The Difference Between Champagne and Brut

There are many different sparkling wines, but Champagne tends to have the best reputation. But what is the difference, or rather what are the differences, between all these different types of fizz?

The most important difference is between the methods of manufacture, there are four methods of making sparkling wine and each produces a distinctive drink. Sparkling wine can only go by the name ‘Champagne’ if it has been made in the Champagne region in the north east of France. However, the wine-making method used in the region, the Méthode Champenoise, is used across the world where it is now called the méthode traditionnelle.

As well as using a distinctive method, the Champagne region does have a fairly unique climate and geology that gives the wine made there a distinctive flavour. Lying north-east of Paris, the region has a much cooler climate than most wine-producing areas. The average temperature in the region is only just warm enough to ripen white grapes – a degree cooler and there would be no Champagne. The chalky soil is also not found in many other wine producing regions. There are other sparkling wines produced across France, those using the méthode traditionnelle are known as Crémant, while those using other methods are known as Mousseux.

Some other sparkling wines

Cava is the Spanish sparkling wine and is made using the méthode traditionnelle, however the soils and climate are quite different from Champagne. There are seven levels of sweetness, ranging from Brut Nature (with no added sugar) to Dulce (with more than 50g of sugar per litre). Almost all Cava is made in six regions in the state of Catalonia. An important tip for drinking Cava: the sweeter the wine, the more you should chill it.
Italian sparkling wines are known as spumantes. They are generally made using the Charmat method, where the second fermentation takes place in a large tank rather than in a bottle. Most spumantes are made in the north of the country where the grapes are less sweet, due to a reduced amount of sun.

Prosecco is probably the best known Italian sparkling wine, especially when combined with peach juice to make the Bellini cocktail. With a straw colour, the wine is dry and should usually be drunk within three years. It is made largely from the Glera grape, which until 2009 was known as Prosecco too, although this now only refers to the wine and region. Prosecco comes from the hilly northern part of the Veneto region of north western Italy. In 2009, the region where the wine is made – the Prosecco di Conegliano e Valdobbiadene DOC area – was upgraded to a DOCG, in an attempt to increase quality.

Asti, comes from the other side of Italy to Prosecco, the hills of Piedmont in the north east of the country. Made from Moscato Blanco grapes (or Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains), and is generally sweet, or off-dry, and low in alcohol.

Moscato d’Asti is a similar wine made in the Piedmont region from the same Moscato Blanco grapes, but is lower in alcohol at about 5% to 7%.

Lambrusco is a sparkling red wine that acquired a very bad reputation during the Sixties and Seventies. Although it is generally thought to be a sweet wine, this needn’t be the case, so keep an eye out for drier versions. Lambrusco also ranges from lightly sparkling or frizzante, to fully sparkling or spumante. The wine is made from clones of the red Lambrusco grape (the most important being sorbara, salamino and grasparossa), in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna with some production in Lombardy. It is made using the technique used to make rosé, although the end product can vary from deep red through rosé to the occasional white Lambrusco.

Portuguese sparkling wine is known as espumante and is grown throughout the country, but with the best wines coming from the cooler north of the country. The best sparkling wines from the country are given the VEQPRD (Vinho Espumante de Qualidade Produzido em Regiao Determinada) certification, VFQPRD (Vinho Frisante de Qualidade Produzido em Regiao Determinada) or VQPRD (Vinho Frisante de Qualidade Produzido em Regiao Determinada) classifications. Steer clear of the espumosos, the cheapest and lowest quality sparkling wines that are made by injecting carbon dioxide into the wine.

German sparkling wine is known as Sekt and is usually made using the Charmat method. Wine that is injected with carbon dioxide is known as Schaumwein, while semi-sparkling wine is known as Perlwein. German law classifies four basic styles of sparkling wine: trocken or dry, halbtrocken or off-dry, lieblich or mild, and finally süss or sweet wine.

The United States of America, specifically the state of California, probably make the most sparkling wine outside Europe (other than Russia, which we won’t speak about). Californian sparkling wines have improved greatly since the sixties when they started to be use Chardonnay,Pinot Meunier, Pinot noir and Pinot blanc (the Champagne grapes). A second great improvement in Californian sparkling wine occurred when French champagne houses bought vineyards in the state. Moet & Chandon’s Domaine Chandon produced its first vintage in 1976, Mumm Napa Valley was founded by Mumm in 1979, and in1987 Taittinger founded Domaine Carneros.

Australian sparkling wines are usually made in the cooler southern areas of the country, especially Tasmania and Victoria. French Champagne houses have also got involved in producing sparkling wine in Australia too, Moet and Chandon started a Domaine Chandon in the Yarra Valley of Victoria in 1986, and Bollinger has bought a stake in Tapanappa Winery in the Wrattonbully region of South Australia.

New Zealand also makes some delicious sparkling wines which traditionally come from the north of the South Island.

English sparkling wine should not be neglected, in fact, is generally reckoned to be of high quality. The south of England possesses many of the same qualities as the terroir of the Champagne region. Not only is the cool climate very similar to the average temperatures of Champagne which has an average temperature of just 11C, but soil type is very similar too. The Champagne region is part of a long ridge of chalky limestone that extends from France across southern England. Chalk is a very porous mineral which holds water and ensures the vines don’t dry out, even in very dry summers. The main deficiency of English sparkling wines comes from the slightly cooler temperature in the UK which means they often lack the ripeness of their counterparts in Champagne. Global warming however should change this. As Europe’s climate warms up, English sparkling wines will be better able to match the French.

An idea of what can happen to English sparkling wines when the vines have a hot enough summer is seen in the much reported Nyetimber Classic Cuvee 2003. The whole of Europe had a scorchingly hot summer in 2003, that not only accounted for many below par wines from Champagne, but also an improved quality in their English counterparts. This may well have been behind the success of Nyetimber Classic Cuvee 2003 in the 2009 Bollicine del Mondo competition which beat Champagnes to win the title Champion of Worldwide Sparkling Wines. As the Sussex-made Ridgeview Marret Bloomsbury 2002 had already taken the trophy for the Best Sparkling Wine at the International Wine and Spirit Competition 2005, perhaps it’s no wonder that Champagne producers Louis Roederer have been looking at buying vineyards in the country.