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Friday, February 13, 2015

American Champagne Labeling

  Most Americans mistakenly define Champagne as any sparkling wine whether it's from the U.S., France, Italy, Spain or elsewhere. Huh? Isn't it all Champagne? Well, no. It's a "Champagne-style wine" maybe. The American wine industry in the past has freely used place names from Europe as the names for wine styles. Champagne, Chablis, Burgundy, and Port are actually wines from those places in Europe.

  Champagne is a sparkling wine from the Champagne district of France. It's a wine region where they make sparkling wine. Port is a sweet wine from Portugal made from certain Portuguese grapes and is fortified with brandy or grape spirits.

Is this Champagne? Not even close.
If I was French I'd be embarrassed!


  Some years ago the French established a wine lobby to convince us to not use these place names, like Champagne, on our wine labels. There's an agreement in place to that effect. However, the U.S. gov't regulating body (the TTB) allowed the grandfathering in of wineries that had been calling their sparkling wine Champagne. So on Korbel's labels, for instance, you'll see a term like "California Champagne" to denote it's American. On most American winery's bottles you'll see  descriptors like "Sparkling Wine." Or on the bottle of Chandon I'm looking at now "California Brut Classic" with no mention of sparkling wine. Apparently in the Hudson Valley of NY State "Sparkling Burgundy" is popular as it's made by several wineries. So they're not using "Champagne," but still using "Burgundy." Ugh. No wonder some people are confused!

  The best solution is probably to give wineries a few years to stop using these terms altogether. They, of course, believe it will confuse their customers and hurt sales. Maybe wording like "California Sparkling Wine" in big letters with "Made in a Champagne Style" in smaller letters? I dunno, that might still piss off the French. At any rate, getting rid of the grandfathering in for these wineries and the abuses it causes seems like the best plan.

It's not Port, but made similar to a Port

  What about the other terms? Chablis was often used to mean a generic white wine, usually chardonnay. Similarly, Burgundy referred to a generic red. Remember Gallo Hearty Burgundy? I think most of us can just say white or red instead of Chablis or Burgundy. Port is a fortified wine from  Portugal. In California you often see fortified reds, usually Zinfandel, called Zinfandel Port. I try to remember to call them port-style wines and maybe that's what the labeling should say.

  There are those in the wine biz who wish to keep using the standalone words of Champagne and Port to sell wine. There are those on the other side who believe these words have no business on an American wine label. You have to be fair to the French and the Portuguese and to those making a living from selling wine. The best answer may be somewhere in between.