French Champagne vs. It’s American cousin

There are many sparkling wines produced worldwide, yet most legal structures reserve the term “champagne” exclusively for sparkling wines from the Champagne region, made in accordance with Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne regulations. Le Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne (CIVC) is an organization grouping the actors of the Champagne production and trade – growers, cooperatives and merchants – under the direction of the government.It is charged with organizing and controlling the production, distribution, and promotion of the wines of Champagne as well as conducting research. Until 1990 it set the price of grapes and still intervenes to regulate the size of the harvest and to limit the production of wine in order to maintain market prices.One of the prominent activities of CIVC is to safeguard the name Champagne, which is a protected designation of origin as well as a very valuable trademark. CIVC is quick to resort to litigation at any non-authorized use of the Champagne name. CVIC enforces the following diagram for the sweetness and sugar level of champagnes made in Champagne, France.

  • Brut Natural or Brut Zéro (less than 3 grams of sugar per liter)
  • Extra Brut (less than 6 grams of sugar per liter)
  • Brut (less than 15 grams of sugar per liter)
  • Extra Sec or Extra Dry (12 to 20 grams of sugar per liter)
  • Sec (17 to 35 grams of sugar per liter)
  • Demi-Sec (33 to 50 grams of sugar per liter)
  • Doux (more than 50 grams of sugar per liter)

In the European Union and many other countries, the name Champagne is legally protected by the Treaty of Madrid (1891) designating only the sparkling wine produced in the eponymous region and adhering to the standards defined for it as an Appellation d’origine contrôlée; the right was reaffirmed in the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. This legal protection has been accepted by numerous other countries worldwide. Most recently Canada, Australia and Chile signed agreements with Europe that will limit the use of the term “champagne” to only those products produced in the Champagne region. The United States acknowledges the exclusive nature of the “champagne” term and bans the use from all new US produced wines. Only those that had approval to use the term on labels before 2006 may continue to use it and only when it is accompanied by the wine’s actual origin (e.g. California).

The majority of US produced sparkling wines do not use the term “champagne” on their labels. In the United States, name protection of wine growing place names is becoming more important. Several key U.S. wine regions such as those in California (Napa, Sonoma Valley, Paso Robles), Oregon, and Walla Walla, Washington now view the remaining semi-generic labels as harmful to their reputations

Even the term méthode champenoise or champagne method was forbidden consequent to an EU court decision in 1994.As of 2005, the description most often legally used for sparkling wines not from Champagne yet using the second fermentation in the bottle process is méthode traditionnelle.

In the United States many wineries make sparkling wine by using the methode traditionelle (methode championese). Virtually Americans are making champagne by using the precise wine making methods used to make champagne from Champagne, France but since there has been new laws and regulations passed, everywhere else in the world the process should be referred to as sparkling wine made by methode tradutionelle. The history of producing quality sparkling wine in California can be traced to the Sonoma Valley where, in 1892, the Korbel brothers (immigrated from Bohemia in 1852 no the Czech Republic) began producing sparkling wine according to the méthode traditionelle.(championese) The first wines produced were made from Riesling, Muscatel, Traminer and Chasselas grapes.

Partly aided by the foreign influence, the overall quality of Californian sparklers increased with the introduction of the more traditional Champagne grapes of Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Pinot Meunier and Pinot blanc into the production. US AVA (American Viticulture Area) requirements and wine laws do not regulate the sugar levels and sweetness of wine though most producers tend to follow European standards with Brut wine having less than 1.5% sugar up to Doux having more than 5%. As the sparkling wine industry in California grew, foreign investments from some of the Champagne region’s most noted Champagne houses came to set up wineries in the area. These include Moët et Chandon’s Domaine Chandon, Louis Roederer’s Roederer Estate, and Taittinger’s Domaine Carneros.

While many top American sparkling wine producers utilize the French Champagne methods of production, there are distinct differences in their wine-making techniques that have a considerable effect on the taste of the wines. In Champagne, the cuvee blend will rarely have less than 30 wines and sometimes as many as 60 that are taken from grapes spanning 4–6 years of different vintages. In Champagne, the cuvée is the first 2,050 liters of grape juice from 4,000 kg of grapes (a marc), while the following 500 liters are known as the taille (tail), and is expected to give wines of a more coarse character. Many Champagne producers pride themselves on only using the cuvée in their wine. In California, cuvees are typically derived from around 20 wines taken from 1 to 2 years worth of vintages. French Champagne laws require that the wine spend a minimum of 15 months on the lees for non-vintage and minimum 3 years for vintage Champagne. Lees refers to deposits of dead yeast or residual yeast and other particles that precipitate, or are carried by the action of “fining”, to the bottom of a vat of wine after fermentation and aging. It is not uncommon for a premium Champagne to age for 7 years or more prior to release. In the US, there are no minimum requirements, and aging length can vary from 8 months to 6 years. Another distinct difference, particularly in Californian sparkling wines, is the favorable Californian climate, which allows a vintage wine to be produced nearly every year.


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