Champagne is one of the world’s most famous wines, beloved by connoisseurs and laypersons alike. It enjoys a glamorous reputation, and it is of course de rigueur when it comes to celebrating anything. However, it doesn’t require a special occasion: it’s just as good to drink on an average weeknight as it is on New Year’s Eve.
When speaking of Champagne, it’s important to remember that the word refers exclusively to wines made in the Champagne region of France. This is not snobbery, nor is it an insistence that one drink only real Champagne. There are plenty of excellent sparkling wines made in other regions of the world: I would personally recommend those by Roederer Estate and Iron Horse in California; Gramona and Raventós i Blanc in Catalunya; or Bründlmayer and Schloss Gobelsburg in Austria, for example. Yet as good as these sparkling wines are, they shouldn’t be called Champagne. Why? And why does it matter?
As with other French wines, such as Bordeaux or Burgundy, Champagne is named for a specific place. Wine from the Champagne region exhibits a particular and inimitable character, derived from where it is grown and how it is made. The late Pascal Leclerc, proprietor of Champagne Leclerc-Briant, liked to explain it this way: “Champagne can only be made in Champagne. Why? First, we have very bad weather. Second, we have our three grape varieties, and chalky soil and all that. Third, we have 330 pages of regulations.”
The joke is funny because it’s true: strict regulations detailing authorized grape varieties, accepted viticultural practices or minimum length of aging all play a role in shaping Champagne’s character. But most fundamental of all is the geographical location of the Champagne vineyards themselves. No matter how faithfully and diligently one applies the same winemaking techniques, a sparkling wine made outside of the Champagne region can never achieve an identical character—it will not necessarily be inferior, but it will be distinctly different, due in large part to differences in soil and climate.
For many people, this is entirely trivial. Most consumers pay little attention to what’s in their glass, so long as it’s fizzy. But for those who are interested in the details of things (and you wouldn’t be reading this blog if you weren’t), a little exploration into the subject can be intriguing. It’s often true that the more you learn about what it is you’re engaged in, the greater your enjoyment of it becomes. Knowing the specific properties of Neapolitan tailoring or Northampton shoemaking, for instance, allows one to better appreciate these things (and, I might add, makes one more willing to pay the price that they command). In the case of Champagne, you may be a partisan of a particular brand, and indeed, the marketing of Champagne has historically been heavily brand-oriented. It’s rewarding, however, to go beyond the brand and discover what makes a particular Champagne special, and to learn how good Champagne differs from the merely ordinary.
I encourage you to explore the world of sparkling wines, including both those from the Champagne region and those made elsewhere. Just be sure to call them by their proper names.