a blend. There’s a simple reason to why Champagne made from black grapes isn’t red. It’s because during the winemaking process, only the flesh of the grape is utilized to craft the wine. While the skins may be black, red or blueish, the flesh inside is white.

Is Sparkling Wine the Same as Champagne? | Winetraveler.com

Strict Rules for Making Champagne

Grapes used must only come from select pieces of land according the laws set in place by the Champagne appellation. The method for producing Champagne is dubbed Méthode Champenoise in France. This is also the method that tends to produce the largest and longest lasting bubbles! It entails picking approved grapes that are typically quite unripe. This allows for a more bitter taste right from the start.

RELATED: A Wine Lover’s Guide to Visiting The Champagne France Region

Once the grapes have been picked and undergo an initial pressing, additional sugar and yeast is added to the mix to further enact fermentation. This is done in compact tanks that allow for no exposure to the outside environment. As the sugar and yeast digests the tart wine mixture, the organisms release carbon dioxide as a byproduct. Once released, carbon dioxide can’t escape the tanks, thus carbonating the mixture inside and further pressurizing the enclosed environment.

Secondary Fermentation & Aging

Now for the fun part. Once primary fermentation is complete, a secondary form of fermentation is enacted within the bottle.  Additional yeast and rock sugar is added at this point, and this phase of fermentation should last for a minimum of 18 months.

Once aging is complete, the bottles are then turned upside down in a process called “Riddling.” This allows the dead yeast cells, known as “Lees,” to settle in the neck of the bottle. Bottles are then rotated daily until as many of the lees as possible collect at the top.

At this point, the Champagne bottle neck is then frozen. Once frozen solid, the bottle top is removed, and the solidified lees and residual immediately fly out of the bottle — thus getting rid of any sediment. Once the frozen sediment is ejected, and depending on the brand, additional sugar and wine is added to bring the level of fluid back to normal in the bottle. It also helps set the desired amount of residual sugar content. The bottle is quickly corked to maintain carbonation following this process.

The Epernay Region of Champagne France | Winetraveler.com

The Best Glasses For Drinking Champagne

There are two main styles of Champagne glass that are most commonly used. The most common is the Champagne Flute, which has a narrow and elongated bowl. The stem is also necessary in an effort to stop the drinkers hand from warming the wine. By using a narrow bowl, carbonation tends to last longer by leaving a smaller gap and less surface area for it to escape.

If you plan on experimenting with other styles of Champagne glasses, we recommend sticking as narrow as possible. For example, the Champagne Coupe is a popular choice for Champagne Cocktails, but it also allows for the bubbles to dissipate at a much faster rate.

Looking for some great Champagne Glasses? Try out these beautiful Schott Zwiesel Tritan Crystal Glass Forte Stemware Collection Champagne Flute with Effervescence Points, 7.7-Ounce, Set of 6.

Our Favorite Sparkling Wine & Champagne Cocktail Recipes

Allie recently covered an assortment of awesome Champagne Cocktail recipes that can be used for the holiday season or a typical house party. Our favorite right now is the Champagne Jello Shot. 

Champagne Jello Shot Recipe | Winetraveler.comChampagne Jello Shot Recipe

Makes 10-15 servings

Ingredients:

  • 1 Bottle of Champagne (or any version of budget Sparkling Wine)
  • Unflavored Gelatin (3 sachets)
  • Sweetener of your choice (3 tablespoons)
  • Colored sprinkles for garnish
  • Toothpicks

Directions:

  1. Add 1 1/2 cups of champagne and sugar into a sauce pan and mix together
  2. Sprinkle the 3 sachets of gelatin on the surface of mixture (DO NOT STIR!)
  3. When you notice the gelatin has softened (takes about 3-5 mins), warm the ingredients on low heat
  4. Begin to stir the mixture until the gelatin and sugar have dissolved
  5. Remove the pan from the stove and slowly stir in the reminder of champagne
  6. Pour into an ice tray or cake pan and refrigerate for about 3 1/2 hours
  7. Take out the jello cubes from ice tray as-is, or cut jello from cake pan into 1 inch squares
  8. Add your desired color of sprinkles to the top for garnish
  9. Serve on a tray and put one toothpick into each jello cube for easy serving

Why is Champagne So Expensive?

This largely has to do with clever marketing dating back to the 17th century. For instance, Claude Moët, was able to convince French royalty in the 1700s that Moët will make woman more beautiful. But it didn’t just stop there, everything from the romanticized bottle and golf leaf appearance helped to associate the brand, and pursuant brands with the concept of exclusivity. To this day, Champagne will almost always cost more than a Prosecco or Cava, or US Sparkling Wine, simply because of the effect of long-standing marketing practices.

Champagne Sparkling Wine Guide - What is Cava from Spain? | Winetraveler.com
Beautiful Penedes, Spain. Image courtesy Spanish Wineries – Cava Miquel Pons.

What is Cava?

Cava is style of Sparkling Wine produced most commonly in North Eastern Spain. The best Cava is tends to come from the Penedès region (DO), specifically. Cava is my favorite style of sparkling wine.  Mainly because it tends to have more of a blend of citrus and tree fruit firmly backed by a chalky minerality. It’s also far cheaper than a bottle of Champagne. There are three styles of Cava, and they differ because of aging periods. Basic Cava is aged for 9 months, Reserva is aged for 15 months, and Gran Reserva Cava is aged for a minimum of 30 months.

Other Names for Sparkling Wine (And Where They Come From)

Many countries, both Old and New World produce Sparkling Wine today. There are a large number of designations, some based on Region, others based method. Below are a few more common names for Sparkling Wine.

  • Prosecco (Italy)
  • Franciacorta (Italy)
  • Asti (Italy)
  • Spumante) (Italy)
  • Pezsgő (Hungary)
  • Sovetskoye Shampanskoye (Soviet Origin)
  • Cava (Spain)
  • Blanquette de Limoux (Southern France),
  • Espumante (Portugal)
  • Panciu (Romania)
  • Sekt (Germany – though sometimes made with imported grapes from nearby European countries)
  • Cap Classique (South Africa)

Corks Used for Champagne & Sparkling Wine

Agglomerated “twin top” corks are almost always used for Champagne and for many Sparkling Wines. Agglomerated corks are part natural cork, and part synthetic cork. The bottom piece of the cork (touching the wine), is natural. It’s glued to a blend of glue and cork dust. The cork is compressed before inserting it into the bottle in order to make it fit. As the wine ages, this compressed state adheres further to the bottle neck, and agglomerated top tends to mushroom out. In some cases, the longer a Sparkling Wine is aged, the bigger the shroom at the top.

RELATED: The 5 Main Types of Wine Corks

Difference Between Champagne and Sparkling Wine | Winetraveler.comBuy a Bigger Bottle of Champagne

The ‘theory’ goes, and I’m stressing theory because it’s not completely scientifically backed (but makes sense), is that the larger the bottle of Champagne, the less oxygen in the bottle. This in turn means that the wine is more pressurized in a magnum, giving it the best size and bubble length. A bigger bottle of Champagne is also better, just based on the fact that you’ll have more Champagne.

Brut, Sec and Doux – What does it all mean?

Champagne or sparkling wine given these sorts of designations has to do with the amount of residual sugar left within the wine following fermentation. Some sparkling wines are dry, others are off-dry, some are sweet.

RELATED: Sweet vs Dry Wine – What’s The Difference?

There are 7 levels of dryness as they relate to Champagne specifically, and very often Sparkling Wine as well, depending on region. Here are the levels of sweetness found in Champagne from Driest to Sweetest.

  1. Brut Zero – Relatively uncommon, Brut Zero Champagne has 3 grams of sugar or less per litre)
  2. Extra Brut – 6 grams or less residual sugar
  3. Brut – 12 grams or less residual sugar
  4. Extra Dry – 12 to 17 grams residual sugar
  5. Sec – 17 to 32 grams residual sugar
  6. Demi-sec – 32 to 50 grams residual sugar
  7. Doux – The Sweetest – 50 grams or more residual sugar

What is ‘Prosecco’?

Prosecco is another style of sparkling wine. There are some critical differences between Champagne, Cava and Prosecco, but the main difference is that Prosecco is Italian, while Champagne is French and Cava is Spanish.

Bottles of Prosecco also tend to be less pressurized, and typically are not aged as long as Champagne. Due to aging techniques with Prosecco, the ‘bubbly’ aspect is also less pronounced. Lastly, Prosecco tends to be more tree fruit and tropical fruit forward when compared to Champagne, thus making it taste sweeter (sometimes it actually has more residual sugar, too).

We’re Drinking THIS Sparkling Wine Currently

I love Spanish Cava. As mentioned above, it has a distinct chalky mineral flavor that I’ve had trouble finding in any other sparkling wine. We’ve been drinking the La Granja 360 Cava Brut from Trader Joe’s. A steal at a mere $7. Check it out while it lasts!


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Greig Santos-Buch
Co-Founder at Winetraveler.com
Greig Santos-Buch is a Co-Founder at Winetraveler.com and a WSET 2 sommelier. He works with several brands focusing on experiential and immersive-style travel.

In his spare time, you can find him hiking with a bottle of Cabernet Franc in his backpack or scuba diving trying to talk a reef shark into trying Swiss wine.
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