What's the Difference Between Champagne and Sparkling Wine?

By: Carrie Whitney, Ph.D.  | 
Both Champagne and sparkling wine are carbonated, meaning they have those signature bubbles. But not all sparkling wines are Champagnes. Minerva Studio/Shutterstock

Call it bubbly, bubbles or fizz, but don't call what's in your glass Champagne unless it truly is. So how do you know the difference between Champagne and sparkling wine?

And what is so special about Champagne that the name has been protected under the French appellation d'Origine Controlée (AOC) system since 1936? The region is also protected worldwide by the Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne trade association (CIVC).


It just comes down to where — and how — the effervescent drink is made.

What Is Champagne?

Put simply, Champagne is a sparkling wine (meaning it is carbonated) that is produced in the Champagne region of northern France, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) east of Paris. The French AOC does not permit sparkling wines that originate from outside of here to be called Champagne.

That's because sparkling wines produced in Champagne follow the rules of the AOC system, which include specific methods and practices. Theses rules hold up well in France where the AOC standards are respected. Some 121 countries have agreed to recognize the special Champagne designation, thanks to the efforts of the CIVC.


Champagne, France
Aÿ is a village in the Vallée de la Marne Champagne production region of eastern France. Most of the Champagne produced here is classified as Grand Cru, and some of the most prestigious Champagne houses own vineyards here — including Ayala Deutz, Gosset and Bollinger.
David Silverman/Getty Images

But there are a couple of caveats, and a handful of countries are not quite on board with the AOC designation. For example, some American producers still call "long-established domestic brands 'champagne,' as long as there is also a clear indication of the wine's true geographical origin," wine critic Jancis Robinson wrote on her website.

Some American producers sneak in the word "champagne" on their labels under a grandfather clause; those in business before 2006 "are only obliged to display the state of origin on their bottles of wine," Clément Thierry explains for France-Amériqiue. Hence the reason you might see the confusing pairing of "California" and "champagne" on a bottle, despite the contents truly being sparkling wine. Tsk tsk.


Méthode Champenoise

While wine is made through fermentation, sparkling wines and Champagne require a secondary fermentation, which creates the characteristic bubbles. This second fermentation is known as méthode champenoise, which roughly translates to "the Champagne method." It was created in in Champagne, France, in the late 17th century, and requires the second fermentation to take place in the bottle.

Executing the secondary fermentation in the bottle requires adding the liqueur de tirage — a combination of yeast, wine and sugar — to the base wine in the bottle. It's more labor intensive than the charmat method, where the second fermentation occurs in large pressure tanks.


Champagne bottles
Here Champagne bottles are stored in an underground cellar after the second fermentation, which the méthode champenoise requires to take place in the bottle.

What Is Sparkling Wine?

Like Champagne, sparkling wine is also wine that is carbonated and made from either white or red grapes. But unlike Champagne, many sparkling wines use the charmat method; the fermentation takes place in bulk in pressure tanks to create their bubbles.

But even if a sparkling wine producer chooses to follow the méthode champenoise, the wine cannot be labeled Champagne — or méthode champenoise — if it is produced outside of Champagne, France. The producer must label it as méthode traditionnelle or a similar term.


This is also true for sparkling wines produced in other regions of France. And there are plenty of French sparkling wines — known as Crémant — that are produced through the méthode traditionnelle.

Many countries across the world produce sparkling wines through the méthode traditionnelle. In Spain they're known as cava; in Portugal, they're called espumante. Prosecco and Lambrusco from Italy are made using the charmat method.

Sparkling wines from California and other parts of the United States are simply sparkling wines, no matter what their labels say.