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Summary Article: Champagne
from Alcohol in Popular Culture: An Encyclopedia

Strictly speaking, champagne is a sparkling wine produced entirely from grapes grown in France's Champagne region, and essentially—but not exclusively—from the varieties Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. However, the name champagne is often used as a synonym for any sparkling wine, a confusion that France has been fighting actively on international markets by ensuring that only wines from the region Champagne can actually use the name “champagne” on their labels. France and the European Union have mounted regular legal challenges to the use of the term outside of the appellation zone around the cities of Reims and Epernay.

In the United States, the use of the term champagne by winemakers is allowed within certain limits, following a 2006 trade agreement between the United States and the European Union. Although the agreement forbids the use of European geographic indications by American winemakers, it also includes a “grandfather clause” allowing producers who had been legally using the term champagne prior to the agreement (as well as 16 other “semi-generic” terms like Chablis or sherry) to continue putting it on their labels. This explains why, for example, Korbel “California champagne,” produced under that name since the 1880s, can still be served at presidential inaugurations without causing a diplomatic incident.

The conflict over the appellation is not fully resolved. The Office of Champagne USA, which represents the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC), the champagne producers' trade association, has been mounting public relations campaigns in favor of its exclusive appellation, even producing a petition to Congress trying to end the use of the word “champagne” by U.S. producers.

Historically, whether regionally correct or not, champagne (and pretty much all sparkling wine on the market today) finds its origins in the nineteenth century, when winemakers in the Champagne region learned to master the fermentation process and the carbon dioxide it releases to generate a reliably bubbly wine. Although production of sparkling wine had been taking place before that, it was deemed until then as inferior to the region's still wines. It was also unpredictable, leading to regular explosions as the gas pressure from fermentation taking place inside the bottle grew too great for the bottles.

In the nineteenth century, Champagne houses perfected a production method that consists in provoking a controlled, in-bottle secondary fermentation through the addition of a mixture of sugar and yeast to still wine. Finding the right dose of sugar to add was key to turning this sparkling wine into a product that could be exported far and wide. This allowed Champagne producers to export to the royal courts of Europe, and innovators like Charles “Champagne Charlie” Heidseick to come to America and develop the market for their wines, starting in the 1850s.

Today, this champenoise method (or traditional method) is used to make the best sparkling wines of any origin, including the best Californian and American sparkling wines. “Bubbly” is the drink of choice for celebrations and special occasions, as demonstrated by the importance of sparkling sales for the holidays and, especially, for New Year's Eve. The arrival of the year 2000, for instance, saw record sales of champagne and sparkling wines around the world.

Although it represents less than 10 percent of sparkling wine sales in the United States (and around the world), Champagne has been more successful than any other region in associating its sparkling wine with luxury and class. Luxury products conglomerates like LVMH have made champagne a central part of their strategy, and French champagne has retained an image of distinction that has persisted over the last two centuries. In the 1990s and 2000s, the love affair between rappers and Roederer's Cristal brand of champagne was central to the “bling” subculture of very conspicuous consumption (at least until remarks by Roederer managing director Frédéric Rouzaud, in 2006, led to a boycott of the brand by prominent rappers such as Jay-Z).

The downside to this association of champagne with luxury is that sales of the wines of Champagne are more closely associated with the upper end of business cycles and suffer more from economic downturns as well. In 2008 and 2009, champagne sales and exports went down while sales of American, Italian, or Spanish sparkling wine kept increasing. So while people's desire to celebrate may remain intact in downturns, a more modest bubbly appears more appropriate in less luxurious times. (See also Terroir.)

Further Reading

Champagne's official U.S. site.

  • Robertson, Carol. “The Sparkling Wine War.”
  • “Sparkling Wine/Champagne.” The Wine Institute. December 2009.
  • Charest, Rémy
    Copyright 2010 Rachel Black

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