“All Champagne is Sparkling Wine, but not all Sparkling Wine is Champagne.”
Sparkling wine is often associated with celebratory occasions, and rightly so; sparkling wine is unique among all other wines. It is made via a labor-intensive process that results in the creation of a delightful beverage. The decision to choose a bottle of Champagne or sparkling wine is up to the drinker. Is one better than the other? Both are made using similar techniques, but subtle differences make them unique. We hope this article explaining the differences will help you learn a bit about Champagne & Sparkling Wines, while also making it easier for you to choose the perfect glass of bubbles regardless of occasion.
The Worlds Oldest Sparkling Wine
Long before the invention of Champagne, in the little village of Limoux in southern France in the eastern foothills of the Pyrénées in the Languedoc region, the monks of the Abbaye de Sainte-Hilaire were making sparkling wine which they named “Blanquette” the Occitan word that means “the small white .”Production of this sparkling wine was first documented in 1531. The wines underwent secondary fermentation in cork-stoppered flasks. The monks carefully wrote out every detail of the process of making the wine. Today there are three different types of Limoux sparkling wines. The majority of the blend must contain 90% of the Mauzac grape, and then can have the other varieties of Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc to complete the mixture.
Champagne (always written with a capital C) is named after the Champagne region in northern France, where the grapes are grown, fermented, and bottled. There is a very long list of rules that were established here is a very long list of rules that apply to the production and presentation of the wine. Strict appellation rules dictate the yields that are permitted per hectare in the vineyards, the method used to make Champagne, and how long vintage and non-vintage wines have to spend aging sur lie or with yeasts. As well as what grapes are permitted: to be used in the blend, which is:
Around 99.7% of all Champagnes are made with the first three varieties (principal varieties), often called Champagne Blend. However, some Champagne producers have begun to experiment by adding small amounts of the other permitted varieties to create their own unique style of Champagne.
Note: You may have heard about California Champagne and may have seen bottles of sparkling wine from California that call themselves Champagne. Though not illegal, the label laws for Champagne were written in the Treaty of Versailles, which though accepted by the United States, who never ratified it, so technically though the rules of the treaty do not have to be adhered to, it is considered taboo to label any wine that has been produced outside of the demarcation zone of Champagne as such.
Champagne can only be made using the Méthode Champenoise.
Harvest - Grapes must be harvested between August and October and are only picked when optimal ripeness has been achieved. As a general rule, the grapes must be hand-picked so that only the best fruit is manually selected.
First fermentation - the juice is moved to a tank (or, in some rare cases, an oak barrel) a dry still wine is produced. During this stage, the winemaker ensures that the natural sugars are fermented out of the wine.
Assemblage - Approximately five months after the harvest, the still-white wines are then combined with reserve wines (wines that have been made from previous harvests and are kept for blending - this process only occurs for Non-Vintage and Multi-Vintage Wines). Reserve wines are the base for the Champagne. Once the reserve wine has been added, the different grape varieties in the wine are mixed together to create the final blend. Alternatively, in the case of vintage wines, no reserve wines are added; only the grapes from the current year are used in the blend.
Second Fermentation - Liqueur de Tirage (A mixture of sugar, yeast, and yeast nutrients) is added to the wine. The wine is then transferred into thick glass bottles and sealed with a crown cap, and they are then stored in a cool cellar to continue the slow fermentation process, which produces carbon dioxide and alcohol.
Aging - The fermentation process continues as the carbon dioxide begins to build up causing the yeast cells to die slowly. The dead yeast cells eventually split apart, mixing into the wine, giving Champagne its characteristic yeasty flavor. This aging process is called sur lie (on lees). Non-Vintage Champagnes must age for a minimum of fifteen months, and Vintage Champagnes for a minimum of three years. Many of the very best Champagnes (both vintage and non-vintage) are aged five or more years.
Riddling - Once the yeast cells are dead, the bottles are placed upside down at a 75° angle in a machine called a Gyropalette that turns the bottles each day 1:8th of a turn to slowly catch all of the dead yeast cells in the neck of the bottle. This process will continue daily until the wine is disgorged.
Disgorgement - The final step in Champagne production, the neck of the upside-down bottle is frozen in a bath of ice salt which creates a plug that captures all of the dead yeast cells, which are then forced out by the carbon dioxide in the bottle when the crown cap is removed. A tiny amount of the wine is lost during the process, but the remaining wine is clear of any imperfections.
Dosage - Liqueur de Tirage and Liqueur d’expédition (a combination of white wine, brandy, and sugar) are added to top up the bottle and determine the sweetness level of the Champagne.
Corking - The special Champagne cork is used to seal the bottle and then wired down to control the high level of pressure that is created by the Carbon Dioxide in the Champagne. After the Champagne has been corked, it is either released on the market or kept in the cellar for further aging.
Sparkling wine is any wine that is sparkling, regardless of whether or not it comes from Champagne. However, as per the rules above, it has to be classed as a sparkling wine and cannot bear the name Champagne.
Sweetness of Sparkling wines (g of sugar added per liter)
Extra Brut or Brut Nature - 0-6 g added sugar
Brut - less than 12g added sugar
Extra Sec - 12-17 g added sugar
Sec - 17-32 g added sugar
Demi-Sec - 32-50 g added sugar
Doux - more than 50 g of added sugar
What are the different production methods used to make Sparkling Wines?
Methode Traditionelle - The exact same method as the Méthode Champenoise but, due to Champagne production rules, cannot be called as such.
Charmat or Tank Method - After the wine undergoes the first fermentation, it is transferred to a pressure-sealed tank where carbon dioxide is created, causing the second fermentation. The wine is then bottled and released to the market immediately.
Transfer Method - this method uses aspects from both the Traditional and Charmat methods. The wine undergoes the second fermentation in the bottle but then is transferred to a tank for filtration which removes the need for riddling and disgorgement, making the production of the wine much more economical.
Carbonation - this is the lowest-cost method that can be used to make sparkling wine. Once the wine has undergone its first fermentation, it is injected with Carbon Dioxide and then bottled under pressure. The wine is then released to the market for distribution.
What Are The Different Types of Sparkling Wine?
How are the bubbles formed in Sparkling Wines?
Quite simply, the bubbles are created by the build-up of carbon dioxide during the second fermentation (or by injection in the Carbonation process). If you look at a sealed bottle of sparkling wine you cannot see any bubbles, however, once the bottle is opened the carbon dioxide is released and there can be an overflow of foam if you are not careful during the de-corking process.
Interestingly enough, the bubbles that rise once the wine has been poured into the glass are the result of the reaction of any dirt or dust particles (this is natural and is nothing to worry about and does not affect the taste of the wine or your health) that are in the glass when it comes into contact with the wine.
Lastly, a common question is - which one is better, Champagne or Sparkling Wine?
A great answer to that is “I would rather drink an excellent bottle of sparkling wine than a bad bottle of Champagne”.
The choice is yours, both Champagne and sparkling wines are excellent in their own right, and have unique characteristics.
A glass of sparkling wine (Champagne or otherwise) is created for the enjoyment/celebration of any occasion so let's not get into details and just celebrate! :)