Champagne vs Sparkling wine. What’s the difference?

There is no need to spend a fortune on champagne. But beware: Bubbles does not a Champagne make. So what’s the difference between sparkling wine and Champagne? And why so precious about the name anyway? Amanda takes us on a journey to understand why champagne really is something truly different.

champagne flowing


Recently I was involved in an on-line twitter discussion about choosing a champagne for a special occasion (in this case a hen’s night.) It was an interesting discussion, where it came to light that some of the ‘bad’ ‘champagne’ that those in question had experienced in the past was not champagne at all, but cheap sparkling wine.

It was a great feeling to be able to educate through such an open discussion. Then someone joined in the conversation with a comment that left me stopped in my tracks.

‘It doesn’t mean other sparkling wines aren’t just as good. It’s just a name’.

Really? Could someone still think that ‘champagne’ is just a name for another sparkling wine? Clearly there is a lot of work to be done!

That conversation ended rather abruptly, because I couldn’t think of an appropriate dignified response to that final comment. Especially when I discovered that the person who had posted the comment was an avid coffee fan, and I was sure they would have taken exception to me saying roasted coffee beans sold in supermarkets were the same as boutique blends.

Having had time to think about it, here is my list of why champagne is NOT just a name.

  • Champagne can only be made from grapes grown in an area of approximately 34 thousand hectares about 150km to the east of Paris
  • Vines have been grown in the area since the dawn of Christianity – the first vineyards being planted in the 1st century
  • As a result of the Hundred Year War, viticulture in the region came to a halt in the 14 – 15th century
  • Wine growing made a return to the region in the late 15th century, and in the late 17th century these wines became known as Champagne wines
  • In 1887 the Court of Appeal in Angers ruled that the word Champagne should be restricted to wines produced in the Champagne region
  • The first delimitation of the region was in 1908
  • At the end of the 19th century, the vineyards were virtually wiped out by a phylloxera epidemic. The methods needed to overcome this catastrophe included planting grafted vines, replacing dense plantings with with trained vines (reducing the yield by 80%), and learning new methods of trellising, pinching back and other techniques.
  • There was a battle for quality in 1931-1935 when massive overproduction and a slump in sales lead to the price of grapes plummeting
  • The current zone of 34000 hectares was declared in 1927
  • This area has two major climatically distinguishing features found nowhere else in the world – it has a northerly latitude (cold climate and harsh weather conditions for the vines) and a dual climate subject to both oceanic and continental influences. These influences affect the ripening and acidity of the grapes unique to making champagne.
  • The name ‘Champagne’ has survived despite all of the setbacks over the centuries, and the Champenois continue to work with what sets them apart in order to maintain the quality of their wines.
The Champagne region is a small and carefully defined area east of Paris.
The Champagne region is a small and carefully defined area east of Paris. (Img Source: Wine Folly)

Other regions can use the same grapes, and the same techniques to produce their sparkling wines, and achieve great results. But no other region in the world can replicate the exact history and climate that has gone into the product that now comes out of the Champagne region.

What does make my heart sing, though, is that more and more people outside of France are realising that a special occasion does require a special drink. And for that special drink they are choosing champagne.

What is wonderful in Australia is that over the last few years there is an increasing number of champagnes on the market that easily available and don’t hurt the hip pocket. In fact I saw one Grand Cru champagne advertised at a local liquor outlet this morning for $25! It wasn’t a well known name, but it was a ‘Grand Cru’ (meaning the grapes are certified as being from the best of the best vineyards in Champagne), so there is a certain quality to be expected. $25 is well within the reach of many and would make a great party wine. There are also many champagnes coming from the larger and more well known houses that can be found for less than $50.

There is no need to spend a fortune on champagne, but beware that just because it comes from France doesn’t necessarily mean it is champagne. The word ‘CHAMPAGNE’ must be clearly visible on the front label for it to be the ‘real’ thing.