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Don’t Call It “Sparkling Wine”

In record time, the category has become freewheeling and heterogeneous, with a mix of techniques, traditions and regional iterations. That's a good thing.

sparkling wine champagne pet nat

We’ve all encountered that guy at the dinner party—in my experience, it’s always a guy—who makes a big show of correcting you for calling the sparkling wine in your glass “Champagne” when it comes from somewhere outside the celebrated region of France.

In 2017, however, a Canadian by the name of Daniel MacDuff took this standard wine snob microaggression to an extreme when he filed for damages against Sunwing Airlines, a Toronto-based budget carrier, for serving passengers a generic sparkling wine in place of the advertised “complimentary onboard champagne toast.” Given the nature of the offense, a class-action lawsuit definitely seems excessive. (The airline dismissed MacDuff’s case as “frivolous and without merit.”) Nevertheless, there’s a lesson to be gleaned from the incident.

Typically, when someone winesplains that common talking point about Champagne’s delimited zone of production, the implication is that, in the words of the 1968 Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell hit, “There ain’t nothing like the real thing.” The real thing, of course, being the French original. Across the ages—really, ever since 1683, when according to local legend (aka early marketing spin), a Benedictine monk by the name of Dom Pérignon first invented the stuff—the famous French region has been synonymous with sparkling wine.

You could forgive Sunwing for using the “C” word to delineate the entire category. People have been making the same mistake forever. But if Champagne once represented the sole archetype for all things bubbly, all it takes is a quick survey of today’s diverse sparkling wine landscape to reveal how radically that paradigm has shifted. Long gone, in other words, are the Dark Ages remembered by Brooklyn-based retailer Talitha Whidbee, who launched her shop, Vine Wine, in 2005.

“When I first opened the store, it was like there was Champagne, and there was prosecco, and that was it,” she recalls. “You bought prosecco when you were having brunch, and you bought Champagne when it was a special occasion.”

Since then, her selection has expanded to over 60 different sparklers from all corners of the globe, and the old rules of engagement with the category have been discarded and written anew. We’ve broken sparkling wine out of its holiday playpen, and with that liberation has emerged a whole new kaleidoscope of styles, from brut zero (un-dosed) single-vineyard Champagne to pétillant naturel (aka “pét-nat”) to natural lambrusco and more.

In surveying the progress we’ve made, it’s impossible to pinpoint any single cause or unifying narrative to explain how we got here—and so quickly. We can, however, identify a few overlapping developments that have shaped the current zeitgeist. For one, after resisting change for hundreds of years, Champagne itself has undergone a massive cultural reorganization. The history of the “grower” movement, which emerged in the region during the 1990s and symbolically transferred the balance of power away from the large corporate brands and into the hands of independent producers, is already well-documented. Less has been said, however, about how these efforts have reshaped attitudes toward bubbly wine as a whole.

By making their wines more accessible and transparent—and in doing so, insisting upon Champagne as an agricultural product, rather than a luxury good—the leaders of the grower revolution paved the way for a deeper consideration of sparkling wine as an expression of terroir, just like still wine. This lesson, of course, is applicable beyond the hallowed borders of Champagne. To appreciate the differences between, say, a sparkling wine from the Jura and another from Savoie is part and parcel of getting a fuller picture of the identities of each area.

“There’s a wider understanding and appreciation of the truth of place for sparkling wines, and where they fit into the bigger context of a region,” explains Kevin McKenna of natural wine importer Louis/Dressner. “Now we look at, for instance, [celebrated Jura winemaker Stéphane] Tissot’s crémant as an expression of Tissot, and of the Jura—not as a substitute for Champagne.”

At the same time, an important part of that education is recognizing that, in addition to coming from distinct places, sparkling wine is produced through a range of methods, of which the so-called “traditional” or Champagne method is just one example. Among the various techniques for getting bubbles to materialize in a wine, the one used to make Champagne (and Cava, Franciacorta and French crémant, among others) is by far the most costly and time-consuming, requiring the winemaker to enact a secondary fermentation within each individual bottle. The payoff is that the practice typically yields the most complex and refined results. But classical elegance isn’t always what we’re looking for in our fizz. In fact, many of the wines that have gained traction on restaurant lists and shop shelves of late owe their carbonation to a technique that pre-dates Champagne by at least a couple centuries.

I’m referring to the meteoric rise of pét-nat, natural wine’s signature contribution to the sparkling wine family—and with it, the reclamation of the style’s “ancestral method” of fermentation, whereby the primary fermentation finishes in the bottle, naturally. As a way to make fun, inexpensive bubbly with a relevance beyond mass-produced prosecco, the ancestral method has ushered in a whole new wave of retro-minded sparklers, further toppling the wider category from the pedestal that Champagne erected.

We’ve all witnessed firsthand how quickly the pét-nat genre has exploded from the heart of the fringe to the height of fashion, spreading beyond its home base in France’s Loire Valley to claim outposts just about everywhere the natural-wine movement’s gospel is preached. As a repackaged name for an ancient concept, however, the trend has brought renewed attention to ancestral-method wines with deep historic roots in the rural areas of France and Italy where they’ve been produced for generations—long before anyone ever coined the term “pét-nat.”

Though they tend to get lumped together under that fashionable label, these wines constitute a sparkling tradition in their own right. This is the spirit in which to consider, for instance, the revival of tart bottle-fermented lambrusco and col fondo prosecco (often released with the sediment intact), both of which represent pre-industrial throwbacks to the wines these areas produced in the past. There’s also the slightly sweet, pinkish sparklers of the Savoie’s Bugey, as well as ancestral-method examples from the southern French regions of Limoux, Gaillac and the Rhône valley’s Diois.

This hardly begins to capture the full array of wines that fall under the sparkling umbrella. Right now, we’re in the midst of a mini-renaissance of piquette, the low-alcohol farmhouse sparkler traditionally produced from leftover grape pomace. England, of all places, is making top-notch examples (just in time for Brexit), to say nothing of the explosion of ambitious New World efforts from Oregon, California and the entire southern hemisphere. We even have sparkling wine in cans.

Considering this diversity, one wonders if it’s still possible to consider “sparkling wine” a unified category in the way it once was. Just as it would be silly to generalize about “red wine” as a single entity, rather than a continuum that runs the gamut from fresh carbonically macerated Beaujolais to lean, structured Barolo and everything in between, the world of sparkling wine no longer fits into one uniform bubble (sorry, couldn’t resist). It is a freewheeling, heterogeneous whole, with a mix of techniques and traditions and regional iterations.

In all likelihood, there will always be that dude at the wedding reception who chides the person next to him with that familiar refrain about Champagne. But the next time you happen to overhear him, rather than just rolling your eyes, why not reply with a follow-up question: So, what are we actually drinking, then?

Now more than ever, “sparkling wine” just won’t cut it.

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