Champagne vs Sparkling Wine: What’s The Difference?

Champagne vs Sparkling Wine: What’s The Difference?

Champagne is the world’s best sparkling wine. It is not, however, the only type of bubbly out there. In fact, Champagne accounts for just a tiny fraction of all sparkling wine production, dwarfed by oceans of both Prosecco and Cava. So what’s the difference between them all? What makes Champagne so expensive, crémant so undervalued, and pét-nats so… unusual? Let’s break it down.


Champagne is a place. Specifically, it’s a cold region in France, a two-hour drive northeast from Paris. If the grapes aren’t grown there, then it isn’t Champagne.

The grapes that are grown there are pinot noir, chardonnay, and meunier. Champagne houses - from independent ‘grower producers’ to massive entities like Moët or Veuve - use those grapes to make dry, still wines. These not-yet-sparkling wines are then bottled, along with the addition of yeast and sugar. The yeast eats the sugar, which both boosts the ABV and produces CO2. Because the bottle is sealed, the CO2 has nowhere to go, hence the bubbles. After this secondary fermentation, Champagne spends months or years mingling with the dead yeast in the bottle, producing its signature bread and brioche flavors. The dead yeast are eventually removed and the wine may be topped off with a small amount of sugar, before being re-corked, and released for sale.

This whole process, known as the ‘Traditional Method’ or ‘Method Champenoise’, yields complex, refined, age-worthy sparkling wines. All that, combined with the scarcity of land, and the time- and labor-intensive production process, helps explain why Champagne is never cheap.


Like Champagne, crémant is made using the traditional method. Essentially, the only difference is that Crémant doesn’t come from the Champagne region. It comes from other parts of France, like Burgundy, Jura, and the Loire. The grape varieties vary, but the best ones cost around $50, and offer better value than similarly priced Champagne.


Cava is also made using the traditional method, but rather than originating in northeastern France, it’s made in northeastern Spain. Chardonnay and pinot noir are both found in Cava, but unlike most of the world’s premium sparkling wines, they’re not the focus. Instead, Cava is usually a blend of three Spanish white grapes - macabéo, xarel-lo, and parellada.

There’s a ton of Cava out there, and most of it is best left for mimosas and ice-cold refreshment on the beach. However, a new wave of quality-minded producers are farming organically, limiting yields, and aging their wines for extended periods of time. Their Cava bottlings are currently the best sparkling wines you can find for under $30.


The traditional method entails fermenting the still wine fully dry, and then adding sugar and yeast to kick off a secondary fermentation in the bottle. Pét-nat wines, on the other hand, are simply bottled before the base wine finishes fermenting. The leftover yeast continues to eat the sugar, and since the bottle is capped, the resulting CO2 makes the wine lightly effervescent. This process, also called ‘Méthode Ancestrale’, is simpler, less expensive, and quite a bit older than the traditional method.

Pét-nats are intertwined with the natural wine movement - ‘pétillant naturel’ translates to ‘natural sparkling’ - meaning their popularity and range of sources have exploded in recent years. They’re now made in New Hampshire, New South Wales, and pretty much everywhere in between. The grapes and flavors vary quite a bit, but your best bet is to seek out pét-nats from top-class natural winemakers whose still wines you already enjoy

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