Culinary Misnomers, Part 2: All that Bubbles is Not Champagne

“Come quickly! I am tasting the stars!”  Benedictine monk Dom Pierre Pérignon is fabled to have uttered these famous words at the moment he discovered champagne almost 500 years ago.  Today, the French Champagne region and its eponymous sparkling wine are renowned throughout the world.  The Romans were actually the first to plant grape vines in this area of northeast France, but it was the French that elevated this once pale, pinkish still wine (thought to be inferior to its neighbors in the south, Burgundy) to its glorious heights.  Originally thought of as a production flaw, the effervescent bubbles are now a universal symbol of accomplishment and celebration.

Champagne: The King of Sparklers

There are numerous production requirements for authentic Champagne including minimum aging, specific grape varietals, methods of carbonation, etc., but the most important requisite is the same one realtors go nuts over: location, location, location!  It’s the historic vineyards and production practices that make Champagne what it is: rich, sharp, bready and full of complex, layered flavors found in the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grown in the region and fermented in the caves of northeast France.  It’s this final product that the rest of the world has attempted to emulate.  Just like with Kobe beef (Part 1 of our Culinary Misnomer Series) and caviar (Part 3 upcoming), you can make sparkling wine in Champagne style, but that does not make it Champagne.

Why do Bottomless Champagne Mimosas Cost Only $15?

Of the 2.3 billion bottles of sparkling wine sold annually, less than 1% (3 million bottles) is authentic Champagne.  If this stuff is so revered and the production process this regulated, then why do your Sunday brunch bottomless mimosas cost only $15?  Because at $15 you’re most certainly not drinking real Champagne; you’re drinking sparkling wine.  In the US, certain producers grandfathered in before a 2006 European Union wine trade agreement was signed can still market their sparkling wines under the semi-generic term “Champagne,” but it is not real Champagne.

The History of the Fizz

The Champenois, or people of Champagne, were envious of the acclaim brought to Burgundy by that region’s rich red wines and set out to produce a comparable one themselves.  However, they quickly realized that their geographic locale was at the far extremes of sustainable viticulture.  The grapes would struggle to reach full ripeness in the stagnant cold and would often be too acidic and bitter for the palates of the time.

Furthermore, the wines would halt fermentation process during the cold winters, leaving dormant yeast cells that would awaken with the warmth of spring.  What’s the issue with this?  Wines are meant to ferment in the barrel where carbon dioxide, a major byproduct of fermentation, can escape.  If the yeast cells aren’t activated due to cold weather and you bottle wine, guess what happens when the weather starts getting warmer?  The yeast reactivates, starts fermenting, and produces CO2 gas that can’t escape the bottle.  Most of these bottles exploded due to the high internal pressure and those that didn’t were thought to have been ruined by the carbonation.  This was the prevailing thought until a serendipitous monk decided to sample one of the carbonated bottles.

Not All Bubbles are Created Equal

Hundreds of years ago, these bubbles were thought by some to be a gift from God.  But it wasn’t until the early 19th century that the classic process of Champagne production was first introduced.  Legendary Champagne house Veuve Clicquot developed what is now referred to as the Champagne Method or méthode champenoise.  Traditionally, this entails bottling the wine with yeast and sugar to start the second fermentation process.  The byproduct of the fermentation is carbonation and lees, which are leftover particles from fermentation that must be removed.  To expunge the lees, start by riddling or turning the bottles upside down and gently shaking them so that the lees settles in the neck of the bottle.  Then, chill the neck of the bottle to freeze the section containing the lees.  Open the bottle and the pressure from the carbonation will push out the frozen debris.  Finally, top off the bottle with additional wine and fit with a traditional Champagne cork and halter.

Other Noteworthy Sparklers

Authentic Champagne is expensive and you are paying just as much for that geographic label as you are for the product inside the bottle.  That’s not to say other sparkling wines are inherently inferior, but you can expect a baseline level of quality with the Champagne moniker.  If you are on a tighter budget, but still want to enjoy some bubbly, here are some options to consider:

Cava - literally translates to cave, Cava is made in the same style as Champagne but with the indigenous Spanish grapes macabeu, parellada and xarello.  Aged in caves like champagne, this sparkler seems to be the closest alternative outside of France. 

Prosecco - produced from the Italian grape glera, prosecco has a typical bitter lemon and almond note and is generally a touch sweeter than Champagne.  A worthy alternative that’s beginning to see some producers treat it with more respect and less as a side project or generic production for mass markets.  Instead of the bubbles being created in individual bottles, prosecco is fermented in large metallic tanks before bottling and isn’t always as fizzy as Champagne. 

Cremant - these French sparklers are basically Champagne made outside of the region of Champagne with indigenous grapes that grow best in the respective areas.  For example, Cremant de Bourgogne is made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the grapes of Burgundy.  Cremant de Loire is made with Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay.  Originally called Cremant (creamy) because the lower carbonation produced a creamy rather than fizzy sensation on the palette, Cremant is now synonymous with quality French sparkling wine.

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