Bottles of Gran Moraine Sparkling Wine in wine bucket

WINE 101

Champagne vs. Sparkling Wines Explained

JUNE 15, 2022

The king of bubblies, Champagne, is produced using the traditional method, also called la méthode champenoise. A sparkling wine can only be called Champagne if it comes from the Champagne region in France—as the French like to say, le Champagne (the drink) only comes from la Champagne (the region).

But what about other types of sparkling wines, such as Cava and Prosecco? How do they differ from Champagne?

The fastest way to make your way through the array of sparkling wines in a store or online is to know how they are made. Let’s focus on the main two — the traditional and tank methods.

Traditional Method

Second fermentation in bottle

While Champagne can only come from la Champagne, elsewhere in France, traditional method sparklers are called Crémants, followed by the name of the region—such as Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant d’Alsace or Crémant de Loire. Beyond France, producers use the traditional method to make Spanish Cava, Italian Franciacorta, South African Cap Classique and Australian sparkling Shiraz. Keep an eye out for these traditionally produced, non-Champagne sparklers as they can offer an incredible value for the price.

What is the traditional method? Champagne and other bubblies made this way start out as a cuvée—a blend of still wines that have undergone a primary fermentation in tank or barrel. The blended wine is then transferred to bottles, where a mixture of wine, yeasts and sugar (liqueur de tirage) is added to kickstart a second fermentation.

The bottle is temporarily sealed with a crown cap, trapping in the CO2 that is created when the yeast eats the sugar. At this point, the magic happens. Still wine transforms into sparkling in what is aptly called la prise de mousse, or the “capturing of the sparkle.”

Eventually, the yeasts decompose and form a deposit in the bottle, known as the lees. The now sparkling wine is aged on the lees (sur lie), anywhere from 15 months to decades for the best Champagnes, during which time the lees impart wonderful, fresh-baked bread notes and a creamy texture to the wine. Note that the aging requirements for non-Champagne sparkling wines are much shorter—one reason these wines are less expensive than Champagne.

During the sur lie aging period, the bottles are suspended upside down and occasionally rotated or “riddled” to force the lees into the bottle neck. While automated riddling is much more common today, some Champagne houses still rely on professional riddlers, who defy carpal tunnel syndrome by turning up to 40,000 bottles a day!

Once the lees have settled into the neck, the bottles are dipped into a refrigerated solution to freeze the sediment, which shoots out of the bottle when the crown cap is removed—a step called dégorgement. As the final step, the winemaker adds a mixture of sugar and wine (dosage or liqueur d’expédition), which will determine the wine’s final sweetness. The bottle is then sealed with a cork and wire cage and returned to the cellar for additional aging.

Traditional method bubblies can exhibit a surprising range of aromas and flavors, from fresh fruit and flowers to pastry, toast, nuts and dried fruit. The key factors at play here are the wines chosen for the base cuvée and whether malolactic fermentation is used—the process of converting sharp, malic acids (think apple) into soft, lactic acids (think butter and cream). The longer the wine is aged on the lees, the more complex its flavor will also be.

Gran Morane sparkling wine on table

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Tank Method

Second fermentation in tank

Sparkling wines made using the less expensive tank method, also called the Charmat Method, include Italian Prosecco, Lambrusco and Asti Spumante, and most German Sekt.

The tank method starts out like the traditional method with a blend of wines, but the second fermentation takes place in a pressure-controlled tank instead of in bottles. The liqueur de tirage is added to the tank, which traps the CO2 that is created when the yeast consumes the sugar. Sound familiar? Unlike the traditional method, however, there is no aging on the lees. The sparkling wine is filtered, and a dosage can be added before being bottled.

Because tank method sparklers have less contact with the lees, they are more apt to show pure, fresh fruit flavors and exude clean, bright aromas.

People cheers-ing with sparkling wine

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Know your bubbles.

Next time you hear any of the terms being bandied about, you’ll know what they mean.
  • Sweetness – This is determined by the dosage and its grams of sugar/liter
    • Doux = +50 grams
    • Demi-Sec = 32-50 grams
    • Sec = 17-32 grams
    • Extra Dry = 12-17 grams
    • Brut = 0-12 grams
    • Extra Brut = 0-6 grams
    • Brut Nature = 0-3 grams
  • Vintage vs. Non-Vintage – If the base cuvée consists of still wines made from different harvest years, the Champagne is considered non-vintage (NV) or multi-vintage (MV). Conversely, a base cuvée made from a single, exceptional harvest will become a vintage Champagne. 
  • Grower Champagne – The grape growers, who traditionally supply the big houses, will sometimes make their own Champagne, which can offer fantastic quality at a much lower price point. 
  • Fizz – This is determined by the amount of pressure inside the bottle:
    • Mousseux, Crémant, Espumoso, Spumante, Sekt are fully sparkling wines
    • Pétillant, Frizzante, Spritzig are lightly sparkling wines
  • Blanc de Blancs – Champagne/sparkling wine made from only white grapes
  • Blanc de Noirs – Champagne/sparkling wine made from only red grapes
  • Rosé Champagne/Sparkling – Champagne/sparkling wine made through the saignée method (10-15% of the juice is saignée or “bled” from red grapes after 24-72 hours of extended maceration and made into wine); or through simply blending red and white wines in the cuvée.