Burst your bubbly: Uncorking the origins of Champagne and sparkling wine


File photo. File photo.

Is there a more misunderstood and utterly disorganized style of wine than “sparkling”? (Alright, maybe Riesling, but that’s another discussion entirely—stay tuned!) Sparkling wine is, by all accounts, the patron wine of “special occasions” and celebration, and has thus been cast about, bastardized, and otherwise abused to the point of utter confusion and caricature. Let’s untangle this web a bit, then.

For some, the first hurdle is understanding “Champagne.” For many, champagne (with a lowercase “C”) is sparkling wine, but this is owed largely to the success of its origin, much like “chablis” and “burgundy.” True Champagne (uppercase “C”) is from a storied region in northeast France, and while it might be a victim of its own success, there has been a concerted (and worthwhile) effort in years past to distinguish between “Champagne” and sparkling wine from elsewhere. So, when you’re ordering from a restaurant menu or talking to a store clerk, remember that “Champagne” is a particular designation of sparkling wine amongst many others. If you truly want Champagne, ask for it, but if you’re looking for a full range of bubbly, simply inquire about the sparkling wine selection.

A quick note about “vintage” versus “non-vintage” bubbly: As with Port, vintage Champagne (and some other sparkling wines) are only produced in growing years that have been deemed exceptional. These cuvées are often considered the best of the best, and can command hefty prices. Non-vintage wine, on the other hand, is a wine that is blended continually from vintage to vintage, and is far more typical.

With all of that cleared up, what exactly are the differences between different “bubbly” designations and styles? Let’s start with Champagne, and how it’s made. The wines are typically made up of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, or Pinot Meunier, or some blend of the three. Most houses produce cuvées (which can be any combination of those varietals), while many also produce blanc de noirs (white wine from red grapes), and blanc de blanc (white wine from white grapes). Additionally, rosé Champagne is produced from red grapes and extended contact with the grape skins.

The traditional process of making Champagne, dubbed “méthode champenoise,” is a labor-intensive effort that accounts for at least a bit of the typical premium the wines command. It is comprised of a traditional fermentation, followed by a secondary fermentation in the bottles (additional yeast and sugar is added), which produces the carbonation that originally distinguished the style. The bottles are then carefully “riddled,” stored upside down at an angle and turned slightly every so often until the yeast and sediment have settled into the neck of the bottle. Once this clarification is complete, the “disgorgement” takes place: The necks of the bottles are frozen, then uncapped to expel the ice plug containing the sediment, and quickly recapped.

While this process is steeped in the history, tradition, and lore of the region of Champagne, it is often regarded as a “premium” for some wines outside of the region, and is sold as such. You will often see wines from other areas with “Methode Champenoise” or “Champagne Method,” and while this is not necessarily an indication of high quality, it may hint at closer attention to detail. Other methods of carbonation include carbonating the entire batch in a large tank before bottling under pressure, or simply injecting carbon dioxide into the wine.

Outside of Champagne, many areas around the world produce sparkling wine (yet, due to successful lobbying by the producers in Champagne, almost none are allowed to call it “Champagne” anymore). Within France alone, you will find a great many “Crémants” from regions such as Bourgogne (Burgundy), Loire, and Alsace; the Crémant designation refers to non-Champagne sparkling wine made via méthode champenoise (“Mousseaux” refers to those made by other methods). Generally, these wines can represent a great value relative to Champagne because you aren’t paying for the “wine of kings”—prestige the region has worked so hard to cultivate.

Cava is sparkling wine from Spain, typically from the Catalan region. Generally speaking (with some notable exceptions), these wines are dry, citrus-driven, and not terribly complex—though, they can be tremendous values and usually pair well with a variety of Mediterranean dishes.

Italy has a long tradition of sparkling wines much like France; perhaps the most famous is Prosecco, a wine mainly from the Veneto region made via the “charmat” method (carbonated in large tanks prior to bottling). These are, as with Cava, often dryer wines (though many producers have shifted this bar to a richer style to accentuate its complexity); they can also represent tremendous values, though the sickly sweet examples are often just attempts to prey upon our sweet tooth, and should usually be avoided. Additionally, Moscato D’Asti (which has seen a popular resurgence as of late) is an oft-sweeter version from Asti, while Lambrusco is a much-maligned (sometimes quite unfairly) red sparkler from the Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy regions.

Outside of Europe, the organized regional and stylistic designations start to break down very quickly. In the U.S., there are a great number of California producers (such as Domaine Chandon and Roederer Estate) whose parent companies are producers in Champagne (Moët & Chandon; Louis Roederer). This has resulted in a relatively strong check on the quality of production, and to some very lovely wines that compete on the world stage. However, with most of the producers in the U.S., Australia, and even South Africa, sparkling wine is merely one more wine in a lineup of mostly still wines.

With so much to choose from, the world of sparkling wine should be an adventure worthy of any wine lover—just don’t let the bubbles go to your head. As with any wine style, paying for big-name labels and ignoring the quirky terroir-driven farmhouse producers is no fun, and sparkling wine should be nothing if not fun.

Evan Williams is a co-founder of The Wine Guild of Charlottesville. Find out more at wine guildcville.com.

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