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WINE SAVVY: Champagne is sparkling wine

David Devere

In the wine world, there are different categories: still wine, also known as dry wine; dessert wine also known as sweet wine; fortified wine, often referred to as an after-dinner drink; and sparkling wine known as champagne or bubbly. All of these descriptors are correct when defining a general style of wine except for champagne.

The word champagne is often used to describe a specific style of wine and that style is sparkling. But while champagne is a sparkling wine, not all sparkling wine is Champagne. This is a crucial concept to get right. In general parlance, if someone sees a bottle of wine with a large mushroom cork, a cork cage, a round fat bottom and the wine poured from the bottle contains bubbles, then they often call it champagne. This might seem correct, but it isn’t because if it’s not from Champagne, France, you can’t call it champagne. That’s like calling every pickup truck on the road a Ford. Some might be, but others are not. Although they all have tailgates, two seats in front and a bed for hauling stuff, a Ford is a specific kind of truck and Champagne is a specific kind of sparkling wine.

There are many kinds of sparkling wines. The Spanish make Cava. The Italians make Prosecco, Moscato d’Asti and Asti Spumante. The French make Champagne and if it’s sparkling — and not from Champagne but still made in France — they call it a crémant.

So a sparkling wine from Burgundy would be a Crémant de Bourgogne. In the U.S. and Australia, wine-makers make sparkling wine. In the past, they might have marketed that wine as champagne but today their French colleagues have encouraged them to name the wine appropriately as sparkling wine.

Often I am asked if I like French wines better than wines from other parts of the world. I do indeed like French wines, but I don’t prefer them more than any other wine. The reason I talk about French wines is because if you understand how they make wine in France, then it is easier to understand wine everywhere.

The French mostly follow historic guidelines for making wine. This historic standard, this nod to doing things the old way, this tradition of craftsmanship, is true when it comes to many of France’s finest food products. Following the old recipes as handed down through generations has worked for hundreds of years for French cheeses, breads, pastries, meats and wines which, combined, make up the concept we call cuisine.

The most emulated style of French wine-making is its sparkling wine from Champagne. Almost every country in the world makes their sparkling wines like they do in France and often this information is noted on the label.

A common term to see on a bottle is Traditional Method (or méthode traditionelle). This means the wine was made using the time-tested techniques as developed in champagne. It is an official, technical term denoting a specific method and process. It is sometimes referred to as the “Classic Method” (méthode classique). While it used to be called the “Champagne Method,” the European Union banned using this term.

The label will also note the sweetness level of the wine. Most often people associate the word Brut with dry. Therefore you might be led to believe that extra dry is dryer than Brut but actually it is sweeter. The range of sweetness levels in sparkling wines are: Natural (no added sugar), Extra Brut (very dry), Brut (dry), Extra Dry (off-dry), Sec (slightly sweet), Demi Sec (sweet), and Doux (very sweet).

The French invented sparkling wine and we are all the more happy for it because nothing hails a New Year, a new marriage or a renewal of friendships like the pop from a bottle of sparkling wine.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

David Devere is teaching wine classes locally. Contact him at david@savvynomad.com or visit savvynomad.com for the schedule and register for a class.

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