/ Food & Drink

Champagne vs sparkling wine: can you tell the difference?

Two flutes of champagne with Christmas lights in the background

A glass of bubbly can be just the thing to make a party go with a swing. But can you tell if it’s the real thing or a top notch sparkling wine that you’re sipping with your canapés?

There’s something really attractive to me about the idea of drinking Champagne. It’s certainly not an everyday item – well, not in my house anyway. It immediately conjures up an air of glamour and luxury. But if I’m honest, I’m not really convinced my palate is discerning enough to fully appreciate the complex flavours and good finish that mark out a decent Champagne.

Champagnes and sparkling wines are both made using the ‘méthode champenoise’. A second stage of fermentation takes place in the bottle and creates the carbon dioxide for the bubbles. Does it matter if this happens in the Champagne region of France, or in Italy,South Africa or even on the South Downs?

Best of the bubbly

In our recent Champagne and sparkling wines taste test, our panel of experts were slightly disappointed with this year’s selection of Champagnes. They did find that some of the sparkling wines give ‘real pleasure at a reasonable price’, however.

Our Best Buy Champagnes (Sainsbury’s Blanc de Noirs NV, £20.99, and M&S De Saint Gall Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru NV, £28) are competitively priced compared with some branded ones, but the Best Buy sparkling wines cost half as much. Pongrácz Brut from Morrisons and M&S Single Estate Chardonnay Cava 2009 are both £13.99. Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Vintage Cava Brut 2009 is just £10.49. That’s quite a saving.

So, if you’re having a bit of a do over the festive season, you could get two bottles of good sparkling wine for the price of one bottle of Champagne.

Of course I understand that the grape used, the location of the vineyard and even the weather can make a difference to wines, but if I can’t appreciate it then paying the extra won’t make sense. I’m hoping that our expert video with pointers and advice on what to look for in a good Champagne will give me more of understanding next time I’m lucky enough to have a glass.

But can you tell the difference? Will you be splashing out on Champagne for your seasonal celebrations, or do you think sparkling wine will be just as enjoyable under the Christmas tree?

What bubbly will you be drinking this festive season?

I won't be drinking bubbly (47%, 163 Votes)

Sparking wine (21%, 73 Votes)

Champagne (17%, 59 Votes)

Either of the above (15%, 51 Votes)

Total Voters: 348

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We’ve put together a picture summarising the top Champagnes and sparking wines from this year’s Which? taste test:

Our expert #Champagne & sparking wine taste test results are in. Which came top? whi.ch/T269pW Check them out: twitter.com/WhichConvo/sta…

— Which? Conversation (@WhichConvo) November 17, 2012

I love champagne, and luckily my budget doesn’t allow me to have it very often, so it’s a treat each time. Even so, I was brought up to drink champagne (a sip from the age of 12, graduating to a flute aged around 17, 18) on special occasions such as birthdays, Christmas, or getting together as a family, so I think I’ve drunk it often enough to be able to make the difference between champagne and sparkling wine (though I’ve never tested myself!). Having said that, I’d rather drink good sparkling wine than bad champagne anytime.

A few years ago my then fiance and I went round about half a dozen restaurants to try them as venues for our wedding lunch, and one of them (with an excellent and I now know undeserved reputation) had a special offer for Valentine’s Day, which included a glass of champagne on arrival. Maybe we were unlucky, but the champagne was flat, served at the wrong temperature, and far worse, had an absolutely awful after taste. On Thursday there, two girlfriends and I went to an Italian restaurant to celebrate the birthday of one of them and she had a voucher for a free bottle of prosecco. Maybe we were lucky, but the prosecco was lovely! I know which drink I’d rather spend my money on.

I was lucky enough a few years ago to be given a Harrods hamper, including 2 half bottles of their champagne with a lovely dry biscuity flavour. Since then I have not had a champagne that I would really return to, but then again I haven’t spent on the top class ones; my budget for special occasions was up to £30.
But I do like sparkling wine, and am very happy to spend £10 – £15 depending on the celebration. I buy from the Wine Society, have never had a bad bottle – always very drinkable and better – and this year have their Celebration Cremant de Loire at £10.95. Would I buy 4 bottles of this or one of a more up-market branded champagne – any time. But I probably haven’t a well developed palate.
However, I’m tempted by their range of small growers champagnes in the £22-32 range.
Not an advert – but I do find wine buying a minefield, and would rather buy from a consistently reliable source whose prime motive is satisfying their members rather than making a profit (it’s a cooperative)..