Bubbly is the cornerstone of toasts, celebrations and New Year’s Eve parties, but is it sparkling wine or Champagne that’s being poured into the glass? It is common in America to refer generically to all of it as “Champagne,” but in France, the European Union and many other countries, such a practice is considered misguided; it is actually illegal to market products as Champagne unless they meet strict requirements. What, then, differentiates Champagne from sparkling wine?
It’s in the name
According to the Comité Champagne, “Champagne only comes from Champagne …,” a region 100 miles east of Paris. The regulations on naming are controlled by the Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) in France and by the European Union’s Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) statutes. While Spanish Cava, German Sekt, Italian Prosecco and French Cremant are all sparkling wines, none of them are produced in the Champagne region and therefore cannot be designated legally as Champagne.
The AOC restricts Champagne production to registered vineyards producing pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay, although pinot blanc, pinot gris, petit meslier and arbane grapes are permitted, with a ratio of 2:1 red to white. Champagne, located at the northern limits of cultivation for these varieties, experiences colder temperatures, less sun and shorter seasons, which produce crisper, fresher grapes. The chalky soils of the region also give the grapes a strong mineral taste not present in the same varieties grown elsewhere.
The grapes must be trellised according to prescribed methods, hand-picked in whole clusters and pressed only twice, the first time to produce the sweet, acidic cuvée, and the second to produce the pigmented, mineral-rich taille, according to other AOC regulations.
The bubbles in bubbly
The tiny, dancing bubbles of carbon dioxide are a by-product of the two-stage fermentation process, both time-consuming and labor-intensive, known as the méthode champenoise. The cuvée is fermented into wine, then sugar and yeast are added to the bottle. As it ferments, the bottles are slowly turned at an angle to concentrate the lees, the dead yeast and débris, toward the neck of the bottle for a minimum of 15 months for blends of several years and 35 months for a vintage. After the lees are removed, the bottles are topped off with sugar and taille to control taste and quality.
The popping sound of the cork is caused by depressurization. The pressure drop causes carbon dioxide bubbles to form around the imperfections of the glass. High-quality sparkling wines may be produced by the same method, but others are produced in pressurized vats or are carbonated like sodas before bottling, leading to larger bubbles and a less refined mouth feel.
Champagne is worth it
The most expensive bottle of Champagne, the Goût de Diamants, sold for $1.2 million, but good vintages range from a few thousand down to a hundred dollars, and blends are available for as low as $35. For those who are on a budget but still need to make a toast, sparkling wines such as Californian “champagne” and others offer the same feeling of luxury without the cost.