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Sparkling vs Champagne – Is there a Difference?

There’s nothing like the pop of a cork and the fizz of beautifully beading bubbles.  

So, when it’s time to celebrate, should you choose a French Champagne or stick to an Australian Sparkling, and is there really any difference?

Australian Sparkling can very happily hold its head up high with a reputation that can match the best of Champagne. Thanks to the championing of regions like Tasmania and Tumbarumba, we are starting to see examples that express purity of fruit and clever winemaking decisions. The only reason Sparkling is not labelled Champagne is because it does not hail from the famed region in France, although it goes through the same winemaking process and uses the three mainstay varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

CHAMPAGNE

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While Australia excels in the production of quality Sparkling wine, a bottle of Champagne really does say ‘special occasion’.

The finest Sparkling wine in the world is Champagne, which is only made from three varieties; Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier that are grown within the Champagne region in northern France. Here the cool climate and chalky soils produce wines with delicate fruit flavours with extremely high levels of natural acidity that are ideal for the production of Sparkling wines with great finesse. To ensure its quality standards remain high, the production of Champagne is highly regulated. The fruit must be grown within the region, strict yields must be adhered to and Champagne must be made using the traditional method or méthode Champenoise. That means that Champagne is always sold in the same bottle in which it undergoes its secondary fermentation. Non-Vintage (NV) Champagne must spend a minimum of 15 months on lees. In the best years Vintage Champagne might be released, and this must spend at least 3 years on lees.

SPARKLING WHITE

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BACKGROUND OF SPARKLING WHITE WINES

Australia produces a diverse range of Sparkling white wines and has a history well steeped in great bubbly. Before the boom in Australian table wines much of the wine produced here was Sparkling or fortified. While sales of fortified wines are in decline, sales of Australian Sparkling wine are a rising category. The most prolific trailblazer in Australian Sparkling was Colin Preece, who made wines for Seppelt in the Great Western region of Victoria mid last century. Colin’s attention to quality and detail created a demand for Australian Sparkling wines that has grown rapidly over time. Many of his wines made over half a century ago are still drinking well today. In the 21st century, Dr Tony Jordan at Domaine Chandon and Ed Carr at Constellation/Hardys are leading the way, producing exceptional Australian Sparkling wines.

MORE ABOUT AUSTRALIAN SPARKLING WHITE WINES

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Apart from Sparkling Reds, the finest Australian Sparkling wines are also made from these three grape varieties as Champagne, mostly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The method of production largely determines the quality of Sparkling wines. All Sparkling wines undergo a primary fermentation to produce a base wine. The best producers have a vast selection of base wines, which are blended together to produce the desired style.

The most cost-effective method for Sparkling wine production is the injection method. As the name implies this simple method involves the injection of carbon dioxide, the same process used in soft drinks, which produces big bubbles that dissipate quickly in the glass. This method is used for the cheap, commercial Sparkling wines.

The Charmat method sees the wine undergo a secondary fermentation in tanks, before it is bottled under pressure. This method is used widely in Italy.

The transfer method involves the wine undergoing a second bottle fermentation, which gives the wine yeasty complexity, before the Sparkling wine is transferred out of the individual bottles into a large tank. The Sparkling wine is then separated from the spent yeast cells and bottled under pressure.

The traditional method or méthode Champenoise is the most labour intensive, costly and lengthy method, but it produces the highest quality Sparkling wines. The traditional method involves a second fermentation taking place in the same bottle that the wine is sold. The traditional method is used for the production of Champagne. The wine is left in contact with its spent lees cells after the secondary fermentation, usually at least 15 months. The yeast cells are then removed from the wine, then the bottle is topped up with a dose of base wine and sugar before it is corked.

Most Australian Sparkling wine producers will make a Non-Vintage wine each year that is blended across vintages to produce a consistent product. In favourable years a Vintage wine may be produced. These wines tend to be more expensive and refined, offering a good expression of the region, variety, year and house style. You may often see a Blanc de Blanc style that is produced entirely from Chardonnay or a Blanc de Noir style, made entirely from Pinot Noir. After the wines have completed their second bottle fermentation, they are usually matured on the spent lees for longer, which imparts complex bread-like characters.

The cool regions provide the best base wines, which are usually picked early with high levels of acidity. With our broad climate spectrum, we boast a range of Sparkling wine styles from the ultrafine Tasmanian Sparkling wine to the more robust Victorian and New South Wales examples.

AUSTRALIAN SPARKLING WHITE WINE REGIONS

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The Yarra Valley

The Sparkling wine stocks of the Yarra Valley received a huge boost when Moet & Chandon established Domaine Chandon in 1986. The Yarra Valley’s cool climate produces elegant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which combined with Chandon’s winemaking experience and resources, enables it to produce excellent quality Sparkling whites.

Tasmania

Tasmania’s cool climate allows producers to generate fine base material to be blended into excellent examples of Australian Sparkling wines, either made on the island or the mainland.

Macedon Ranges

The Macedon Ranges’ cool temperatures and soil types provide the perfect setting for Sparkling wines. Small producers like Hanging Rock, Cope-Williams and Granite Hills excel here.

Great Western/Grampians

This Victorian region pioneered Sparkling wine in Australia and it continues to produce some great examples, particularly at Seppelt.

Adelaide Hills

The Adelaide Hills has the ability to produce graceful Chardonnay and Pinot fruit with a unique textural minerality.

Hunter Valley

The Hunter Valley produces fine Chardonnay-based ‘Blanc de Blanc’ Sparkling wine. The use of Semillon in Sparkling wines is also becoming popular in the Hunter.

Tumbarumba

This high-altitude region has a very cool climate, which produces fruit with high natural acidity that provides the base for fine Sparkling wines.

MATCHING SPARKLING WHITES WITH FOOD

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One important thing to remember when matching Sparkling whites and Champagne with food, is that they come in a stack of different styles with varying dosage, or sugar levels.

As with all wines, you don’t want to choose or serve a dish that will overpower in weight, on the palate or in flavour intensity – the idea is the keep things balanced.

Canapes and entrées:

Start off with classic matches like fresh oysters, scallops, sushi, sashimi, light white fish and salads. Stick to light and fresh, plus add some crunch with fresh vegies like carrot and cucumber with a tasty dip. Blanc de blanc styles make a great match to these food suggestions.

Mains:

As Sparkling wine is quite acidic, it does a great job of cutting through fat/oil and salt, so if it’s deep fried chicken that you’re craving, just go with the flow.

With its yeasty characters and fuller fruit, vintage Sparkling is perfect to serve with richer fish like salmon, earthy and gamey dishes including duck, venison, mushroom, truffles, and full-bodied cheeses like parmesan or for real decadence, how about a twice cooked Roquefort soufflé.

When it comes to spicy foods like Thai and Indian curries, the best option is to keep the chilly level under check, otherwise it will overpower the subtleties of the Sparkling. A sweeter style, like a demi-sec is another good choice.

Desserts:

It’s best to stick to sweet with sweet, so go for a demi-sec style, or a sweeter Sparkling Rosé.

To view Wine Selectors' wonderful Sparkling wine offerings, click here

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