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30 Aug 2021 | Randy Kemner

WHY DO THEY STILL CALL IT THAT?

“Do you have any almond champagne?”

“Where are your Spanish champagnes?”

“What’s your best champagne under $15?”

Yep, we’re still getting these questions from customers. 

I don’t really blame them.  While the entire European Community respects the protected place name “Champagne,” a region in northern France celebrated worldwide for its quality sparkling wines, many of our established sparkling wine producers in America have no such regard. 

Although there are finally trade agreements in place banning the use of European place names for newer wineries, established wineries like Korbel, Weibel and Gallo are grandfathered in, allowing the unconscionable—and confusing—pilfering of place names (including Burgundy, Chablis, Chianti and Port) to identify their products.  This is as wrong as a Ukrainian winery putting “Napa Valley” on its labels to market its wines.

By law, true champagne growers may only plant seven wine grapes—Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay being the most widely planted, by far with tiny amounts of Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris planted by the truly nerdy—and they must come from the limited French geographical region of Champagne.  American “champagne” producers have no such regional restrictions and have been known to put Colombard and even wine from table grapes like Thompson Seedless into their cheap blends, adding insult to injury.

For well over 150 years American consumers have been led to consider “champagne” as a generic term interchangeable with “sparkling wine.”  For those unfamiliar with true champagne, the idea of paying $50 for a premium bubbly seems excessive when a $5 “champagne”, available at any grocery store, or poured at your favorite Sunday brunch buffet, will do. 

Many of you have made this mental re-adjustment long ago.  Anyone who drinks true champagne knows there is something intrinsically different in its taste due to the way its cool climate and limestone soils work their magic on Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.  The depth, and especially length, are unmatched by any other sparkling wine in the world.  Countries that respect Champagne refer to their native sparkling wines by their own names, Cava in Spain, Sekt in Germany, Spumante in Italy and Crémant in other regions of France. 

Is Gallo, producer of hotel Sunday brunch favorites William Wycliff and André, afraid it might lose customers if its “champagne” is called “sparkling wine?”  That seems to be the only rationale for continuing the practice. 

Personally, I think the fear is unfounded.  People buying inexpensive bubbly for Sunday brunches and wedding toasts aren’t going to forgo the value because it doesn’t say “champagne” on the label.  And, on the outside chance they do, perhaps those consumers should up their game and experience the real thing. 

Those who know better, know better.

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