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22 february 2012
"Champagne," I was carefully drilled during a tour of the Domaine Chandon winery in California years ago, is made only in the countryside near Reims that bears that prosaic name. ("Champagne" means literally "country of fields.") Whatever Chandon were making in the Napa Valley – specifically, a non-vintage sparkling wine from chardonnay and pinot noir grapes, secondarily fermented in heavy, curvaceous bottles upside-down "on the lees," and then sold to people for weddings, anniversaries, and New Year's Eves – whatever that stuff was, and however wonderful, it was not Champagne.
Becky Sue Epstein traces some of the nomenclature struggles that have surrounded the name Champagne in her global history of the stuff. Winemakers around the world, capitalizing on the prestige of Champagne, called their sparkling wines "champagnes." In part, in America, the practice was akin to calling all red wine "burgundy" and all white wine "chablis": also places, but places without quite the same magic as Champagne. In any event, Burgundy is a vast region whose range of wines goes by many names. Chablis is a small, exclusive part of Burgundy. The identity of neither Burgundy nor Chablis was much threatened by the cheap blends that California churned out. And by the 1980s, California wines began to be sold mostly as single varietals; Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay began to replace older faux-regional names on Californian labels.
Champagne, a blended wine both as made in the Champagne region and imitated elsewhere, posed different issues. I grew up toasting the New Year with stuff made somewhere in upstate New York, from grapes not even the same species as chardonnay, but called "champagne" (unless it was mixed with a bit of red wine, or possibly red food coloring, in which case it was called "cold duck"). Nobody confused this champagne with Dom Pérignon, which nobody could afford if they could even find, anyway, so nobody really cared. When we got older and more demanding, we graduated to Korbel California "Champagne," a lot nicer and not all that pricier.
Concerns still remained low, but danger was on the horizon. As California sparkling wines got better, and wines from Champagne got cheaper and could be found in the local supermarket, a labeling fight loomed. New York State "Champagne" for $2.99 posed no threat to Mumm's at $39.99; their drinkerships did not overlap very much. But Korbel at $12.99 was starting to go head-to-head with Mumm's at $24.99, and to a lot of palates, there wasn't much justification for the higher price of French Champagne.
Hence the campaign to reserve "Champagne" for wines from the vicinity of Reims. But is "champagne" a blend of grapes, or a region, or a process? And why were French winemakers so eager to stake out Californian acreage to make competitors to their own high-end products, but then to deliberately create a somewhat artificial quality distinction between stuff from one continent and stuff from another?
Such are the irrationalities of marketplaces. In any event, while Champagne and Definitely Not-Even-Champagnelike™ California Sparkling Wine continue to flourish on American shelves, I've noticed tastes in sparkling wine diversifying in the 21st century. Prosecco, the name of a grape, an Italian region, and a process, is increasingly the sparkler of choice in my suburban set. Spanish Freixenet and Italian brands of Asti Spumante – perfectly good, but once an admission that you couldn't even afford Korbel – have been rehabilitated: an indication that, when it comes to wine, attitude can comprise 9/10 of one's taste.
Epstein discusses sparkling wines worldwide, from well beyond the Champagne region, but always circles back to France. Or now, with climate change accelerating, England: the chalky soils of northern France are much the same as those of Kent and Hampshire across the channel, and the English now make sparkling wines with some of the same qualities of terroir as their French neighbors. A world where the wine bars of Paris featured the finest English champagnes (sorry, non-champagnes) would have been a hallucination 30 years ago, but is coming closer to reality. It doesn't exactly reconcile me to global warming, but it's a new fact to be enjoyed while it lasts.
Epstein, Becky Sue. Champagne: a global history. London: Reaktion, 2011.