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Wine 101: Is There a Difference Between Champagne and Sparkling Wine?

Ljupcho Nakov
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Wine 101: Is There a Difference Between Champagne and Sparkling Wine?

For centuries, life’s major milestones have been celebrated around the world with a bit of the bubbly, but it may surprise you to know that the sparkling, delicious golden liquid in your Champagne flute may not actually be Champagne.

Champagne and sparkling wine are often used interchangeably, but they’re not the same. Here’s a look at the difference between Champagne and sparkling wine, and why you might want to read the label before you buy your next bottle of bubbly.

What Is Champagne?

To understand the difference between Champagne and sparkling wine, it’s necessary to first glance at the history of this iconic beverage. The creation of sparkling Champagne is attributed to a monk, Dom Pérignon (1638-1715), who was cellar master of the Benedictine Abbey of Hautvillers. In the ensuing centuries, many have considered the Champagne that still bears his name to be the finest ever made. In its early days of creation, two components characterized Champagne: its clear color (even though it was made using black grapes), and its sparkle, which occurs naturally when the wine is allowed to go through a second fermentation inside the bottle. This second fermentation, known as "méthode champenoise," traps the carbon dioxide gas inside, which disperses throughout the wine and forms the distinctive bubbles everyone loves.

Champagne isn’t just a name; it’s a legal distinction as well. To be called Champagne, the wine must be produced in the region of Champagne, France, and made from specific grape varieties. Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay are most popular, but other grapes such as Pinot Blanc, Pino Gris, Petit Meslier, and Arbane can also be used. In addition, strict guidelines must be followed for planting, cultivating, processing, packaging, and labeling.

What Is Sparkling Wine?

Like Champagne, sparkling wine is essentially a combination of fermented grape juice, alcohol, and bubbles. Even though the ingredients may seem similar, this combination is where the difference between Champagne and sparkling wine really begins. All over the world, wine-growing locales are famed for their sparkling wines, made with a wide variety of grapes and produced according to local tradition.

Here are some of the most popular regional sparkling wines:

Prosecco: Produced in Italy, this time-honored sparkling wine is fermented in large tanks rather than bottles, and it's made from green Prosecco and Glera grapes grown in the region.

Crémant: Crémant is produced in numerous areas throughout France, including the Champagne region, and like Champagne, it's fermented in the bottle. However, Crémant is traditionally made of various regional grapes according to where it’s produced.

Cava: Produced in Spain, Cava is fermented in the bottle according to the méthode champenoise, but it's made of a blend of regional grapes including Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarel-lo.

California “Champagne”: Some California wineries, including Korbel, continue to label their sparkling wines “California Champagne.” In particular, Korbel is made according to the méthode champenoise with a combination of grapes, including Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, grown in Sonoma County.

Rieslingsekt: Produced in Germany where it’s especially popular, Rieslingsekt is made by blending sweet aged Riesling wines into the mix, which can be fermented in the bottle or in a tank.  

Not every car is a Rolls-Royce — and not all sparkling wines are Champagne. However, a car doesn’t have to be a Rolls to be great, and a sparkling wine can be equally spectacular even if it isn’t Champagne. In the fascinating and tantalizing history of wine, both Champagne and sparkling wines have a place, and each can hold its own when it comes to popularity.

Want to know more about wines from around the world? Melier offers a choice selection of artisan wines, plus resources to help you cultivate your knowledge as well as your palate. Be sure to subscribe to our newsletter for more tips about buying and enjoying fine wines for your table.