It’s Not Champagne

Paul Blow

Over the last several decades, producers in the region of Champagne, in the north of France, have mounted a concerted effort to discourage other wine-growing areas from calling their sparkling wines Champagne.

Most regions and producers around the world are complying with Champagne’s call for exclusivity (Spain changed the name of its sparklers from Champán to Cava in 1970), with a few notable exceptions. For instance, the ubiquitous supermarket brand Korbel still uses the term California Champagne on its label, making it a noted villain in the north of France. You might think that this ownership of the category would be a marketing boon, but the Champenoise would disagree: As they see it, every time a bottle of Korbel is referred to as Champagne it’s being granted prestige and value that it did not earn.

One of the ways Champagne has established itself as a premier luxury product is by steadily becoming more and more expensive. David White, the owner of San Francisco’s Nua, put only one Champagne on his wine list, begrudgingly. Instead, he really pushes any number of other, less expensive bubblies from around the globe. Luckily, there are lots to choose from, and many use the methode Champenoise, the original Champagne method of making sparkling wine, which though neither fast nor cheap (like some other methods, such as adding carbonation) produces excellent Champagne.

(The Champenoise method, by the way, starts with a traditional still wine. Yeast and sugar are added after bottling, and then it’s sealed, so that the carbonation develops. It’s aged with the sediment—the lees. Then the lees are disgorged and the bottle is resealed.)

Good Champagne has a silky feel, in which the mass of tiny bubbles are so finely woven into the texture that you don’t notice them much, instead focusing on the energy that they bring. The taste should be clean and pure, running from the essence of strawberries and raspberries to apple and citrus, with a little yeasty warmth to round it out.

Sparkling wine is produced in red and white and pink, and from a dizzying variety of grapes, and styles (sweet, semisweet, dry). Grapes range from the strange-sounding Xarel-lo (zhar-ell-oh) of Spain to the Mauzac of Southern France and even the Shiraz, the familiar red grape of Australia.

Italy, of course, has its sweet Moscato wines, its dry and pert Proseccos, and its Franciacorta, which is made from the same grapes as Champagne, with the same method, and producers often claim that their wines are just as good as Franciacorta’s rival to the north. Sometimes it is, as with the delicious wares of Bellavista and Ca’del Bosco, whose prices, I might add, can also rival Champagne’s. Prosecco is a lovely drink, but inevitably simpler and less compelling than Champagne, though cheaper too, which is never a bad thing.

While the United States has a sparkling wine industry, it’s rarely said to be thriving. The wines are often quite good—they can be very Champagne-like, but are typically a little fruitier and softer than Champagne—but the general category seems to suffer from a primary marketing woe: Producers have never come up with a name as commanding as Champagne. Instead we have a term like California sparkling wine, which is about as sexy as calling your new Ferrari an Italian motor vehicle. Work on it, guys. In the meantime, I’m into Argyle and Soter sparkling wines from Oregon; Schramsberg, Iron Horse, and J Wine from California; and, for great value, Chateau Ste. Michelle from Washington and Gruet from New Mexico.

Spain’s sparkling wine industry, based near Barcelona, is called Cava, a term referring to the caves in which the wines are aged. Cavas are generally lighter and fruitier than Champagne, with a bit less complexity and interest. Freixenet, the world’s single largest producer of sparkling wine, is here, as is its nemesis, Codorníu, which is almost as large. Codorníu’s $7 offerings basically taste like alcoholic fizz-water, but it has some better bottles up the scale. And there are some remarkable boutique Cava producers, such as Gramona.

The list could go on. Sekt from Germany can be very good. New Zealand and Tasmania make some excellent bubbly. And of course France has many other sparkling wines, such as Crémant de Loire, Crémant d’Alsace, and, one of my favorites, the irresistible Bugey Cerdon, a lightly sparkling wine from the mountainous Jura region in the foothills of the Alps.

Just don’t call them Champagne.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.