Have you ever wondered what the difference is between sparkling wine and Champagne?

If you’ve ever heard of Champagne, Prosecco, MCC, Cava, and Sekt, this post is dedicated to the differences and similarities of each of these wines. While all these wines are sparkling, they are not necessarily all Champagne. So, what is the difference between sparkling wine and Champagne?

The Champagne Sparkling Wine

The region of Champagne is actually located right at the top of France, above the city of Paris. Champagne is probably the most famous wine-producing region in the world. The wines from this region are so prestigious and highly regarded that you will find references in films, books, songs, and most of history.

The reputation around Champagne has come along for centuries. In the 18th century, it was an expensive drink associated with status and wealth and had just gradually maintained that status to this day.

There is a common misconception that “Champagne” is any kind of sparkling wine. But in actual fact, unless the bottle of wine was actually made in the region of Champagne with the grapes grown in the region, you legally cannot call it Champagne. Real Champagne must come from Champagne.

understanding wines getting to know sparkling wine

The grapes of Champagne’s Sparkling wine

Only a few grapes are allowed to be used to make Champagne, and the three main ones are Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. These grapes can either be kept as 100% single varieties or can be blended. These wines are often blended to give the wine some complexity and balance out any wine imbalances.

Pinot Noir adds real structure weight to the wine with darker fruit flavours like strawberry, raspberry, and cherry. When the wine is made from 100% Pinot Noir, the wine is called Blanc de Noir. This translates to “white wine from red grapes.” That basically means that it is rose-coloured wine using 100% red grapes. Winemakers can make white wine from red grapes just by preventing any skin-contact with the juice. This is merely because the red-colour comes from the grape’s skin and not the actual juice.

On the opposite end, Chardonnay adds refreshing white fruit flavours and adds acidity to the wine. If the wine is made from 100% Chardonnay, the wine is called “Blanc de Blanc.” This translates to white from white, self-explanatory.

The winemaking of Champagne Sparkling Wine

When it comes to the wine’s actual production, the French are extremely precise. There are specific rules that govern how the wine is made and how long it is aged.

When making Champagne, the Traditional Method of winemaking is used.

What that means is this:

In the Traditional Method, the wine is fermented twice. The first fermentation process happens inside a steel tank. Thereafter, the wine is bottled, yeast and sugar are added, and then the second fermentation process happens INSIDE THE BOTTLE. This fermentation inside the bottle is what separates the production method different from others. It is considered the best method for producing quality sparkling wines.

So, after the second fermentation process is complete, there are still yeast cells inside the bottle. By law, the wine must stay inside this bottle for 15 months on these dead yeast cells. This is done for the development of flavors associated with Champagne. These dead yeast cells, known as the lees, adds a nutty, toasty character to it. The longer these wines stay on the lees, the more intense these flavours become.

Producers also systematically turn the bottles upside down to allow the lees to settle in the bottle’s neck. This process is called Riddling. This is so that the producer can freeze the bottle’s neck and shoot out the lees from the bottle. Nobody wants yeast particles floating around their glass.


Finally, the wine needs to be topped up to compensate for the wine that was shot out. So, a mixture of wine and sugar is added to the bottle, and then the cork is added. 

If you’re interested in more information regarding France and its wines, check out this post.

Crémant sparkling wine vs Champagne

These same wines are made outside of Champagne; it can’t be given the same name. Even when other French regions produce this style of wine, they have to call the wine Crémant.
The method is the same, but the production’s grapes will vary from region to region. The regulations are also slightly less strict regarding the grapes and winemaking.

Methode Cap Classique (MCC)

So in South Africa, what is the difference between sparkling wine and Champagne?

In South Africa, we also make this traditional-style of sparkling wine. But since we’re not a part of France, we can’t call it Crémant. Instead, we call it MCC – which is an abbreviation for Methode, Cap Classique.
That essentially translates to the “traditional method” which is used in France.

The South African laws are slightly more lenient. We can use several other grapes to make MCC that would never be accepted in France. I’ve personally tried really unique MCC’s – one of them being a 100% Cinsault! South African law also states the wine has to be on the lees for a minimum of 9 months. This is significantly less than the minimum of 15 months in France.

The Sweetness of Champagne & MCC Sparkling Wine

As for the sweetness, producers have seven sweetness levels to produce the wine. It can be from 0g of RS or 50g RS/l, and it depends on each producer’s preference. While Brut (dry) is the most popular, the wine’s label will indicate which level of sweetness they produced.

Prosecco

Prosecco; the joyous sparkling wine of Italy. The breakfast of champions.

So in Italy, what is the difference between sparkling wine and Champagne?

Prosecco is basically the lighter, fruiter, less-serious version of Champagne. Although this wine is also sparkling wine, the grapes are very different.

Prosecco is made in Veneto in Northern-Italy. With Prosecco, Glera is the only grape that is used to produce this sparkling wine.

Like with Champagne, wine isn’t Prosecco unless it’s made from Glera and it comes from this region. There has been a great debate surrounding this, with some other countries claiming the name too. However, the orignial Prosecco comes from this Italian region.

Prosecco’s history also doesn’t date as far back as France’s. The first Prosecco was made in 1868, whereas those from France were first produced (accidentally) in 1693.

The winemaking of Prosecco

It’s not just the grapes that are different from Champagne’s grapes. When making Prosecco, the producers use the tank method.


This basically means that the wine undergoes two fermentation processes, and both happen inside the steel tanks. The second fermentation happens in a sealed steel tank that traps the carbon dioxide inside the wine.
From there, the winemaker pressured-pumps the wine into bottles and adds a cork; leaving all the lees in the tank. It isn’t common to leave Prosecco on the lees to extract the nuttiness. Prosecco’s whole appeal is that light, fruitiness, so there is no extended time on the lees.

The Sweetness of Prosecco

However, Prosecco’s sweetness level only comes in three options, ranging from about 0 to 32g RS/l. It is more common to have sweet Prosecco than sweet Champagne. And Prosecco tends to work better as a sweet wine since there is plenty of fruitiness.

Cava

Cava is Spain’s famous sparkling wine and the locals simply love it.

Before the 1970s, they called their sparkling wines “Champan” or “Champaňa.” This was too similar to the word French “Champagna,” so it was changed to Cava (due to France’s insistence).

The Grapes and production of Cava

The Spanish make Cava in the same way as Champagne, using the Traditional Method. The difference, however, is that they use native Spanish grapes, namely Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarel-lo.

Interestingly, there are three levels of quality styles for Cava:

  • Cava – which has to be aged for at least 9 months on the lees.
  • Reserva Cava – which has to age for at least 15 months on the lees.
  • Gran Reserva Cava – where the wines have to spend at least 30 months on the lees.

As for the sweetness levels, the rules are the same as Champagne, but obviously using Spanish terms.

Transfer method

There is another way of making sparkling wine that combines the two methods used for Champagne and Prosecco.

During the transfer method, the second fermentation happens inside the bottle, just like with Champagne. The producers leave the wine on the lees so that those nutty, doughy flavours can develop in the wine. But instead of turning all the bottles upside down for the lees to settle, the producers transfer the wine into a steel tank. During this transfer, they filter the wine and remove the lees.

This process is most common with sparkling wine bottles that are bigger than standard bottles. This method is less labor-intensive and so producers don’t consider it for premium wines.

Carbonate Wines

Carbonated wines are basically like the soda-stream of wines. With carbonation, producers pump Carbon Dioxide into the wine while the wine is in steel tanks and then bottle it.

It is not like with the other methods where the bubbles occur naturally from the wine naturally releasing CO2. All the bubbles in these wines are synthetic and producers use it to make budget-friendly styles of sparkling wine. This method’s upside is that it is speedy to do, so they save on time and labour. However, the quality tends to suffer. Producers and consumers don’t consider Carbonated wines as quality wines and so they sell at a fraction of the price.

The Undiscovered Sekt Wines

Sekt is a little unknown sparkling wine from Germany consumed in massive amounts in the country.
Interestingly, there are so many layers to Sekt, so I’m really excited to get into this topic.

From the beginning of its existence in the early 1900s, consumers consider the wine as sub-standard. The appeal, however, is the really affordable pricing.

The grapes can be pretty much anything from anywhere. However, for the quality wines, the grapes used include Riesling, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Silvaner, and Gewurtztraminer.

Although producers may use any method, the most commonly use the tank method (which is the same for Prosecco).

Part of the affordability stems from the fact that these producers can make these wines using grapes from anywhere in the world. Producers from France or any part of Germany can sell their grapes to the producers of Sekt. The producer who then produces the wine then states on the label that it is from that country or region.

To allow for quality wines, German laws were created to allow producers to make premium Sekt wines.

Prosecco sweetness understanding wines getting to know sparkling wine

The Quality Tiers of Germany

Producers also make Sekt in Austria, with a very similar quality-system to Germany. The only difference is that their “quality” levels of Sekt are more complex, and some of their very best wines have stringent rules. These rules include only using handpicked grapes and basket-pressing them.

  • With the first-tier wines, the label merely states where the grapes are originally from, with no much more quality requirements.
  • Just above that, you’ll find the German Sekt B.A.
    • The rules here state that the grapes used have to come from one of the 13 designated German wine regions. For these wines, only regional varieties like Riesling and Silvaner and allowed.
  • Winzersekt is the first of the quality levels.
    •  There are rather strict rules here when producers want to produce wine under this category.
    • Firstly, the wine label must include the grapes used and the vintage of the wine.
    • When making these Sekt wines, the traditional method has to be used. The grapes must also come from the producer’s vineyard, and the wine must be made in the region where the grapes are grown.
    • Producers are allowed to use grapes like Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc, but Riesling is most common.

If you love the topic of wine as much as I do, check out this piece, I wrote about Why I Love Wine.

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