Sparkling wines present restaurateurs and their staff with great sales opportunities as well as challenges, from the understanding of labeling to the proper service of sparkling wines. All too often we still hear every sparkling wine referred to as champagne. As we teach at Johnson & Wales University, there are many types and methods for producing sparkling wines and not all are champagnes.
The most famous of these methods is the classic or traditional method, which was referred to as the méthode champenoise until the EU laws forbade its use as of 1990 so that no other European wine region could incorporate any term that included champagne. However, in the U.S., 14 semi-generic labels such as California or New York Champagne continue to be used as the proprietary nature of term Champagne is not legally recognized in this country. One should note that most producers in California use the initials CM/CV on bottles, which is an abbreviation of Classic Method/ Classic Varieties.
The classic method provides the greatest complexity and generates the most expensive results, especially if it originates in France. This method reflects many different styles but is generally based on a classic combination of Chardonnay, which provides the elegance and acid backbone to the wine; Pinot Noir, which provides structure and power; and Pinot Meunier, which provides fruitiness. The latter is not found in many of the most expensive and aged wines as it is said to depreciate with time in the bottle. Most Napa or Carneros producers do not include much, if any, of this variety. If the wine is made entirely from Chardonnay it is referred to as a Blanc de Blancs, and if made exclusively from Pinot Noir or Meunier, it is called a Blanc de Noirs.
The hottest trend in sparkling wines is Rosé, which requires either that the juice comes in contact with skins or, in Champagne, that red wine is blended into the white wine to provide the color. No other EU appellation is allowed to make a Rosé using such a method.
The next critical element of many sparkling wines is the dosage or sweetening level added to the finished wine. The Champagne region of France is 70 miles northeast of Paris and is in a zone that traditionally had difficulty in producing ripe grapes. While the grapes certainly have flavor ripeness, they produce wines low in alcohol and high in acid. Over the centuries, the traditional method evolved a defined system of greater levels of sweetness suited to different consumers. Adding cane sugar not only provides sweetness but can offset the perception of high acidity and provide a richer mouth feel.
Another trend is the increasing prevalence of drier champagnes. This is due to the rising climate temperatures in the Champagne region, resulting in wines made from riper grapes that need less sugar dosage to either lift flavors or offset harsher acidity.
Lastly, there are greater numbers of small production champagnes available, which are referred to as “farmer fizz.” Many are indeed excellent and provide the consumer with the glimpses of what champagne is all about: the paradox of simultaneously experiencing delicacy and power, elegance yet richness, a bright acidity yet creaminess.
Restaurants and bars can certainly guarantee their patrons a “Champagne experience” by selling the well-known prestige cuvées such as Roederer Cristal or Dom Perignon. However, not diminishing the quality of those leading brands are a number of thought-provoking offerings from well-established champagne houses and farmer fizz producers that are wonderful blends of reserve wines, such as from Gossett Grande Reserve or Duval-Leroy NV. These wines will provide your guests with complex, delicious champagnes at a reasonable price. Don’t shy away from offering these great tasting experiences; you will be well rewarded.