Mead On Wine

© 1997 JDM Enterprises
All Rights Reserved
Vol. I No. 51

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by Jerry D. Mead

       There is no question that some of the top of the line
French Champagnes, such as Dom Perignon, Krug Grand Cuvee, Roederer Cristal
and Fleur de Champagne by Perrier-Jouet, are among the finest bubbly wines in
the world. But at $100 and more a bottle, they should really be reserved for
special parties of two (I think you know the kind I mean), very special
occasions in general or more frequent drinking by rich people.

If you need a recommendation of such a wine, let me say that bottling for bottling, dollar for dollar, Krug Grand Cuvee is my favorite Champagne in the world...though I enjoy it rarely. I'm not rich and I don't have as many of those aforementioned occasions these days, if you know what I mean...and I think you do.

The point I'm really getting to is that America is making ever better bubbly, and at much better prices, and it really doesn't matter whether the label says "Champagne" or not, because in most instances where the product costs $10 or more it is made by a process identical to the "Frenchies" and usually from the same grapes too.

The truth is that such revered California products as "J" (made by Jordan...and the "Reserve" is even more wonderful), J. Schram from Schramsberg and "Royal Cuvee" from Gloria Ferrer, are of such fine quality that most connoisseurs can't tell the difference unless they're looking at the label.

Let me hasten to add that all wonderful American effervescence does not come from California. There are excellent producers in New York, Washington and New Mexico, among others. By the way, that producer in New Mexico is Gruet (pronounced grew-ay), which manages to win top awards and medals every year.


Let me explain why some folks insist that Champagne can only come from France, and yet you continue to see the name on American products.

The French claim that only that bubbly wine produced in a delimited region north and east of Paris and known as Champagne, is entitled to bear the name. Other bubbly wines made in France may not use the name, and by treaty with other European (and many other) nations the name is also protected.

The French want you to believe that just as there is lots of blue cheese in the world, yet only one Roquefort, that there is also lots of sparkling wine in the world, but only one Champagne.

The other side of the story is that what I call "lower case" champagne has been made and marketed for more than 100 years in the United States. One brand, Korbel, has had the champagne name on its labels for all of that time. And the highly esteemed Schramsberg has used the champagne name since it was founded in the sixties.

The American claim to the name goes like this. Emigrant French came to the U.S. and started using the name to identify the sparkling wines they made here. The French only recently (the last couple of decades) started strongly protecting the name, and therefore the more than one century-long usage by Americans have given the name semi-generic status.

To most people, all wines containing bubbles are champagne, especially in casual conversation. Even wine snobs and loyal French nationals who know the story slip.

If someone hears a cork pop, they do not think to themselves, "Oh! Someone just opened a bottle of Napa Valley sparkling wine." Neither do they think of the term "Cava" (the official Spanish word for sparkling wine made in the "methode champenoise"), or "Sekt" (what the Germans use) or the Italian "spumante."

And if someone pours bubbly wine over a players head after winning that New Year's bowl game, we don't ask the wine's origin before we say he was doused with champagne. The point being that the name has truly become generic over the years and is the only single word that describes the fizzy stuff everywhere in the world.

There are two more points in favor of continued use by Americans of the term champagne. U.S. law requires that if the term champagne is used on an American product that a qualifying term appear on the label in the same size type as the word champagne. Therefore, when the label clearly states "California Champagne" or "New York State Champagne," the claim by the French that folks might be confused into thinking it's one of their products is hardly valid.

Then there's the fact that no matter how many times that wine authorities explain that sparkling wine made in the bottle fermented style of the French is basically the same, people still have it in their head that $5 champagne is somehow better than $15 sparkling wine, in somewhat the same way that caviar makes fish eggs sound better.

American producers don't want to give up the rights to a name that they have invested a lot of money in promoting for more than a century, a name that adds cache (another fancy French word...our language is full of them) to the product.

If American producers gave up the champagne name for sparkling wine, it would be the rough equivalent of giving up the once protected name aspirin for its synonym salicylic acid. Be honest, how much Bayer Salicylic Acid would you buy?


Schramsberg 1993 Blanc de Blancs ($22) This full-flavored challenge to the French is made primarily from Chardonnay grapes picked young while they're still blessed with the crisp acids required for champagne making. Creamy, toasty and yeasty, it has the perfect "dosage" to balance it for aperitif/cocktail drinking, yet it is certainly dry enough to serve as a food companion. For lovers and celebrators, it has the benefit of remaining palatable glass after glass. Rating: 94/88

Wines are scored using a unique 100 point system. First number rates quality; second number rates value.


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Latest Update: December 27, 1997