Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Bubbles alone do not a Champagne make.

Looking at the title of this post, my grammar has devolved to Yoda-esque sentence structure. Perhaps I'm quickly becoming a shriveled wine curmudgeon, relegated to cryptic tidbits on the fermented grape, designed to put frustrated winos on the path to righteousness.

Or, maybe there's wisdom in the header; a critical piece of knowledge that fledgling wine-Jedis must heed in order to restore balance to the vinous Force...

Probably the former, but bear with me here, because what I'm about to say is very important:


Please, repeat this statement again, as I didn't hear you the first time with this ridiculous Yoda hat covering my ears.


One more time, because I can hear someone out there calling a bottle of Tott's Brut "Champagne", and my blood is about to boil (cementing the preceding suspicion that I have- indeed- become a wine curmudgeon).


I really need to quit being a jerk about it and put some explanation behind the mantra, because we've probably all been conditioned to think otherwise. "Champagne" is not necessarily a style of wine. However, it is a wine. A French sparkling wine from the region of Champagne, to be more specific.

The French- generally speaking- are really hung up on sense of place. They feel that a wine should speak to where it comes from: the vine configuration, the soil composition, the slope upon which it is planted, the orientation towards the sun, the climate, and the surrounding geography and geology. For the French, this terroir (basically translating to all that stuff I described) is what one should smell, taste, and feel when enveloped by a great wine, so much more so than the grape from which it is made. To this end, the wines of France have traditionally been labeled by places, rather than by grape varieties. Bordeaux is a region, not a grape or necessarily a style. Burgundy is a region. Champagne- not so coincidentally- is also a region.

Situated in the northeastern part of Gaul (I'm scratching for synonyms for "France" at this point), the Champagne-Ardenne region is subjected to a rather cool climate, producing grapes (mainly Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier) with lower sugar levels and higher acidity. These grapes produce wines of extraordinary freshness, and the addition of bubbles only amplifies the palate-cleansing sensation of Champagne. And how do those bubbles get there? A secondary fermentation in the sealed bottles create yeasts' two primary byproducts- alcohol and carbon dioxide. The latter contributes to the fizz. Check this out if you want to learn more about production methods (there are several), as I have trouble keeping it brief.

Any other sparklers not produced in the Champagne region of France are simply not "Champagne". Disagree? Tough shit. Blame terroir.

That being said (quite crudely, for emphasis and questionable comedic value), some would want to fool you. Many California producers (Korbel, Cook's, and formerly Paul Masson, for example) listed "Champagne" on the bottles for years. The French sought to protect the name, and made treaties a few decades ago to only allow bottles from Champagne to be labeled "Champagne". However, a deal was struck to allow a few producers in California to keep the name, as long as bottles were labeled as "California Champagne". Confusing, ridiculous, and perpetuating the cryptic nature of wine in general, in this guy's opinion.

Despite not leveraging the marketing clout of some famous dirt, there are many excellent sparkling wines produced outside of Champagne that are worth a try. This is especially true when considering that the real stuff usually fetches a pretty hefty price, thanks mostly to marketing and rap videos. But lets say you're name isn't Skee Lo, and you just want a mimosa to get your Tuesday morning started. Surely something more affordable is out there:

Crémants: French sparkling wines made outside of Champagne are called "Crémant de [region]". So a bubbler from Burgundy would be Crémant de Bourgogne, from the Loire would be Crémant de Loire, and Alsace would be Crémant d'Alsace, and so on. They are all generally made in the "Champagne method" (secondary fermentation in the bottle), and offer good value and interesting flavor profiles, as all are made from the allowable grapes of their respective regions. Also sometimes called Mousseux.

Cava: the sparkling wine of Spain is generally made from the Parellada, Macabeo, and Xarel-lo grapes (and increasingly, Chardonnay). They are also made in the traditional method (aka "Champagne Method"), and offer ridiculous value, usually going off shelves for under $10.

Prosecco: an inexpensive and pleasing Italian sparkler, made from the Glera grape.

Sekt: German bubbly, often made in the Charmat method, meaning secondary fermentation occurs in large stainless-steel tanks, and then that wine is bottled under pressure to keep the bubbles from escaping.

Cap Classique: South African sparklers made in the traditional method.

American Sparkling Wine: avoid the cheap stuff (think college headaches) and search for producers who make quality wines in the traditional method. Some easy-to-find bottlings include Domaine Carneros, Domaine Chandon, Gloria-Ferrer, Gruet (from New Mexico!), Iron Horse, J Vineyards, Piper-Sonoma, Roederer Estate, Scharffenberger, and Schramsberg (among others). Many are owned by French Champagne houses, so they try to keep with the same level of quality.


...glad I got that off my chest. I don't mean to get feisty about it. Sometimes, there's just an ax to grind.

Or maybe it's a lightsaber.

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