Let’s talk about Champagne. And I’m not suggesting we delve into the complex idiosyncrasies behind the process of crafting elegant, high-quality Champagne; rather I’m suggesting we speak a bit about the term “Champagne” as a product description and how and when we should use it.
Champagne is a sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France. To be labelled Champagne, the grapes must be sourced from a specific geographic region and the wine must undergo a secondary fermentation in the bottle, resulting in those exquisite and velvety bubbles we all know and love. There are a myriad of other regulations that must be followed in order to create a product which can carry the title of Champagne, but for now we’ll just leave it right here.
If the bubbly wine you’re drinking does NOT meet those criteria, then you should refrain from calling it Champagne and refer to it instead as “Sparkling Wine.” I know I know. This is purely an exercise in semantics, but in this case semantics is fundamental when ordering and purchasing wine with bubbles.
As a retailer, many of my cherished patrons will walk into my store and say “I’m looking for Champagne.” I immediately direct them to the Champagne section and point out the handful of Champagnes we have available, which typically start in the $40.00 range and move northward in price from there. Often times my patrons will look at me with a worried expression and respond: “Do you have anything CHEAPER?” At that point, I suggest some of the many delicious sparkling wine options we have available which includes classic Italian Prosecco, Spanish Cava, or even American domestic sparkling wine.
You see, the French are very protective of the term Champagne. They’ve spent centuries honing their skills, curating vineyard sites, and improving the process to create an amazing alcoholic beverage enjoyed by millions around the world. The French do not particularly appreciate it when the term Champagne is used to describe a product that has absolutely nothing to do with Champagne. In fact, the European Union has even gone a step further by codifying the usage of the term Champagne into law insuring French Champagne producers are protected.
In 2006 the United States and France signed a wine-trade agreement and the issue of using certain protected words on labels came up. Basically the agreement states that anyone using the term Champagne on a label after 2006 would be in violation of the agreement. Those that had submitted approved products before 2006 were grandfathered into the agreement and could still use the term. There are a few domestic producers out there that have the right to use the term Champagne, most notably the American brand Korbel Champagne, Cook’s Champagne, and more famously Miller High Life and their cherished fermented malt beverage known as the “Champagne of Beers.”
Before the 2006 wine-trade law was enacted, Champagne was considered a generic term for any wine with bubbles. If you think about it, there are numerous products we use every single day which carry a specific brand name we have associated with a wide range of generic products. Think about Kleenex, Coke, Band-aid, Chapstick, and so many others. When we need a tissue we ask for Kleenex, even though there are many other tissue brands that would satisfy our needs. How many people do you know refer to any kind of soda-pop or carbonated soft drink as “Coke?” When your lips are chapped, you often ask for “Chapstick,” even though you’d be just as happy with another type of lip balm, say from Burt’s Bees. Familiar brand names are so strong and ubiquitous, we associate them name with an entire class of products and we almost forget there are other brands of products available to us.
Similarly, the term Champagne is so ubiquitous and has been misused so often and for so long it has become a generic term for sparkling wine. When we want wine with bubbles in it, we reflexively ask for Champagne. We don’t necessarily care if we receive a glass of Prosecco or a glass of Roederer Brut Sparkling Wine from California, but we should.
Apart from geography, wine-making methods, and price, Champagne also stands apart from other styles of sparkling wine in flavor profile. Because the Champagne wine growing region in France is located so far north of the equator, this cooler climate produces less ripeness during the grape growing season resulting in a wine with high levels of acidity. Traditional French Champagne is very racy, acidic, and sharp, resulting in a wine that pairs wonderfully with several types of foods. You may be surprised to learn that Champagne pairs very well with salty foods such as potato chips, salted popcorn, cured salmon, salted nuts, and olives, not to mention Chinese food, fried foods, sushi and sashimi. The same thing cannot be said about other types of sparkling wine.
So the next time you’re looking for a harmonious culinary experience at home or in a restaurant and you’re willing to spend at least $40.00 (retail) on a bottle of sparkling wine, ask your wine shoppe attendant or sommelier for a selection of Champagne. If, instead, you’re looking for a $10.00 bottle (retail) to consume with orange juice or peach nectar during Sunday Brunch, then you’ll want to request a selection of sparkling wine options.