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Get to Know Your Bubbly

As the crafter of sparkling wines for Domaine Chandon, I get so many interesting questions from people visiting our winery. Here are some of my favorites, which I hope will enrich your appreciation of your favorite Chandon sparklers.

Tom Tiburzi - Domaine Chandon Winemaker

As the crafter of sparkling wines for Domaine Chandon, I get so many interesting questions from people visiting our winery. Here are some of my favorites, which I hope will enrich your appreciation of your favorite Chandon sparklers.

What's the difference between sparkling wine and Champagne?

Many people are confused about these names — and rightly so. Restaurants even place them under separate categories in their wine lists.

All bubbly wines are sparkling wines. Champagne is simply a sparkling wine made in the region of Champagne, France, using methods that conform to the specific viticulture and wine-making rules of that appellation.

Sparkling wines from Spain are called "cava." In Italy, they go by the name “spumante.” In the U.S., we use the general term "sparkling wine" for any bubbly made on American soil.

Why do some sparkling wines from the U.S. say "Champagne" on the label?

As part of the Treaty of Madrid (1891), international trademark and copyright-law language was extended to respect grape-growing appellations. However, because the U.S. Senate never ratified this treaty, these laws were never implemented here.

Because of this technicality, U.S. vintners are still allowed to use appellation names such as Champagne, Burgundy or Chablis on their labels in a generic context if qualified by a U.S. region, such as "California Champagne." Modern trade agreements are changing these rules. However, the old brand names are "grandfathered" in.

Domaine Chandon has always followed the international rules and we do not use the term "Champagne" to describe our wines — even though they are produced using the traditional wine-making methods from the celebrated growing region in France.

Why do "extra dry" sparkling wines taste so sweet?

We need to go back in time to answer this question. Originally, Champagne was very sweet. In the early 1800s, a significant amount of Champagne was destined for the British market, where the demand arose for less-sweet bubbly. As time went by, Champagne makers began reducing the sugar levels in their wines to a level they called "dry." This wine was still quite sweet by today's standards. With further reduction, a slightly sweet level termed "extra dry" was produced.

Today, although the ultrasweet sparklers of the past are no longer made, sweeter styles continue to be popular and we still use this terminology to describe "dry" and "extra-dry" Champagnes. We have to live with the fact that this terminology is the opposite in meaning for still wines, where extra dry means no sugar at all. No wonder consumers can be confused when a slightly sweet sparkling wine is called "extra dry."

Why are grapes for sparkling wine harvested before grapes for still wines?

Grapes used in sparkling wines need to have less sugar and higher acidity than grapes used for still wines. The earlier they are harvested, the less sugar and the more acid they contain.

Higher sugar levels produce a higher alcohol content during the winemaking process. Sparkling wines have the potential to generate even more alcohol because they undergo a second fermentation in the bottle to produce their carbonation. This process adds about 1.5% more alcohol to their natural levels.

By harvesting the grapes at lower sugar levels, the alcohol produced during the first fermentation is kept low enough to offset the additional alcohol from the second fermentation, keeping the final alcohol level in check. The alcohol and acid levels are integral components to the creamy mouthfeel and crisp structure of sparkling wine.