It pops, it sparkles, it’s oh-so delicious, but is it actually Champagne? Champagne vs sparkling wine, that is the question. Here’s how to know whether the bubbly in your flute is the real deal.
What Qualifies a Bubbly as Champagne?
Champagne is sparkling wine that was grown and produced in the Champagne region of France. All Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine can be considered Champagne– here’s why.
The Champagne region is strictly defined, located in north eastern France, just 121 km from Paris. Champagne encompasses 634 villages, but the viticultural appellation is even more refined – only 319 villages in the region have the right to produce Champagne.
Does the exclusivity of Champagne production make every last sip feel fabulous? Perhaps… but Champagne production is not exclusive for exclusivity’s sake – Champagne producers are preserving a legacy.
There’s a reason why Champagne has become synonymous with opulence. There are centuries of tradition behind every glass, and leagues of professionals dedicated to preserving the quality. Champagne is not only defined by its region of origin, its identity is largely defined by the regulations behind every last bottle, or better yet, every last grape. Regulation is the core of Champagne – from vine to bottle, detail is everything. These regulations preserve quality and prestige.
Regulations start with varietals, only seven can be used in Champagne. The three main grapes are chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier; the remaining varietals are rare to find– pinot blanc, arbane, petit meslier, and pinot gris account for only 0.3% of plantings combined.
Beyond the vines, Champagne winemakers must follow the guidelines of method champenoise, which involves a minimum maturation of 15 months on the lees, with the secondary fermentation (that makes those delightful bubbles) occurring in the bottle. There’s a ton more rules too, but the point here is that there are strict guidelines at every step of the process– it’s what makes Champagne, Champagne.
What Makes the Champagne Region Special
Champagne is comprised of over 280,000 plots, most of which are teeny tiny. The average plot in Champagne is only 12 hectares – compare that to Bordeaux’s average of 20 to 50 hectares. These plots cover 34,300 hectares in the northern-most growing region in France, sitting at latitude 49.5 degrees north.
Let’s put that into perspective– optimal conditions for vines are between 30 and 50 degrees latitude, both north and south. There are wineries beyond these limits, but their growing potential can be extremely limited. Champagne sits at the boundary of the winemaking sweet spot, but their position at the edge creates unique challenges for growers.
To say the least, the Champagne terroir is unique. It is comprised of two primary climates, continental and oceanic, and maintains mild temperatures during the summer time thanks to the oceanic influences. Though the sun tends to shine throughout most of summer, Champagne’s vines test the limits for cold tolerance. Continental influences can make for freezing temperatures in the springtime, with temperatures reaching -10 degrees Celsius in some places.
Potential exposure to frost damage during early spring makes the vine’s access to sunlight and warm air all the more important, which is why grower’s opted to plant on hillsides. Most Champagne vineyards are planted on southeast and east-facing slopes, which allows them to soak up as much sun as possible and rise above the cold air that falls down into the valley.
These climactic complications can be tough on the grower, who must adapt constantly, but they have historically provided an ideal balance between ripeness and acidity. Warm summer days ripen the grapes and bring the sugar, cold nights and breezes preserve the acidity– et voilà.
Champagne usually sees steady rainfall, so much so that there’s no need to irrigate their vineyards. The downpour is made all the better when paired with limestone soil. Limestone’s porous structure acts as a water reserve while also allowing for good drainage. In Champagne, the subsoil is mostly fine-grained chalk which helps to regulate the vine’s water consumption and aid the ripening process.
Protecting the Champagne Label
With roots dating all the way back to the seventeenth century, modern Champagne producers take their tradition seriously. Centuries of innovation and painstaking manual labor are packed into every last sip– the Méthode Traditionnelle is seriously no joke. When winemakers outside of Champagne began to misuse the label, Champagne winemakers stepped in to protect their legacy of supreme quality.
In 1887, the Angers Court of Appeals ruled that Champagne would exclusively refer to sparkling wine grown and produced in the Champagne region. This rule became internationally recognized in 1891 with the Treaty of Madrid and reiterated in 1919 with The Treaty of Versailles.
But, plot twist, there was a loophole that exposed the sanctity of the term “Champagne.” Famously, the United States of America signed, but never ratified, the Treaty of Versailles, so American producers were free to slap the Champagne name on their sparkling wines. This did not pose an immediate threat to Champagne – they had bigger fish to fry, like recovering from WWI and the devastation of the grape phylloxera outbreak. Even still, the US was under prohibition at the time, so alcohol production from across the pond was not at the top of mind.
This loophole did, however, pose a big issue for Champagne’s legacy as the California wine industry began to ramp up in the 1970s. After decades of negotiations, the US and France reached an agreement. In 2005 the US government agreed that “California champagne,” and several other “semi-generic” names would no longer be used unless a producer had already been using the Champagne name on their label. If a producer had used the Champagne label prior to March 10th, 2006, they were authorized to continue to do so.
But wait! Is using the Champagne name on California sparklers inherently deceptive? It could be, and it definitely has been before, but it depends on who you ask.
The majority of nineteenth century California winemakers were European immigrants who used the méthode champenoise, or méthode traditionnelle, to make their sparkling wines. Most wineries have dropped “Champagne” from their labels, but not all. Korbell winery, for instance, has been producing “California Champagne” since the 1890s, and continues to use the Champagne name on their label regardless of their production site.
Identifying Champagne and Sparkling Wine
Champagne can only come from the Champagne region of France, your wine’s nation of origin will always be noted on the label – if it says anything other than France, it’s not Champagne.
That’s not to say that your bottle was made using a cheap alternative to méthode traditionnelle if it was made outside of Champagne. Many, many sparklers are born from the same production method as the one used in Champagne– this should be noted on the label as well. If your sparkling wine is not from Champagne, look for “méthode traditionnelle” or “méthode champenoise” on the label to ensure that the production style is the tried and true method that has crafted the top sparkling wines for centuries.
A World of Sparkling Wine
Champagne undoubtedly has our pride of place, but you can find excellent sparklers from all over the world. Here are some of our favorite sparkling bottles to pop.
Crémant – French sparklers that are produced with méthode champenoise outside of the Champagne region. Crémant usually has softer evanescence and can be made with varietals that Champagne can not use depending on the region of origin.
Prosecco – Hailing from the Veneto region of Italy, Prosecco goes through a second fermentation in pressurized steel tanks, called the Charmat or tank method, which results in large bubbles.
Sekt – If you’re a lover of sweet, crisp, fruity freshness– now is the time to join the sekt revolution! Sekt is produced in Germany (the country that drinks the most bubbly per capita in the world) and Austria. Historically, sekt has been industrially produced with the Charmat method. After two world wars, producers were more concerned with quantity than quality, but an increasing number of small estates are crafting fine sekt with traditional method bottle fermentation– it’s the latest cultural movement in sparkling wine, and it has our attention. Winzersekt is the finest category, and requires the use of 100% estate grown fruit, traditional bottle fermentation, and a minimum of nine months on lees.
Cava – Made with the traditional method in Spain, Cava mainly uses these varietals: Macabeu, Parellada, Xarel-lo. Most cavas are brut and veer away from the sweet-side, but they can have dosage ranging from brut nature to Doux.
Pet Nat (Petillant Naturel) – Not all sparklers take on a second fermentation process. Pet Nat is produced in the méthode ancestrale, meaning that it is bottled while still undergoing its initial fermentation process. This bubbly is unfiltered, maintaining its natural yeast, and no dosage is added. This results in cloudy appearance and often funky aromas. We like to think of it as the beer of the sparkling wines.
Franciacorta – This Italian bubbly dates back to the Roman age. It’s produced in the province of Brescia, Lombardy with grapes grown in Franciacorta, which is just between the lake Iseo and the city of Brescia. Franciacorta tends to offer more complex aromas than Prosecco, often with notes of bread and pastry crust.
Frizzante – This is a generalized term for wines that are slightly sparkling. By law, wines described as frizzante contain between 1 and 2.5 bars of pressure at 20 degrees celsius and are taxed as still wines. Frizzante wines are gentle and can be made with any varietal, this is the softest amount of sparkle a wine can have.
It’s about more than just the bubbles, people! The centuries of history, tradition, and culture are what distinguish Champagne from any other sparkling wine– it is truly so much more than the drink that fills your glass.
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