Imagine yourself at the last brunch party you attended at your fancy friend’s place. The food is delicious, the weather is pleasant, the conversation is interesting and everyone is having a great time. You notice your glass looking a little empty and ask the host to pass the champagne when you get conscious of some stares coming your way.
A friend then says “Um, that’s not actually champagne. I think you mean the sparkling wine”
Even though you think to yourself ‘Aren’t they the same? what is the difference between champagne and sparkling wine?’, even though the smugness in their tone sounds really annoying; at the end of the day, they are technically correct. There is indeed a definite distinction between actual champagne and sparkling wine.
It is obviously not a gratifying decision to indulge in that discussion with the person who condescendingly corrects such trivial mistakes. Therefore, we are here to save you that conversation and answer frequently asked questions like- Is champagne wine? Is sparkling wine champagne? isn’t sparkling wine the same as champagne? If not, how are they different from each other? Our article will cover all important aspects so that you do not commit that minor slip at the next party.
The Bubbly Misunderstanding
Let’s start by familiarizing ourselves with sparkling wine. It is a generic term for a wine that is bubbly and can come from any part of the world. They are mostly made with pinot noir and chardonnay grapes.
There are many methods of making sparkling wine- the traditional method, the tank (or Charmat) method, and the carbonation method. The sparkling wines that are produced by the traditional method, also known as the Champagne method, cannot exactly be called Champagne because they haven’t been made in the Champagne region of France.
A still wine can be carbonated to get a sparkling wine. Another method is the Charmat or tank method which offers a middle ground between the labor-intensive traditional method and the slapdash carbonation. This procedure takes place in a large tank by adding a mixture of yeast and sugar called tirage to a still wine which is also called the base wine.
The wine undergoes a secondary fermentation because of the carbon dioxide released by the tirage causing the tank to pressurize. The bottling of the sparkling wine then halts the aging process.
All sparkling wines have different tastes that are determined by how they are produced. The ones made from the tank method have mostly fresh and fruity notes. However, the Champagne method accentuates the toasty and nutty qualities of the wine.
To put it simply, sparkling wine is a wine with bubbles, and what makes all the difference is how and from where the bubbles got there. Cava, Sekt, Prosecco are all sparkling wines. Even Champagne is a sparkling wine too. The important thing to note is that not all sparkling wines are Champagne.
Then what is Champagne made of? And how exactly is it different?
Let’s move on to burst the bubbles about Champagne.
Usually made with a combination of pinot noir, pinot Meunier and chardonnay grapes, it is born in the Champagne region in France. The method of making it is obviously the traditional method, commonly known as the Champagne method (Methode Champenoise, in French).
This method involves adding the tirage to the base wine inside the bottle rather than doing so in a large tank. Upon adding, the tirage makes the wine undergo a secondary fermentation process that produces both dead yeast and carbon dioxide. The CO2 gives the signature bubbles in Champagne and the dead yeast lends Champagne its signature taste.
As unappetizing as it sounds, when wine sits on them, the dead yeast cells add extra complex flavors to it. This introduces an additional dimension to the taste of the wine. However, you don’t have to worry as the winemakers go through an extensive process to remove the yeast from every bottle before shipping it to your local wine shop.
Champagnes or wines made in this method usually have a sort of toastiness and nuttiness to the flavor. Many people often refer to this as resembling a brioche because let’s face it- what is better than drawing comparisons between fancy wines and fancy pastries?
Therefore, Champagne is like the French overachiever of the class that is sparkling wine. Gaining the title of Champagne doesn’t come easy as it has to go through a tough route to reach the mimosa in your flute. It is one of the highest wine designations in the world and has now become synonymous with quality and tradition.
After going through the method of preparation, it is natural to be curious about the champagnes that are made in the Methode Champenoise outside Champagne, France. Because it isn’t obviously possible that they don’t make it in other places – well, yes they do.
Sparkling wines in America like Craccioli Cellars 2007 Cuvee Nature or Lady Edythe Reserve Brut by Frank Family Vineyards are made in the exact same process as traditional Champagne.
Winemakers use the traditional method all over the world- the US, Italy, and other parts of France. The process is the same, the variety of grapes is the same but they don’t make the cut to be called Champagne.
On the face of it, it might seem unfair to all the winemakers who don’t live in Champagne. Why does the location of origin matter so much after all?
It is imperative that the reputation is based around ancestry and tradition. But the level of quality that comes from the Champagne, France can not be dismissed as a significant difference occurs because of the soil.
The soil and therefore the grapes in Champagne have a natural advantage over all the other parts of the world. The climate there is perfect to raise the ideal acidic, mineral-rich grapes that go into making an ideal bottle of champagne.
As far as the price is concerned, Champagne is notoriously expensive. This is because the process of making is clearly extremely labor extensive. It’s as extensive and patience-demanding as multiple years of cultivation followed by more years of aging and fermentation, with each bottle worked upon separately. All in all, it can take up to 30 years to get the perfect bottle ready. Considering that time is money, it is only fair that all that effort and endurance demand a higher price.
The major takeaway is that Champagne has indubitably earned a reputation. And that is justified by the time-consuming, rigorous guidelines followed and started by the winemakers in Champagne, France. However, there are a lot of other sparkling wines that are worth spending on and exploring.
Sparkling wines can cost anywhere about $20 whereas the lowest non-vintage Champagne will cost nowhere less than $50. Ergo if you want to enjoy a Champagne experience with tightened purse strings, just check your wine’s label for the method of preparation. If it followed the traditional method or Methode Champenoise, you are getting almost the same experience.
Having said that, the age-old widely loved celebratory drink isn’t so famous for no reason. The actual Champagne is absolutely worth trying, at least once and you should never refuse a glass offered at the next party.