For quite a while I’ve enjoyed wine. Scott and I have been fortunate enough to have amazing life experiences in the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma a few times. However, the mystic of wine is ever present. It can be a confusing world to wander into. Many terms are tossed around, some important and others are meaningless marketing ploys.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be friends with many sommeliers and aspiring sommeliers who’ve taught me a thing or two about wine. I’d like to pass on this knowledge and demystify wine for some of you. Our journey starts with the Old World in iconic Champagne, France.
First off, “Old World” is a wine term! WE’VE LEARNED SOMETHING! It refers to wine primarily made in Europe and areas with long wine making histories, such as North Africa, the Mediterranean, and Near East. If a wine is referred to as “New World” we’d be discussing a wine made in the Americas, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa.
Wine is handled differently in the Old World as compared to the New World. Many European countries have strict laws in place that control what can be put into wines, how long they must be aged, what can be put on the labels of wines, etcetera. The New World has fewer laws restricting wines which often leads to more creativity and experimentation with blends, but less consistency. This is one of the reasons I like Old World wines. Once you understand what a term means it becomes a breeze to find wines you like. It takes some of the guess work out of picking up a bottle at the store.
Champagne is a poster child for strict Old World wine making standards and laws. In France, wine making is controlled heavily by law through a governing body known as the AOC (appellation d’origine controlee). Because of this, a sparkling wine from Champagne can only be referred to by that name if it meets certain standards. First it can only include three varieties of grapes; Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier which are both red grapes and Chardonnay a white varietal (there are other approved varietals which account for less than 0.3% of plantings). Champagne must also be made by using methode champenoise. This is a costly process by which the wine undergoes a secondary fermentation where yeast and sugar is added to the wine, thus creating carbon dioxide (those small tight bubbles in a good Champagne). The bottles of wine are slowly turned and pointed slightly downward (riddled) with the mixture of sugar and yeast. Eventually the winemaker will freeze this solid mixture, pop the cork thus releasing the mixture and then top it off with wine (le dosage) that is usually from a previous good growing year. Winemakers will choose to dispense of the yeast at different times, which will lead to different flavor characteristics (if you ever taste a “toasty” champagne, that is the flavor added by time spent with the yeast). Champagne is then aged for up to 5 years before it is sold.
Thus, calling any sparkling wine a Champagne is akin to calling a tissue paper a Kleenex. Although Champagne is an area and not a brand name. Other sparkling wines outside of Champagne may be made using the same grapes and methods, but it is not guaranteed. Many mass produced sparkling wines will inject CO2 into their wines leading to bigger bubbles rather than fine bubbles obtained from yeast. There are many stellar examples of great sparkling wines outside of Champagne, but there is something to be said for this laborious and proven process.
Now you know why Champagne is called Champagne! Join in for the next edition of Explaining Champagne when I discuss what the terms on bottle of Champagne mean.