Put simply, Champagne is a sparkling wine (meaning it is carbonated) that is produced in the Champagne region of northern France, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) east of Paris. The French AOC does not permit sparkling wines that originate from outside of here to be called Champagne.
That's because sparkling wines produced in Champagne follow the rules of the AOC system, which include specific methods and practices. Theses rules hold up well in France where the AOC standards are respected. Some 121 countries have agreed to recognize the special Champagne designation, thanks to the efforts of the CIVC.
But there are a couple of caveats, and a handful of countries are not quite on board with the AOC designation. For example, some American producers still call "long-established domestic brands 'champagne,' as long as there is also a clear indication of the wine's true geographical origin," wine critic Jancis Robinson wrote on her website.
Some American producers sneak in the word "champagne" on their labels under a grandfather clause; those in business before 2006 "are only obliged to display the state of origin on their bottles of wine," Clément Thierry explains for France-Amériqiue. Hence the reason you might see the confusing pairing of "California" and "champagne" on a bottle, despite the contents truly being sparkling wine. Tsk tsk.
While wine is made through fermentation, sparkling wines and Champagne require a secondary fermentation, which creates the characteristic bubbles. This second fermentation is known as méthode champenoise, which roughly translates to "the Champagne method." It was created in in Champagne, France, in the late 17th century, and requires the second fermentation to take place in the bottle.
Executing the secondary fermentation in the bottle requires adding the liqueur de tirage — a combination of yeast, wine and sugar — to the base wine in the bottle. It's more labor intensive than the charmat method, where the second fermentation occurs in large pressure tanks.
What Is Sparkling Wine?
Like Champagne, sparkling wine is also wine that is carbonated and made from either white or red grapes. But unlike Champagne, many sparkling wines use the charmat method; the fermentation takes place in bulk in pressure tanks to create their bubbles.
But even if a sparkling wine producer chooses to follow the méthode champenoise, the wine cannot be labeled Champagne — or méthode champenoise — if it is produced outside of Champagne, France. The producer must label it as méthode traditionnelle or a similar term.
Many countries across the world produce sparkling wines through the méthode traditionnelle. In Spain they're known as cava; in Portugal, they're called espumante. Prosecco and Lambrusco from Italy are made using the charmat method.
Sparkling wines from California and other parts of the United States are simply sparkling wines, no matter what their labels say.
Now That's Interesting
Most Champagnes do not have a vintage because vintners want a consistent, high-quality product, which may not be possible every year. Instead, they typically blend grapes from a few harvests.
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