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What’s the Deal with Sparkling Wine Vs Champagne?


a close up of a bottle and a glass of wine

Who doesn’t love a cold glass of bubbly? Well I exaggerate. Some folks, like my son who doesn’t like anything carbonated including soda and beer(!), do not seek out sparkling wine. If you are one of these people, this blog post is not for you. Moving on to the sparkling fans, here is an explanation of the what, how and why of those heavy bottles with the funny mushroom caps and cages that could take someone’s eye out if you aren’t careful.


Back to the Beginning

In the beginning of sparkling wine culture (France in the early 1700’s) Benedictine monk Dom Perignon was working hard to eliminate the bubbles, as it was seen as a fault in early wines of the Champagne region. The bubbles were created when winemakers added sugar to counteract the high acid in under ripe grapes, and caused a second fermentation in the bottle. Fermentation is the process in all wines (also beer, spirits, sake, kombucha) where yeast (added or naturally occurring) consumes the sugar from the fruit (or grain/rice in beer/sake) and creates ethanol and carbon dioxide gas. Wine is typically fermented in an open tank and the CO2 is released into the air. If the wine is bottled before all the yeast is consumed, the yeast will continue to munch on the sugar and create CO2 in the bottle.

The early winemakers did not know how to detect when the fermentation was complete and they were surprised when the bottles in their wine caves began to explode! Dom (aka father) Perignon spent his time trying to stop the bubbles from “ruining” his wine. The English customers (the largest market for French wines even today) actually liked the bubbles and encouraged French winemakers to figure out how to make it consistently while also preventing the bottles from exploding. After years of experimentation, winemakers of the Champagne region learned that heavier glass bottles, special larger corks and wire cages allowed for the pressure (6 atmospheres) created by the secondary fermentation, now on purpose, to withstand aging and only release the CO2 upon demand. 

Science fact: Gasses are more soluble in liquids the colder the liquid is, so chilled sparkling wine will retain its bubbles longer than warm champagne. Also, chilled sparkling wine is easier to open without the wine spurting out, which is preferred for the serious drinkers, though not for sports teams who like to pour it on each other (what a waste—use the cheap stuff for that not Dom Perignon!)


Sparkling Wine Vs Champagne

Only sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France (north of Paris) is legally allowed to be called Champagne. The rest of the world uses other terms such as sparkling wine, Cava (Spain), Prosecco (Italy), Cremant (France outside of Champagne). Another big difference is the time and place where the secondary fermentation happens. Method Champenoise is the traditional French Champagne method described above where the secondary fermentation happens in the bottle. The best sparkling wine of any region uses this method and often labels it this way. There are several other ways to create bubbles, including forced carbonation, not unlike what soda makers do to add CO2 to a flavored sugar syrup. The secondary fermentation can happen in a pressurized tank (called charmat, tank, bulk or cuvee close method) then bottled. Lower cost (under $20) sparkling wines are typically made through this more cost-effective method. The bubbles tend to be larger and dissipate quickly. Drink these in one sitting, as they won’t stay bubbly overnight if opened, though storing in the fridge will maintain some fizziness.


What to look for in a quality sparkling wine?

The best sparkling wines from any region are made via Methode Champenoise. Any winemaker that uses this method will put it on the label and the price will reflect this. Another quality factor is time spent aging “ on the lees” or “ en tirage”. The lees are the dead yeast cells that are created in secondary fermentation and need to be removed prior to final bottling. These yeast cells create the toasty, biscuity flavors/aromas prized by traditional Champagne lovers.  Sparkling wine makers are happy to promote their time on the lees, as the more time = better flavor and more $$. It can vary from 12 months to 3 years to even 10 years!

For value, I recommend for times when you don’t want to spend $50-$250 (or more!)  for a premium bottle of Dom Perignon, Veuve Clicquot, Perrier Jouet or Louis Roederer Cristal, try Crémant D’Alsace or Crémant de Bourgogne (aka Burgundy) sparkling wines. These are made via Methode Champenoise from nearby regions in France but cannot charge the premiums that Champagne makers can due to their geography.


Prosecco and Cava are also great options if you want a European sparkling. Read the labels as they can vary between the Methode Champenoise and charmat methods, and the price will reflect this. But if you love an Aperol Spritz in the summer like I do, an inexpensive Prosecco will do the job just fine!


What About the Grapes?

The traditional grapes used in French Champagne start with Chardonnay (Blanc de Blancs) and Pinot Noir (Blanc de Noirs) alone or blended with Pinot Meunier with several additional grapes allowed: Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Petit Meslier and Arbane. Outside of the Champagne region, winemakers can use any grapes they want to get the final taste they deem worthy. Traditionalists will stick with the French varieties, where pioneers branch out to Shiraz in Australia (an unusual red sparkling), Riesling in Germany, Glera in Italy, Macabeo, Xarel-lo, Parellada in Spain. In the US anything goes but Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the most common choices.


What about Sweet vs Dry?

Sparkling wines can run the gamut from super dry (aka Brut Sauvage with zero residual sugar) to super sweet (aka Doux with greater than 5% residual sugar). Brut is the most popular at less than 1.2 % residual sugar. In the French lexicon Brut is less sweet than Extra Dry, which is less sweet than Sec. The average person cannot detect a sweetness below 1 % RS, so a Brut at 0.5% RS appears completely dry (not sweet) on the palate.


Willamette Valley Sparkling Wines

Oregon is very well known for and is getting a lot of good press for our Sparkling wines, made by both methods. Argyle is the primary volume producer. Roco (recently purchased by Santa Margherita in Italy) was started by Rollin Soles, a legend in Oregon for his sparkling wines (he started at Argyle). This winery offers all manner of sparkling wines from white, rose, red from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. Many other wineries dabble in sparkling wines such as Anne Amie, Durant, Monksgate, Stoller, Sokol Blosser, Domaine Divio, Ayoub, Varnum, Brooks from grapes ranging from the traditional to the unique. If you request it, it is possible now to taste sparkling wine at each of the 3 wineries you can visit on a Triangle Wine Country Tour and at Roco and J Christopher you can enjoy an entire Sparkling flight!


The Takeaway

If you are a Sparkling Wine enthusiast, and can’t afford a trip to France (or have already done that), the Willamette Valley is the way to go! When you book a wine tour with us, indicate your love of Sparkling wines and we will be sure you will get your fill! Don’t forget that Sparkling wines pair well with many foods such as salty popcorn, chips, nuts as an aperitif, blended into a Spritz on ice in the summer, with dessert to cut the sweetness in a rich chocolate mousse or cheesecake, with sushi or light asian fare, white fish and of course lobster, crab and oysters!