Why Champagne Merits a Meritage 11/12/11

Lately I’ve noticed a renewed push on the part of Champagne producers (spearheaded by the Champagne Bureau) to protect the integrity of their brand: a Champagne campaign, so to speak, which seeks to spread the word worldwide that only wines from the Champagne region of France are worthy of that name. So if you pick up a bottle of “California Champagne,” you should know that the bubbly you’re drinking is but a pale imitation of the real deal, which in all likelihood was neither produced in the proper method nor from the proper grapes.

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Close, but here’s a list.

Champagne isn’t alone here either. Just this week, Decanter published an article about the pressure Bordeaux has been putting on China to respect the nomenclature and ban the labeling of non-Bordeaux wines as Bordeaux. And if you’re thinking these are just instances of French snobbery, think again, because Port (from Portugal) and Sherry (from Spain) have been fighting a similar battle against the generalization of their good names, also claiming
Protected Designation of Origin status
in Europe.

While the law is technically on Champagne’s side, a loophole permits many American sparkling wines to continue using the Champagne name, and evidently over 50% still choose to do this. My fellow blogger Richard Auffrey feels strongly about this subject, and has even pursued dialogue with some of the offending wineries themselves (with disappointing results). And when it comes to stuff like Barefoot California Champagne, I certainly agree: it’s disingenuous to call this kind of wine Champagne, even if it is still legal. It’s simply not the same product. But there are producers out there – yes, even in the U.S. – who do use the right grapes, and the right method. And personally, it wouldn’t really bother me that these producers were to call their wine Champagne, even if they didn’t do everything else required of Champagne producers.

It wouldn’t bother me because I accept that Champagne has by and large (at least in the USA) come to refer to a style of wine rather than a region, through the linguistic device of metonymy, or association. For the non-English majors among you, a popular example of metonymy is the use of “Washington” when actually referring to the governmentin Washington. The two terms have simply become so closely associated in people’s minds that they may now be used interchangeably. And this, I believe, is what has happened with Champagne in the US, to the point that it may no longer be reversible.

I’m not suggesting the Champagne Bureau give up and abandon their mission, but at the same time I feel it’s important to view society’s overuse of the word “Champagne” as part of the inevitable progression of language. It doesn’t even matter how it happened, because for better or worse, “Champagne” now has two meanings: there is the region, and there is the wine. There is also, of course, a tendency for the second meaning to be overgeneralized, and used in reference to all sparkling wine. While I can see how this may be construed as insulting to Champagne, I’d prefer to view it as a compliment: we Americans may just be too stubborn or stupid to use terms correctly, hardwired to apply the names of our favorite brands to all their counterparts. If I were to cut myself on an errant corkscrew, I wouldn’t ask for a bandage; I’d ask for a Band-aid, knowing full well I’d never actually have sprung for the name brand.

My first, admittedly implausible solution was to take the middle ground: embrace the metonymic shift, and promote Champagne as a style rather than a place. Let producers continue using terms like “California Champagne” if they so choose, as long as their wine adheres to certain of the same specifications as authentic Champagne, and as long as they’re up-front about where it really came from. This would still punish the unscrupulous producers that are currently grandfathered in, unless they’d be willing to step up their game (and they wouldn’t be).

But there are countless economic, political and cultural hurdles to consider that will prevent this idea from ever coming to fruition, many of which were pointed out to me by none other than Richard Auffrey (who helpfully agreed to preview this article for me). First off, Champagne’s rules subsume a lot more than just the grapes and the method, including a whole litany of vineyard and harvest regulations, many of which may not even be possible to follow elsewhere. What’s more, any American producers who would theoretically submit to the rigors of producing real Champagne would probably also be least likely to use the name, rendering my suggestion rather useless.

So fine, that idea isn’t feasible. Now what? You’ve probably heard all the generic terms for sparkling wine, such as sparkling wine, sparklers, and bubbly. Admit it: these terms suck. We need something elegant, and I’d happily settle for a Champagne equivalent to the term “meritage.” A simple yet poignant portmanteau of “merit” and “heritage,” this term was actually one of many submitted to a contest in 1988, which soon gave rise to the Meritage Association. Ever since, producers in the US and elsewhere have been able to refer specifically to blends of Bordeaux grapes without offending anybody French.

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Hear that, China?

I think it’s time for a Champagne equivalent. It’d be nice to have a relatively elegant term to use for sparkling wines that at least approximate the style of Champagne, wouldn’t it? Somebody get on that. I’ll be drinking Prosecco (Champagne is painfully expensive).

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