Champagne and Sparkling Wine – What’s the Difference Anyway?

This is a really good question that’s often asked these days as more and more sparkling wines hit the market. People wonder why they are expected to pay quite a lot of money for a bottle of champagne when they can buy a bottle of sparkling wine for half the price and still enjoy it. Well, at the end of the day as they say ” You pays your money and you makes your choice” so it’s up to you, but it’s interesting to know a little bit more before you make the decision, so here are a few pointers to help you make the right choice for the right occasion. Anyone, anywhere can make wine with bubbles in it and call it sparkling wine. There’s Cava from Spain, Asti and Prosecco from Italy, Sekt in Germany and sparkling wine from just about anywhere that wine is made.

In one sense there’s no difference between sparkling wine and champagne because all champagne is sparkling wine, – at the basic level it’s just a wine that has bubbles in it. But there’s more to it than that because, not all sparkling wine is champagne.

On the other hand, to be called champagne, the sparkling wine must be made in the region of France called Champagne and it must be made according to a very strict set of rules designed to maintain the quality.

If you’re sceptical you’ll probably think that this business about being made in a limited area and in a certain way is just a marketing trick to get you to pay more, but if you read on you’ll see that there is another side to the argument.

There are lots of things that influence the way any wine turns out but three obvious ones are

o the grapes used
o the way the wine is made and
o the region it is made in

The grapes Champagne is made using three particular types of grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

Some fizzy wines are made using the same grapes varieties, but some are not. Many use the grapes traditionally grown in their local area, so the result is going to be different from champagne. Prosecco is made with a grape called prosecco and Cava is traditionally made with grapes called Macabeo, Xarello and Parellada, although these days Chardonnay and other grapes are sometimes used as well.

That’s not to say you won’t enjoy these wines, just don’t buy Cava or Prosecco or Asti Spumante expecting it to taste like champagne – it doesn’t.

The Way Its Made

Champagne is made according to what’s called La M├ęthode Champenoise.

This way of making sparkling wine has been refined and developed in Champagne over more than 200 years and the people there regard it as their patent method.

They don’t like anyone simply copying it and passing their wine off as champagne and that’s why they don’t want other regions using the term ‘champagne’

There’s a whole raft of regulations about how champagne must be made, but two of the most important ones are

a ) the rule that says that the second fermentation (that’s what produces the gas that makes the bubbles) must be done inside the bottle itself and

b) the rule about the minimum time that the champagne must be aged in the cellars before being sold.

Here’s why these two are important:

a) Doing the second fermentation inside the bottle is a more time-consuming and therefore more a costly way of producing bubbles, but it produces a better result.

If you’re in a hurry, or want to keep costs down, then you can do the second fermentation in giant stainless steel vats.( This is the Charmat method and is used in Prosecco for example ) This is what happens with some cheaper sparkling wines, but it doesn’t produce the same quality.

b) The length of time a wine is aged has a major influence on the taste, the longer the ageing, the more the flavours and aromas of the wine will develop.

A “good” wine is considered to be one which has a complex range of full flavours and rich aromas. It’s not one that smells of little or nothing and it’s not one that’s thin and watery, or sharp and acidic, when you taste it which is what you can end up with if you rush things.

Champagne must be aged for a minimum of 15 months in the bottle and usually it’s left to age for a good while longer than that. That’s longer than many sparkling wines and you can usually taste and smell the difference this makes.

Where it’s Made

The third thing that plays a role in determining the quality and style of the finished product is the region where the wine is made. The soil and the climate both influence the wine. It stands to reason that a wine made in two entirely different places isn’t going to be the same- similar maybe – but not exactly the same.

Having said this, there are many places, like New Zealand, Australia, California and, yes, even England, where the climate and soil are similar, the same three grapes as in Champagne are grown and the same methods are used.

These wines still can’t be called champagne but the results are often very close to champagne. It’s worth remembering though that these top quality sparkling wines are at, or very near to, the price of champagne. So if you’re looking for champagne quality at sparkling wines prices, you’ll have to look long and hard.

Generally speaking sparkling wines such as Cava and Prosecco don’t claim to be more than very pleasant wines that are refeshing and good for fun occasions.

Good champagnes claim to be great wines – for celebrations of course, but for many more occasions too.

So, if what you want is a bottle of fizzy wine that’s simply fun to open and share with a bunch of friends, then sparkling wine is probably the thing to go for, whilst if you want to take a little longer to appreciate your wine, not to mention the extra feel-good factor, then champagne is still the one to choose.