Champagne is a type of sparkling white or rosé wine that gets its name from the region of France in which it’s produced, called, unsurprisingly, Champagne. Often, the word “champagne” is used casually to refer to any kind of sparkling white wine, especially wines used on a celebratory occasion.
So, is Champagne just sparkling wine? Pretty much! But there are a specific set of rules for a bottle to qualify with that name. This page will get you up to speed with what exactly makes a sparkling wine and how Champagne differs, so you’ll never be confused again.
What Is Sparkling Wine?
The term “sparkling wine” is a catch-all term used to describe a variety of wines that fit into this categorisation. A wine that is sparkling is one that contains discernible levels of carbon dioxide, producing bubbles and making it fizzy. To break it down simply, it’s fermented grape juice with added bubbles.
This is exactly what Champagne is, just sparkling wine from a particular region made with particular grapes in a particular method.
How Is Champagne Made?
The Champagne wine region is in the northeast of France, very near to Paris, with specific boundaries for its vineyards. The area’s high latitude and low average temperatures actually mean it’s tough for wine grapes to fully ripen. But the uniquely chalky soil is both ideal for drainage and for absorbing any heat from the sun and gradually releasing it during the night. This is how Champagne achieves its characteristic finesse and lightness.
There is a limited variety of grapes produced in these vineyards. Nearly all Champagnes are made of a blend of grape varieties. The main varieties are Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. Sometimes, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris (or Fromenteau as it’s known in Champagne), Arbane, and Petit Meslier are also used.
There are many rules and regulations surrounding Champagne viticulture (which refers to the cultivation of grapevines), including pruning, degree of pressing, and how long the bottles must be aged.
The method of Champagne wine production is called Méthode Traditionnelle. It used to be known as Méthode Champenoise before the EU changed the law in 1994. This traditional method is also used outside of France for fine sparkling wines, creating near-identical sparkling wines in all but name.
The Traditional Method
The traditional method is all about the vital secondary fermentation in-bottle. All wine starts life as grapes that are fermented to turn into alcohol, usually in a barrel. With the traditional method, the wine is fermented again in the bottle, to develop flavours, aromas, and textures.
After the first fermentation, the wine will be bottled and will undergo its second fermentation. Winemakers add cane sugar, yeast and nutrients for the yeast. As far as Champagne goes, each brand has its own special recipe which is a closely guarded secret.
As the grape juice ferments, the yeast cells that die start to form deposits. These deposits are called “lees”. These lees are what help develop complex flavours and aromas. Champagne makers will age their wines on these lees for a minimum of 1.5 years, but often longer.
Once the mixture has been sufficiently aged, it will undergo the remuage process, whereby the bottles are gradually oriented, one step at a time, until they are eventually upside down. This causes the lees to move to the neck of the bottle, for easy removal.
To remove the lees, the neck of the bottles are cooled so that the deposits freeze into little plugs. The bottles are then opened when the pressure that has built is released and causes the frozen lees plug to push out.
The missing liquid volume is topped up, the bottles are corked, and they are ready to go!
What Are the Rules Surrounding the Champagne Name?
Though the traditional method described above is used by many sparkling winemakers the world over, only wine made in the designated region of France can legally be called Champagne.
How Else Are Sparkling Wines Made?
The traditional method is regarded as the finest for sparkling wine production, but there are other methods used, too.
- Charmat method: This is a quicker method than the traditional. The second fermentation takes place in a sealed tank which is pressurised to create carbon dioxide at a faster rate.
- The transfer method: This method combines elements of the traditional and the Charmat. Lees ageing is maintained but the deposits are removed via a filtration system rather than by remuage.
- The carbonation method: Here, the fizz of the wine is achieved by injection of carbon dioxide and the wines are bottled under pressure.
Sparkling Wine Types
While Champagne is always a white or rosé sparkling wine, sparkling wines can be red, white, and rosé. Wines can be of varying sweetness, usually labelled as the following, from most dry to most sweet:
- Extra Brut
- Extra Dry
Sample Award-Winning English Sparkling Wine
At Bolney Wine Estate, we have been making English sparkling wine in the traditional method for over 25 years, garnering a range of prestigious industry awards along the way. If you’re looking for a quality Champagne alternative, you’ve come to the right place.
Try our signature Bolney Bubbly for a crowd-pleasing favourite that offers a well-balanced sweetness. Or, celebrate in style with our single vintage Blanc de Blancs that lends a hint of sophistication to any celebration or occasion.
You can sample a single bottle, buy by the case, or go for a hassle-free subscription to make sure you always have a bottle of delicious sparkling wine to hand.