Sparkling wine is an umbrella term that can be used for any wine with bubbles made anywhere in the world. Champagne, however, is a very special region in France. It is approximately 90 miles northeast of Paris on the fringes of the latitude where it is possible to ripen grapes. In fact, the weather there is so miserably cold the vines have to be planted on the south-facing hillsides in order to maximize their sun exposure. Even then some years see bleak yields. Watering the vineyards is against the law. Mother Nature is the only one that can moisten these vines. Why don’t Champagne producers pack it up and head to Australia? Because most years, this marginal climate produces grapes that have razor-sharp acidity and mind-boggling finesse two great qualities in sparkling wine.
Another thing that makes the Champagne region so special is its Kimmeridgean chalky soil, which is comprised of millions of tiny sea fossils, that only exists in that location. Experts say this chalky soil contributes to the elegance of making Champagne. As far as winemaking goes, there are a lot of different ways to get bubbles in your bottle, but Champagne sets the standard for excellence. It’s a combination of low yields, expensive winemaking techniques, and simple supply and demand that keep Champagne at a premium cost most very good champagnes start at about $50 bottle retail.
About 95 percent of the Champagne people drink is non-vintage Brut, which is made by large Champagne houses. In Champagne, house is the name for winery. Non-Vintage, cuvee or NV on the label simply means the wine is a blend of vintages (usually at least ten.) This practice started as an insurance policy against the awful annual weather, but it turns out the Champagne producers love the complexity they get by blending these different years together. The term Brut refers to the level of sweetness in the wine.
Centuries ago, Champagne was a sweet wine (they added lots of sugar to cover up any harsh acidity.) Slowly, tastes began to change and people enjoyed drier versions of Champagne. So the beverage went from being Doux (sweet) to Demi-Sec (half dry) to Sec (dry). People eventually wanted even drier Champagne, so they added less sugar and came up with a version called Brut. The driest of all Champagnes is called extra Brut.
By law, Champagne can only be made from three grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Although there are some Champagnes made entirely from one grape (e.g., Blanc de Blancs is made solely from Chardonnay), most are a blend some combination of all three. They say Chardonnay gives the wine elegance; Pinot Noir gives it structure and aroma, and Pinot Meunier a fresh fruitiness.
If I had an unlimited budget on my deserted island, I’d drink well-aged bottles of Krug 1988 to be exact or Crystal Rose. Yes, great Champagne ages beautifully! Not so great Champagne however, is its very best when released from the winery and its downhill from there.
So, if Champagne only comes from this itty-bitty region in France about 90 miles north east of Paris, why is it that you can find the word Champagne on a $6 bottle of Cooks? That, friends, is the bane of many a French winemaker. In Europe, there are laws to protect authentic wine regions; therefore, someone in Italy cannot call his or her sparkling wine Champagne, just as someone in Champagne cannot make a wine and label it Chianti.
But in California and many other non-European winemaking regions, it’s more of a free-for-all. Fewer rules mean producers of cheap wines can bastardize the name of famous French wine regions. This ingenious marketing ploy has been used by corporate giants for decades (think Gallo Hearty Burgundy). Out of immense respect to the real deal, no quality producer of sparkling wine in California or anywhere else would dare put the name Champagne on their label without stating naming the state with which it is made. It’s also the law.
The good news is that there are fantastic alternatives to Champagne when you don’t feel like spending so much money. Almost every place that makes still wine also makes a sparkling wine out of all kinds of grape varieties, which means there’s a big range of flavors from which to choose. Varietals also vary through the wine industry around the world.