At midnight on December 31st each and every year, people around the world make a toast to the New Year with some sort of bubbly in hand. Yes, I said bubbly.
Most of us refer to bubbly as “Champagne” out of habit, but what a lot of us don’t notice is that the label doesn’t always say “Champagne.” So let me explain what to look for on the bottle labels of the sparkling wine you may be enjoying this Friday night!
Exactly what is “Champagne”?
I am guilty of referring to almost every type of bubbly as Champagne, most likely because it is the most commonly known name. Last week at a Holiday Yankee Swap I happened to pick a bottle of what I assumed was Champagne. Without looking at the label, I referred to it as Champagne and a co-worker of mine asked me if it was really Champagne.
He reminded me that Champagne only comes from the Champagne region of France and that what I most likely had was some other type of bubbly. Champagne is a carbonated (sparkling) French wine that comes strictly from the Champagne region of France. It is made from three specific types of grapes: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier, and its carbonation is produced by in-bottle secondary fermentation of the wine.
My co-worker told me to check the bottle label, and … he was right, it was sparkling wine from Sonoma, California. (See, I’m learning too!)
The Misuse of the Term “Champagne”
The Champagne houses of France are troubled by the many sparkling wine producers who print bottle labels that bear the name “Champagne,” when in fact the sparkling wines are not produced in the Champagne region of France. They take the traditions of Champagne production seriously and do not take kindly to their traditions being misrepresented, much less mislabeled.
France and the European Union have since developed a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) label to protect its unique food and beverage traditions. Protected Designation of Origin labeled items declare that food must be produced entirely in a specific region, and in a particular way. They believe that this official champagne label seal will make certain that their longstanding traditions will be preserved and not confused with other sparkling wines.
Champagne is French, Prosecco is Italian
Prosecco is an Italian sparkling wine made from Glera grapes grown in the Valdobbiadene/Conegliano region of Italy. Prosecco is fermented in stainless steel tanks, a less expensive type of fermentation process.
The word “Prosecco” is considered a copyright to Italians and they take the use of it on a label very seriously. Prosecco grapes are almost all grown in Italy, but wine growers are now growing Prosecco grapes all over the world.
In 2008, Paris Hilton upset Italian winegrowers when she launched “Rich Prosecco,” a sparkling wine served from a can. Rich Prosecco brand misused the label term Prosecco by placing its sparkling wine in aluminum cans as well as by adding fruit juice to it – which is far from the way Prosecco is traditionally made.
To prevent Italy’s prized Prosecco from being made and marketed outside of Italy, the Italians pled their case to Italian legislators and then European legislators stating that Prosecco belonged to Italy and that no one else could use the term Prosecco on a wine label.
In 2009, the EU declared that sparkling wine labeled as “Prosecco” can only contain grapes grown in the Valdobbiadene/Conegliano region of Italy and must also be approved by the Italian Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC). The DOC is the Italian model of the European Union’s Protected Designation of Origin. The DOC requires that food products produced in specific regions be labeled as so and follow the defined methods of quality standards within that region – much like that of the PDO.
What About California “Champagne”?
California sparkling wines have been influenced by foreign production methods with the introduction of the practice of using the traditional French champagne grapes of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.
The sparkling wine industry in California has grown significantly and now Champagne house investors from France’s Champagne region have set up shop in California by opening their own wineries and producing champagnes under American labels. Although there is a lot of foreign influence in American sparkling wine production, American wineries use different wine making techniques that follow US wine making standards. These American techniques are enough to significantly change the taste of the wine, making a large difference in champagnes.
US wine labeling regulations allow the use of the term Champagne on a sparkling wine label as long as there is an appellation of the actual place of origin next to that name to let consumers know it is California Champagne and not champagne from France’s Champagne region.
Counterfeit Champagne Labels?
Although California Champagne labels are perfectly legal in the US, once they are exported to Europe they are considered counterfeit products. European Union trade lawyers believe that use of the term “Champagne” on the labels of sparkling wines other than those produced in the Champagne region of France are an abuse of protected label-of-origin terminology. If American champagne products are found by Customs during inspections, they are confiscated. However, the EU cannot enforce “counterfeit” champagne labels outside of Customs.
Different Styles of Champagne & the Terms You See on Champagne Labels
To go along with bubbly from different places there are also different styles. Here is a quick breakdown of those not-so-easily understood words you’ll find on champagne labels:
- Brut – Champagnes containing less than 15 grams of sugar per litre
- Brut Natural – Also known as Brut Zéro, this style contains less than 3 grams of sugar per litre
- Extra Brut – A very dry wine, in which the sugar content is less than 6 grams of sugar per litre
- Extra-Sec – Also known as Extra Dry, this style contains 12 to 20 grams of sugar per litre
- Demi-Sec – Most champagne houses produce this style champagne, ideal for drinking with desserts. The sugar content is between 35 and 50 grams per litre.
- Doux – Extremely rare, intensely sweet style containing 50+ grams of sugar per litre
- Sec – Contains 17 to 35 grams of sugar per litre
So there you have it, the differences you’ll find on the labels of bottles of Champagne, Prosecco, Sparkling Wine, California Champagne… whichever one you choose, raise your glass and say cheers to a HAPPY NEW YEAR!
Useful Bubbly & Champagne Label Resources: