Ah, Champagne. Whether you start your weekend or kick off a brand new year with it, most of us have indulged in Champagne at one time or another. But what makes Champagne “Champagne” rather than “Sparkling Wine?” You’ve probably heard of both and may be scratching your head as to the difference between the two. Give your head a break and your hand a much better task of holding a glass of bubbly and sipping along as we pull back the curtain on Champagne.
Let’s start off with Champagne the region. As you may or may not know, Champagne is a small wine region located in northeastern France. The wines produced here come from grapes grown specifically within the region. The three main grapes used in Champagne are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier and here’s the important nugget of information: the grapes used in Champagne MUST be fermented and bottled within Champagne and produced using the méthode champenoise (more on that in a minute) for the wine to be classified “Champagne.” Most bubbly wine made outside of this small area is simply referred to as “sparkling wine,” because it is not produced within the Champagne region. Seem strict? It should. These rules are codified in national laws, regulations and international trade agreements. And yet, you may have seen (or even tasted for yourself) a bottle of bubbly labeled California Champagne. So what’s the catch? How is this possible?
This goes back to the end of World War 1. It was during this key time that brought about the Treaty of Versailles, which also brought about an end to the war, and unintentionally created a loophole for California winemakers. Article 275 of the treaty established that only sparkling wine made in Champagne, France could be labeled as true Champagne. All others who signed the treaty agreed to restrict the use of the “Champagne” label to wine residing solely from Champagne, France. Here’s where it really gets interesting. Although the United States signed the treaty, the Senate never ratified the treaty. How did we get away with this? How were the other countries not pushing for ratification? If you remember correctly, it was during this time in 1919, that the United States was undergoing a terrible moment in history known as Prohibition. It seemed imminent that California winemakers would be going out of business, so the idea that the US could possibly pose a threat to this agreement seemed a moot point. Little did they know that things in the US would change drastically.
In 1933, the ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment repealed the Eighteenth Amendment and the US rejoiced. With wine. Lots and lots of wine. The end of Prohibition still didn’t shine light on the potential issue at stake, since the wine industry in California was stagnated for years upon years, until it picked back up in the 1970s. It wasn’t until 2005 when the United States and the EU reached an agreement, whereby Champagne could not longer appear on domestic wine labels. Unless… Yes, there’s another catch. Unless that producer had used been using the name “Champagne” before March 10th, 2006...then they could continue to use the name indefinitely. Now, most wineries won’t use the term Champagne out of respect for the region itself, however, there are a few that may slip it in so if you’re on the hunt of a favorite new “Champagne” be sure to read your labels carefully.
So, now that we know where it’s from and why it’s called Champagne...how is it made? (I told you we’d be getting back to this) There are five main methods to making sparkling wine. The most complex, costly, and arguably the most prestigious, is the way in which it is made in Champagne. This method is referred to as the “traditional method” around the world.
To make sparkling wine in the traditional method, grapes are picked early by hand in whole clusters. They are then fermented and pressed gently. The grapes first go through a normal wine fermentation; next, a mixture of yeast, sugar, and wine is added before the wine is fermented a second time inside individual wine bottles.
The yeast mixture and second fermentation results in trapped carbon dioxide within the bottle, causing the bubbles. The bottles need to be turned daily to ensure that the yeast sediment starts to gather in the neck of the bottle. Once the yeast is in the neck (though the wine may stay in the bottle for years), the top of the bottle is frozen, and the yeast is released. Because there is space left in the bottle, it needs to be topped off with additional wine before it is corked and aged for its eventual release to the market.
Many sparkling wine producers outside of the Champagne region will make their own wines in the same way, even sometimes using the same grape varietals too. They will advertise that they used this production method on their sparkling wine labels via labeling it the “traditional method,” “Champagne method,” “method champenoise” or in South Africa, “Methode Cap Classique” after the name of their wine. They cannot legally call their wines “Champagne,” so they use these other phrases to represent that their wines may be of a similar quality.
It’s simple, but it’s important to differentiate: Champagne is sparkling wine, but not every sparkling wine is Champagne.