What is Champagne?
If you ask a group of wine connoisseurs, they will likely tell you that champagne is a sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France. We will get into the origins of this line of thinking later. Often, Champagne prices are higher than that of sparkling wine because of the methods of production, the prestigious region and the quality of product. For instance, a decent bottle of sparkling wine costs as low as $12 whereas a bottle of Champagne starts at about $40.
Generally speaking, champagne is synonymous with sparkling wine. Wines containing a higher level of carbon dioxide will feature the tell-tale bubbles of carbonation, thus the term “bubbly”. Sparkling wine is any wine, usually white or rose, featuring carbonation.
Champagne has been around somewhat unknowingly since Greek and Roman times. At that point in history, it was not known why certain wines had an effervescent appearance and texture.
It was not until the late 1600s that a scientist discovered adding sugar to wine prior to bottling it would create the bubbles. The scientist, Christopher Merret, was ironically British rather than French.
How Champagne is Made
Many aspects of producing champagne or sparkling wine are the same as making wine. One notable difference occurs during the harvesting process. Grapes intended to be sparkling wines are harvested earlier to avoid too much sugar reaching the grapes.
Most grapes are separated from their skins to produce a white color (even if using a grape like Pinot Noir). The first fermentation is like regular wine unless the winemaker decides to use a special yeast.
Once this fermentation is complete, any blending occurs. Not all sparkling wines undergo blending as some are made from one vintage and varietal. However, many champagnes are blends of several bases and the final product is the cuvee.
Secondary fermentation is where the proverbial magic happens. There are three types of secondary fermentation:
Champagne Rules and Regulations
Much is made of the term champagne being used as a global reference to any sparkling wine. In the European Union, champagne must follow certain regulations to carry the moniker.
Wines in the EU labeled as champagne must adhere to some extensive regulations set forth by the Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne. These rules include restrictions on regionality, grape varieties, pruning, harvesting, and how long a wine must remain with the dead yeast cells (lees) before being bottled.
In other countries like Australia and China, no such law exists but the governments of nations like them have agreed to only use champagne to refer to wines made in the Champagne region.
The United States allows wines approved to use the term prior to 2006 to continue using champagne on the label but forbids any newer wines from using it. The state of Oregon has gone as far as banning its use entirely.
Champagne Brand Information
Factors Impacting Champagne Pricing (750)
While there are some budget options available, champagne is still often considered a luxury wine reserved for celebrations and special events.
There are many general factors that influence the price of champagne and whether it ends up in the Budget, Standard, or Premium categories on our price comparison chart. Things like land availability and production costs incurred by true champagnes make the French offerings more expensive.
As you can see on our chart, the only Budget wines are sparkling wines from the United States. The availability of land to grow grapes and the lax regulations regarding viticulture makes a lower price point possible.
Champagne requires the grapes be of a certain variety. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, or Pinot Meunier are the options available to producers of French champagne. The limitations are compounded by the lack of space in the required growing region of Champagne.
Some expensive brands found in our Premium category, like Dom Perignon, select only vintage grapes from the best growing years. Thus, their grape options are very limited as any grape they use must be selected from the same year.
Brands like Veuve Clicquot are able to produce Standard priced wines but still use a very select group of grapes. Most of their products are made from Pinot Noir, making it a little more challenging to find the grapes they need for their large production.
Aging Time & Processing
Dom Perignon requires a seven-year minimum for its aging process. They also believe and practice that only six vintages can be created within a span of ten years. These aging requirements drive their wine up into the Premium category. This is a prime example of how aging impacts pricing.
The additional steps of secondary fermentation, specialized bottling practices, and other additions to the process of winemaking contribute to the higher price points of some sparkling wines and champagnes.
Wines that cut out the disgorgement process or simply inject carbon dioxide into their sparkling wines will obviously be less expensive because of the lack of processing steps.
Some champagnes allow their wines to spend more time “on the lees”. The extra time spent with the dead yeast cells makes for a more robust wine but adds time to the overall process. Any extra time or steps in the process will impact the cost of the champagne.
Very expensive bottles over $1000 typically come from some of the world’s most exclusive wineries. These wineries own small vineyards that allow for the ultimate control of quality, sugar content, and end-product.
Many small wineries produce a very limited batch of champagne each year or each few years, further making their wines desirable. This results in very high-end wines with matching price points.
The recognition of champagne in pop culture has led to marked gains for champagne houses like Louis Roederer. The Cristal Champagne has been featured in countless music videos, making it a popular choice in clubs and hot spots around the globe.
Other brands, like Armand de Brignac have experienced a similar rise in popularity by being attached to celebrities. Known as Ace of Spades, this champagne has seen a boost to its sales by its link to popular hip-hop artist Jay-Z.
Other champagnes in the Premium category and even Standard like Dom Perignon and Veuve Clicquot have experienced a bump in recognition with simple gains in social respect.
Selecting the Perfect Bubbly
Choosing the right sparkling wine or champagne can be difficult given the copious options lining wine store shelves. An increase in popularity driven by the popular champagne drinks like mimosas and the brunch phenomenon has led to many more wine producers entering the realm of bubbly.
The Bottle Holds Clues
One of the most important considerations (past how much you want to pay) is how sweet you like your wines. There are indicators on the bottle that will allow you to select an option appropriate for your taste.
In addition to the sugar content, there is another clue that could lead you to the quality of wine you are looking for.
Like always, choosing a bottle of champagne comes down to what you like to drink. For many purchasers, price plays a major factor. Fortunately, there are high-quality options available in the Budget and Standard categories for those without the spending capital to invest in a Premium option.