What Is Champagne? We Answer All of Your Questions About Bubbly

It's the staple for every major celebration. But have you ever wondered, what is champagne? How is it different from sparkling wine?

If you’re anything like me, you love the occasional glass of champagne. It’s a marvelous aperitif—nothing sets the stage for a meal quite like a glass of bubbly. You’ve likely sipped both champagne and sparkling wine (especially if you’re a Gemini), and may have wondered if there’s a difference. Here’s the lowdown!

What Is Champagne?

True Champagne hails from the Champagne region in the northeastern nook of France. While all Champagne is sparkling wine, not all sparkling wine is Champagne. Think of it in the same terms as bourbon. All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. It’s technically illegal for a wine to be labeled Champagne if it doesn’t hail from the eponymous French region, or if it deviates from the strict set of guidelines outlined by law.

Champagne comes in a wide spectrum of styles and all of them are delicious. The most common ones you’ll see lining the shelves of your local wine shop or supermarket are dry, aka not sweet. That would be Brut Nature, Extra Brut or Brut. If you like a sugary kiss to your bubbly, keep an eye out for bottles labeled Extra Dry, Sec, Demi-Sec or Doux. They’re rarer but 100% worth hunting down.

By the way, here’s how to open a champagne bottle the right way.

Why Is Champagne so Expensive?

The price tag on your bottle of Champagne all comes down to the way it’s made. (Bear with me, we’re going to get a little technical here.) The climate in the Champagne region can be unforgiving. The frost, rain and hail all pose a potential threat to vines during the growing season. Bad weather can spell disaster for grape bunches, leading to lower yields come harvest. Once harvest rolls around, the grapes must be picked by hand rather than by machine. As you might expect, hand-picking grapes is much more expensive.

The real costs start adding up when we get to Champagne production. Champagne is made using a process called the traditional method. The grape juice is fermented into a base wine and bottled. Then, winemakers add a mixture of sugar and yeast to kick off a secondary fermentation in the bottle. This is what gives bubbly its sparkle. From here, the wine must age for another 15 months for non-vintage or a minimum of three years for vintage, although some houses age their Champagnes for much longer.

With such a lengthy and labor-intensive process, it’s no wonder Champagne boasts such a hefty price tag! If you’re on a budget, our round-up of the best cheap champagnes will keep your guests, and your wallet, happy.

What’s the Difference Between Champagne and Sparkling Wine?

Sparkling wine comes from just about everywhere in the winemaking world. While many are made in the same way as Champagne, some sparkling wines get their fizz from other less time-consuming and less expensive methods.

Take prosecco, for example. This Italian bubbly is produced using the Charmat method. Secondary fermentation happens in large pressurized tanks as opposed to in the bottle. The result is sparkling wines that are slightly less fizzy than their traditional method counterparts.

What Should I Buy?

It all depends on what you prefer! For special occasions, you can’t go wrong with a bottle of Champagne. But if you’d like to sip a flute of fizz on the regular, sparkling wine is your best friend. If you have champagne tastes on a beer budget, fear not. You can still get your fix of bubbly courtesy of other excellent but more affordable sparkling wine regions. Value sparkling wines like cava, cremant or prosecco are fantastic bases for cocktails or as a secret ingredient in dessert recipes.

If you’re whipping up a dessert that calls for a splash of bubbly, don’t use Champagne—it’s too expensive! Stick to budget-friendly bottles and you’ll never go wrong.

Bubbly Recipes for Champagne Cocktails
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Camille Berry
Part of the third generation in a family of restaurateurs, Camille was born with a passion for cooking and food. She embarked on a career in hospitality where she excelled as a sommelier and wine director. This hospitality experience has given her a wealth of first-hand knowledge about how to pair all manner of drinks with food—plus some serious kitchen skills. These days, she's hung up her wine key in favor of a pen and covers all aspects of food and drink.