Champagne is an example of a sparkling wine -- in fact, it’s probably the best example -- but not all that sparkles is Champagne. So what’s the difference? Well, mostly, the difference is where the wine is made. Only wines made in the Champagne region of France are able to be called Champagne. Technically, everything else is sparkling wine.
In addition to the region of origin, sparkling wine may only be called Champagne if it consists of Chardonnay grapes, Pinot Noir grapes, and Pinot Meunier grapes. No other grapes are allowed to be used. The grapes must also be hand-picked, may be pressed no more than two times, and must be processed in a covered environment. So while all Champagne is sparkling wine- not all sparkling wines are actually Champagne. So what do we call sparkling wines that aren’t champagne?
First up, let’s take a look at what makes sparkling wines fizzy. The process of getting those fizzy bubbles, experts suggest that there may be up to 250 million individual bubbles per bottle, into wine is done in one of several ways. In most cases, a second fermentation process introduces yeast and sugar to the wine, thus creating carbon dioxide. Later, when the “cork is popped” and air mixes with the carbon dioxide, the result are tiny bubbles. Other lower cost sparkling wines get the bubbles in by using a simple carbon dioxide injection at the time of bottling. So, since the bubbles are a result of winemaking as opposed to fitness of grape, any grape variety can be made into a sparkling wine.
This means that there can be sparkling Riesling, Pinot Grigio, and even sparkling Merlot. While Spain in popular for producing a sparkling red wine, they call it Cava, not many other regions produce it, but it absolutely can exist. Italian sparkling wines are called Prosecco, German sparklers are called Sekt, and other regions may call sparkling wines Asti or Spumante.
Knowing that sparkling wines can be made from any grape variety, it only makes sense that sparkling wines can take on a variety of flavors. In general, you can expect a true Champagne to have a sweeter flavor than her sparkling cousins. This is thanks to the fact that the grapes can only be pressed up to two times, ensuring that the grape mash remains highly saturated with the sugars of the grapes. However, any sparkling wine (including Champagne) can range from very sweet to very dry. You can get a hint as to how sweet the sparkling wine will be by the title on the bottle. In addition to wine name, most sparkling wines will have one of the following identifiers signaling the amount of sugar in the wine:
- Extra Brut- less than 6g per liter
- Brut- less than 12g per liter
- Extra Dry- between 12 and 17g per liter
- Sec- between 17 and 32g per liter
- Demi-Sec- between 32 and 50g per liter
- Doux- 50g per liter or above
With varying levels of sweetness, acidity, and fruit flavors, chances are every wine lover can find a sparkling wine that excites them.
Paramounts of spotting a good sparkling wine include small bubbles, a crisp flavor, and in most cases, a vintage date around five to ten years old. Expect to pay a premium on fine Champagne vs. sparkling wine, too. Given the strict regulations governing what can be made into a Champagne, the industry can demand a higher price. If you’re seeking a simple sparkler to use in a cocktail, stick to sparkling wine. If you’re seeking to celebrate a very special occasion with a pure glass of bubbly, then Champagne may be exactly what the doctor ordered.