Champlain and Sparklers
Despite Rob Lowe's best efforts, most of us are still splashing about like confused babies in the bubble bath that is the world of sparkling wines. What is Champagne? And what isn't? And what's the difference, besides that to be called Champlain it obviously has to come from Lake Champlain?
First, the origin story. You may have heard of the monk Dom Pérignon discovering that his wine was carbonated and deciding that everyone for the next thousand years should pay him and his descendants boatloads of cash for their delicious bubbly. In fact, the only thing we know for sure is that Dom Pérignon tried and was not able to stop his wine from sparkling, which he and everyone else at the time viewed generally as a fault resulting from an unwanted (but all too common in chilly northern France where grapes struggle to ripen) second fermentation that set off in the bottle after the wine had been stoppered. He may have grown to seek it and even like it, but he wouldn't have been able to properly contain it, since the 5-6 bars of pressure in a Champagne would break the delicate, wood-fired glass available to seventeenth-century French monks. After techniques and technologies improved in the following centuries--particularly glass bottles that can withstand several atmospheres of pressure--winemakers in Champagne managed to create a fine sparkling wine that suited their grapes and their region and was the product of controlled secondary fermentation, and the rest is history. Champagne is now a protected term that refers only to the sparkling wine from the eponymous region in France made when individual bottles receive a second helping of yeast and sugar, and the former's digestion of the latter creates carbon dioxide that tries but fails to escape the corked bottle. Several other labor intensive steps must be completed before the wine is ready for drinking, and the entire process is monitored from planting to sales. The resulting wine has tiny, consistent bubbles that dance on the palate, and a toasty, biscuity flavor that is somehow warming as it cools. Real Champagne is magical, but you pay for that magic with real cash.
Next, everything else. Thanks to French market domination and to a misunderstanding of the relationship between the bubbles and the name, most people call all sparkling wine Champagne. This misnomer isn't such a tragedy if you're not terribly parochial, as many producers use the so-called 'méthode champenoise' to make their sparkling wine, mimicking very closely if not perfectly the flavor profile and texture of the more expensive alternative. This is true for the Crémant found in other winemaking regions in France, as well as for Spumante in Italy and Cava in Spain. On the other hand, the wildly popular Italian Prosecco uses the Charmat method, where the second fermentation occurs in a large tank rather than in the individual bottles, and many smaller American producers have chosen this route to keep costs in check. The newly trendy pétillant-naturel is instead, like all hip obsessions, a throw back, where light effervescence is achieved by simply bottling before fermentation is complete, so that a small amount of carbon dioxide (and a large amount of hipster-baiting authenticity) remains trapped inside.
So, assuming you're not a 19-year-old self-employed pickler who needs a pét-nat to sip while writing your memoirs and planning not to vote, but neither are you living the high life Choupette Lagerfeld-style, what should you be drinking? The bottom line is, if you have an extra franc on you, go to town on real Champagne, from Champagne. When it comes to spending money on wine, the premium you pay on the best bottle of sparkling is a mostly fair one given the time and care behind it. For everyday drinking, look for sparklers from other regions that will still deliver. Cava and Crémant are especially attractive because they are made with the traditional Champagne method and tend to be easy to find and inexpensive for their quality. For bubbles that come from regions using other methods to carbonate, look for specificity to be sure you get something special: buy Prosecco from Asolo or Conegliano Valdobbiadene (it'll be written on the label), the two best subregions, or get your American sparkling from Champagne producers who have selected estates in California to replicate their original, like Roederer (Mendocino) or Tattinger (Carneros). On those days when you're feeling celebratory but frugal, the just barely effervescent Vinho Verdes of Portugal are dirt cheap, low in alcohol and perfectly festive--ideal for kicking off a long day of tasting wine.