What is the difference between champagne and sparkling wine?

People often ask  “What is the difference between champagne and sparkling wine?”

In one sense you might say that there is little difference between the two and it’s true that champagne is certainly a sparkling wine, but… not all sparkling wine is champagne.

The Champagne vineyardsTo understand this first we need to look at the geography  - there is, quite literally, a world of difference between champagne and sparkling wine because sparkling wine can be made anywhere in the world, but champagne can only be made in one particular region in France called, surprise, surprise, Champagne.

So, the name of the region came first and the wine made there is called by the same name.

Plenty of things about the Champagne region , for example, the soil, the climate and the wine making traditions, are unique to that area and even though people in other parts of the world may make their wine using the same techniques, the results will be slightly different.

Then there’s the legal issue

There’s a never-ending debate about where the very first sparkling wines were made, but one thing is clear: it was the people in Champagne ( the champenois as they are called) who popularised their wine a sold it all over the world.

They have been doing this for about 300 years now and you could say, with good justification, that today there would not be as much demand for sparkling wine, wherever it comes from, if it had not been for all the time and money the people in Champagne spent marketing and selling their champagne all over the world.

You’ll appreciate therefore that the champenois want to benefit from all that investment and they want to word champagne  to be reserved exclusively for the wines made in the Champagne region.

Most countries of the world have accepted this argument and now, with a few exceptions, mostly in the USA, wine makers outside the Champagne region in France are not allowed to describe their sparkling wines as champagne.

The next thing that explains the difference between champagne and many sparkling wines is the way they are made and, very broadly speaking, that can be split into two parts: the grapes used and the wine making technique.

Bunch of Pinot NoirIn Champagne only 7 types of grapes can be used and by far the three most common are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier. This regulation is just one of many hundreds designed to maintain the style and quality of champagne.

Sparkling wine makers in other parts of the world can use these same grape varieties, but for reasons we mentioned above, the results they obtain will be slightly different to the results in the Champagne region.

On the other hand, sparkling wine makers in many areas outside Champagne have a lot more flexibility when it comes to the grapes that use. They can, and do, use several types of grapes, so this too explains the difference between champagne and many sparkling wines.

Prosecco comes from Italy and is usually made with a grape variety called Glera, which used to be called prosecco – hence the name of the sparkling wine.

Cava comes from Spain and the predominant grape varieties used make Cava are called Xarel.lo, Macabeo and Parellada.

In the UK and in many other countries the rules surrounding the choice of grapes are less strict and the wine makers can use whichever ones they wish.

Last but certainly not least, is the wine making technique.

The way champagne is made is called La Méthode Champenoise and it involves, amongst other things, two distinctive procedures:

  1. a) there are two alcoholic fermentations, the second of which must take place inside the bottle in which the wine is later going to be sold.
  2. b) the wine must be aged in cellars for a specified length of time before it can be sold – this can range from 15 months to 3 years and some champagnes are matured in cellars for as long as 10 years.

Bouteilles sur lattes 800There’s nothing to stop wine makers anywhere using the same method – Cava for example -  but if they do, they must refer to it as the Méthode Traditionelle. They can’t call it La Méthode Champenoise because that is reserved for Champagne because the champenois were the ones that first perfected it.

Some sparkling wines – in particular Prosecco - are made using what is called the Charmat method. This technique uses large vats for the second fermentation and does not stipulate long ageing in cellars before the wine is sold.

The charmat method is not only much quicker and cheaper than the La Méthode Champenoise, but it does not allow the wines to develop as many complex flavours and aromas as champagne and the bubbles are not as fine and persistent.

In conclusion, there are a lot of excellent sparkling wines, but there are many differences, some small, some large, between them and champagne which comes only from the Champagne region in France.

To learn more about champagne take a look at My Champagne Expert a fascinating online course that will take you on a journey through Champagne and will teach you more about champagne than most sommeliers learn in a lifetime.