Why Is There Such a Price Difference Between Champagnes and Sparkling Wines?

One of the most common questions I am asked with regard to Champagnes and sparkling wines is: “why is there such a price discrepancy between them and what are the differences?”

There are a number of factors that contribute to differences and the price differential. The method in which the wines are made, the variety and quality of grapes used in the wine, the time held before release and the distance the wine travels to reach the point of sale.

The Main Methods of Production

The most time consuming, intensive and consequently the most expensive method of producing sparkling wine is the traditional method used in the Champagne area of France. After a primary fermentation the wine is bottled where as the second fermentation happens in the bottle. Sugar and yeast are used to induce this second fermentation. In Champagne the wine has to sit for a minimum of 1.5 years. Then the wine has to go through the process of remuage (the gradual turning and inversion of the bottle) to get the lees (yeasty sediment bits) to settle in the neck of the bottle to allow them to be removed after which time the dosage (typically a mixture of sugar and wine) is added to top the bottle back up. Most Champagnes will be aged on lees for longer than the 1.5 years. Moreover, the Champagne has to reach our shores: not an insignificant distance!

The cost of producing sparkling wine in this traditional method (Champagne) is the most expensive way as it takes a good deal more time to produce, then a good deal more time before the finished product hits the retail market. Some Australian sparkling wines made using this method are kept for many years before release. The Arras Range of vintage sparkling wines are held en tirage for up to 10 years before release. Consequently the prices for these wines reflect the time and quality of the wines.

The Transfer method is another method used when after the first fermentation the wine is put in bottles for the second fermentation. After time in the bottle the wine is taken out and put into large tanks. The wine is then filtered, dosage added and then the wine is returned to the bottle.

The Charmat method, a process invented in Italy, is another way of producing sparkling wine. In this method the wine undergoes the second fermentation in stainless steel tanks, not in the bottle. The wine is then bottled under pressure.

The Transfer method cuts a fair slab of the time out of the production of a sparkling wine and consequently makes it slightly cheaper to produce. This method does allow more complexity in the wine then the Charmat method as the second ferment is in the bottle and the wine is left on lees for a period plus the winemaker has more scope to fine tune the wine at the end. The Charmat method makes a more simple style as the second fermentation is in the tank and not the bottle and there is no extended lees contact.

The last method and the cheapest form of sparkling wine production is Carbonation. The wine is simply injected with C02 in a tank and bottled under pressure as with sparkling soft drinks.

The Grapes

In the Champagne region of France there are strict controls on what grapes varieties can be used and the areas from where these grapes can be taken to make Champagne. The three main varieties allowed are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. There are a couple of others but they are rare and seldom used. These three varieties are what the better Australian sparkling wines are made from, although Pinot Meunier is used to a much lesser extent due to the relatively small amount grown here. The producers of premium sparkling wines source the best grapes available to produce the best base wine they can. Cheaper sparkling wines use less costly grapes and in the cheaper carbonated sparklings different varieties are often used for production.

One other factor that can be a price determinant, especially at the premium end, is the market forces that are in play. Due to the very small quantities some of the top Champagnes and sparkling wines are produced in small quantities so they can command large prices as there are always consumers willing to pay a premium to secure them.

The cost of sparkling wines is therefore a reflection of the manner of production, the grapes used, the time involved in the process, the holding time before release and how far it travels to hit the retail market. With sparkling wine, as with most very fine things in life, you get what you pay for: time, care, quality and limited supply. When next you enjoy a cold glass of bubbly you may like to ponder on the factors involved in its creation. But don’t think too hard: life is too short!

A Toast to Champagne and Sparkling Wines

In December, we travel across the ocean to discuss one of nature’s gifts, Champagne! Champagne is a wine region in France, so only wines from this area may be properly called Champagne. Any “champagne” produced outside this region in France should be referred to as Sparkling Wine.

No other beverage in the world symbolizes a celebration better than Champagne/Sparkling wine. These beverages help usher in the New Year as well as weddings, birthdays, promotions and any other special occasions. This time of year is when approximately 80 percent of this beverage is consumed. At holiday parties, my catering company likes to set up a sparkling station near the front door, greeting guests with a festive glass of bubbly.

Wine speak

The Champagne region in France is located about 90 miles northeast of Paris. In the late 17th century, French Champagnes were formally recognized as a new style of wine. Champagne’s unique effervescence came about due to the cooler climate of northern France. Grapes from this region generally had not fully ripened nor totally fermented in the Fall when wines are traditionally placed in barrels. Over the winter, the champagne was dormant, then began fermenting once again in the Spring. This led to a fizzy beverage that was cloudy, due to the spent yeast floating in the barrels. At the time, this was considered an inferior product.

The French in the Champagne region created a new process to clarify their beverage. Instead of traditional barrel aging and storage, champagne was the first wine to be stored and aged in individual bottles with corks. This new process, Methode Champenois, (still in use today) involves inverting the bottles in racks and gently turning the bottles (riddling), to help the yeast collect in the neck of the bottle.

Next, the neck of the bottle is submerged in a brine solution that freezes the yeast section. The bottle is popped to expel the plug of yeast (disgorgement), resulting in a clear beverage. The champagne is then topped off with still (non-fermented) wine held in reserve for this purpose. A small amount of yeast and sugar are added to the bottle, then corked. This starts the second fermentation process. As the yeast consumes the sugar, a small amount of alcohol is created, as well as carbon dioxide. This allows the bottle to regain its fizz.

Today there are about 100 Champagne Houses in the Champagne region that are supplied with grapes or grape juice from over 15,000 local growers. Given the cooler climate, faster ripening grape varietals are used exclusively in this region; Chardonnay (used exclusively in Blanc de Blancs), Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (used with Chardonnay in Blanc de Noirs and Roses). There are three different methods to produce Champagne; the traditional Methode Champenois where wines ferment in individual bottles, the Charmat Process where wines are fermented in large steel vats and, third, the Artificial Carbonation process where wine is injected with carbon dioxide – which is the most inexpensive approach (and can lead to headaches). Quality Champagnes cost more due to the winery’s use of higher quality grapes, the blending of aged, still wines and the cost of storing the bottled Champagne for years before release.

There are three different styles of Champagne or Sparkling wines, ranging from light to medium to full body (based on the amount of time the yeast is left in contact with the wine). Also, sparkling wine’s sweetness levels ranges from Brut (dry) to Extra Dry (semi-sweet) to Doux (sweet).

Food and wine pairings

As discussed, the holidays are when the majority of Sparkling wines are consumed. They tend to be food friendly due to their higher acidity levels. This refreshing beverage is an ideal aperitif (lighter style is best) or can be used throughout a meal (heavier, more yeasty styles). They tend to match well with spicy and salty dishes. When served as an aperitif, my catering company tends to pair the lighter style Sparklings with sushi, smoked salmon canap├ęs, garlicky shrimp crostini, spicy chicken sate and grilled ahi tuna skewers with a wasabi aioli. They also pair well with goat cheese and semi-soft white cheeses that offer mild flavors.

Sparkling wines have been a house favorite for years. Personal favorites from California that I recommend include Schramsberg and Domaine Carneros, which we just visited this past October. On the French side, a smaller House that is receiving great accolades is Charles Ellner, whose Brut Champagne Seduction ($65) and Brut Reserve ($40) offer tremendous value for the money. Included in the following are suggestions from local merchants of Champagnes and Sparkling wines and their retail prices, which may vary:

Picks

$10 range

Pierre Delize Non-Vintage (NV) Blanc de Blancs – France – $7

Domaine Ste. Michelle (NV) Brut Columbia Valley – Washington State – $12

Jaume Serra Cristalino Brut Nature – Spanish Sparkler – $10

Rotari Brut – Italian Sparkling (not from the Asti region) – $12

Daniel Pardiac Brut Blanc de Blancs – France – $12

$25 – 40 ranges

Roederer Estate (NV) Brut – Anderson Valley, CA – $22

Domaine Carneros Brut Carneros – Napa Valley, CA – $25

Schramsberg Brut Blanc de Noir – Napa/Sonoma Counties, CA – $30

Joseph Perrier Brut – France – $26

Bollinger NV Brut – France – $40

Charles Ellner Brut Reserve – France – $40

Bob Kovacs of The Wine Seller in Geneva reminded me of Winston Churchill’s famous quote, “Champagne, in defeat you need it – in victory you deserve it!”

Happy Holidays and Cheers!

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