Champagne v sparkling wine: Everything you need to know
The real difference between champagne and sparkling wine, explained, plus a sommelier’s guide to the best bubbles under $50.
Australia’s love affair with French bubbles shows no signs of going flat. In 2018, Aussies imported 8.38 million bottles of the effervescent drink. This makes the land down under the world’s seventh-largest champagne market, with the largest per-capita consumption outside Europe.
Australia is also the word’s fastest-growing champagne market, with seven per cent year-on-year growth, in contrast to a two per cent decline in sales of local bubbles. Champagne sales even eclipsed those of the increasingly popular fizz of choice, prosecco.
We caught up with RACV Club sommelier and resident wine expert Christian Maier to talk all things bubbles and find out some of his favourite champagnes under $50.
Everything you need to know about champagne
What is champagne?
More than just a sparkling wine, champagne has become synonymous with celebrations and social occasions, playing a starring role in many of life’s biggest moments.
“A sparkling wine can only be called champagne if it comes from the region of Champagne, in France,” Christian says. “The region produces wines that are very fresh and elegant, which is one of the key attributes of champagne and what sets it apart from other sparkling wines. That, plus hundreds of years of practice.”
This prized viticultural region (which was UNESCO World Heritage-listed for its cultural significance in 2015) lies in the north-east of France and is home to more than 300 villages, 4500 grape growers, many hundreds of champagne houses and more than 5000 brands.
“Champagne is one of the most regulated wine production areas in the world,” Christian explains. “There are rules dictating eveything from when growers can harvest their grapes and how much they can harvest to minimum alcohol levels and years of bottle ageing. The aim is to set a minimum standard and ensure every bottle of champagne is expressive of the region.”
What is not champagne?
Sparkling wines from any other region in France. These are labelled cremant (and they can represent excellent quality and value for money — look out for cremant de Loire, Bourgogne and Alsace). Sparkling wines from anywhere else in the world are simply labelled sparkling wine. This includes prosecco from Italy, cava from Spain and sekt from Germany.
What grapes are used in champagne?
“There are three main grape varieties used to make champagne,” Christian says, “Pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier – and each contributes special characteristics to the final blend.”
Pinot noir and pinot meunier are both dark-skinned grapes, and are responsible for giving champagne structure and body, while also imparting forest fruit aromas. Chardonnay is essential for giving champagne its freshness and acidity, as well as its biscuity and brioche characteristics.
How is champagne made?
A defining feature of champagne is that it is always made in the methode champenoise (or traditional method) which produces natural bubbles that are finer and longer-lasting than other carbonation methods.
“What is unique about the methode champenoise,” Christian says, “is that after the first fermentation in the barrel, champagne is bottled, yeast is added and then the wine undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle. This is how champagne develops its signature bread and biscuit characteristics.”
The ideal blend
To achieve a consistent house style from year to year, the Champenois (champagne makers) also became masters of blending.
“They blend grapes from different years, different vineyards, different vineyard plots, different grape varieties and even different parts of the press in order to keep the house style and quality consistent,” Christian says. “This is very clever when you are in a region that is borderline for grape ripening. In exceptional years, however, they will declare a vintage, and this champagne will reflect the character of the year more than the non-vintage house style.”
Misty mornings in the undulating vineyards of Champagne.
Grape growing in Champagne dates back more than 2000 years to Roman times and effervescence in wine has been noted by writers since the 1600s. But it was a rivalry between Champagne and neighbouring Burgundy that led to the accidental development of the bubbly beauty.
Back then, doctors prescribed wine as medicine, so when King Louis XIV of France became unwell, a doctor attributed his ailing health to poor-quality reds from Champagne and ordered that wine from neighbouring Burgundy be served at the royal table instead. The Champenois tried to produce wines of similar style and quality to those from Burgundy, but the region's cooler climate made the wines an impossible match for the fuller-bodied Burgundian reds. So they turned their attention to white wines.
Bubbles were originally considered a fault, and the Champenois were at a loss to understand how the still wine that went into the bottle was sparkling when it came out. Some believed bubbles were put there by evil spirits, others thought it had something to do with the moon phases. At one stage champagne was labelled ‘the devil’s wine’ due to its tendency to spontaneously combust.
The first champagnes were made as early as 1531, but it wasn’t until the early 19th century that champagne houses started to intentionally produce these increasingly sought-after bubbly wines.
Fast forward to now and champagne has become one of the most popular wines in the world. In 2018, Champagne recorded its highest-ever turnover, with sales of £4.9 billion ($A7.8 billion), making it France’s most lucrative wine export.
Five superb champagnes under $50
Mumm Cordon Rouge Brut NV
If you’re after an instant crowd-pleaser, look no further than the red stripe. Mumm’s popular Cordon Rouge Brut NV is fresh and fruity, refined and complex, making the ideal drop for any celebration. It leads with a burst of citrus, grapefruit and apricot that gives way to pastry, marzipan and lingering caramel aromas.
Charles Orban Blanc de Blancs Champagne
Fresh and elegant champagne made using 100 per cent chardonnay grapes to produce a bubbly, dry wine with lovely biscuit and brioche aromas and notes of lemon curd and meringue.
Louis Auger Champagne Brut
Coming in at under $30 a bottle, this bright brut champagne is a steal. It is bursting with citrus and apple aromas, underpinned by delicate pastry and sourdough notes.
Lanson Black Label Champagne NV
This bubbly beauty is a bouquet of citrus, stone fruits and florals. With generous lemon curd and creamy, toasty complexity, it’s a consistently crisp, fresh and delicious champagne.
Piper Heidsieck Brut Champagne NV
With a higher percentage of pinot noir and pinot meunier in the blend, Mercier offers a fruitier, more easy-drinking style of champagne. It’s a great all-rounder.
* Prices my vary among retailers.