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!