Uncorked: Champagne

For every Texan who’s ever engaged in this conversation—“Wanna Coke?” “Sure.” “What kind?” “Dr Pepper”—there’s really only one rule regarding those bubbles you sip this holiday season. Champagne is the sparkling wine of the Champagne region of France. Everything else is, and should always be called, sparkling wine.

Coke is not a generic name, and neither is Champagne. And while I’m happy to live in America—with our much-beloved freedom to say the most wrong thing we can think of, rather than, say, in the legalistic European Union—calling our bubbles by their correct name might be a good start along the road to both understanding and enjoying them more.

If you dig back far enough, the winemakers of the Champagne region—including one monk named Dom Pérignon—were actually trying to get rid of the bubbles that formed from carbon dioxide in their wine, a final indignity born of a climate so cold it stopped fermentation in the tanks and let it start again in the bottles. This made for disappointing wine, especially compared to those of Burgundy to the south, and no small number of shattered bottles. It was Dom Pérignon who, once a stronger bottle had been devised with a pressure-resistant cork, by legend tasted the finished product and declared he was “drinking stars.”

Today, virtually every Champagne that people boast of drinking—including Dom Pérignon, of course, but also Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, Moët & Chandon, Perrier-Jouët and other—actually is from Champagne. For all the carelessness of our usage, which wraps the cheapest bubbles from the cheapest places under this cloak of respectability, nothing has changed that central fact. Truth is, there are many real Champagnes, and all the real Champagne houses produce products of several flavor profiles and, thankfully, price points. If you prefer it, you never have to drink Champagne that isn’t.

On the other hand, in addition to some world-class sparkling wines from California— Schramsberg and Iron Horse always pop into my head—at least two European variants have won a permanent place at my table. Cava is the Spanish version produced almost entirely in the Catalonian region near Barcelona—its name, ironically, now protected by laws of geography and production method much as Champagne is protected.

Prosecco is the Italian version, and now  protected as well. While cava is a sparkling wine made by the methode champenoise in the Cava region of Spain, prosecco is made by the less-expensive chamat method in northern Italy. Affordability helped with its introduction to the world, especially as it joined seasonal white peach juice in the original Bellini created in Venice by Harry Cipriani. With greater and greater quality, however, prosecco has learned to release its own bubbles into the festive holiday air.

Kir Royale

  • 1/2 ounce crème de cassis
  • 4 oz. Mumm
  • Lemon peel, for garnish

In a chilled champagne flute, pour 1/2 ounce crème de cassis. Top with champagne and garnish with a lemon twist.

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