Since the first cases of champagne were delivered to the Thirteen Colonies in 1750, French bubbly has enjoyed a prestigious reputation in America. A report published last June by the U.S. beers, wines and spirits research firm Shanken showed that sales of French champagne in the United States are up for the third year in a row. Current figures are at their highest since 2008, says Bloomberg. And in 2017, Veuve-Cliquot and Moët & Chandon – the two leading champagne brands in the United States – exported 835,000 cases of champagne to America, totaling ten million bottles. Yet champagnes imported from France only make up 6% of the consumption of sparkling wines in the United States. More than half of the 261 million bottles polished off in the U.S. in 2017 were produced on American soil – mainly in California, Virginia, Oregon, New Mexico, Washington State and New York State.
Brotherhood Winery is the oldest American winemaking establishment, originally founded by a French Huguenot in 1839, and today produces sparkling wine in Washingtonville, New York, next to the Hudson River. American presidents have traditionally celebrated their arrival at the White House since 1985 with a glass of Korbel, a sparkling wine produced in Sonoma County, California, whose bottles bear the label “California champagne.” Needless to say, producers in the Champagne region of France are none too pleased. “American champagne is an absurdity, while French champagne is a pleonasm,” says Thibaut Le Mailloux, Communications Director of the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC). “The term champagne refers to a French winemaking region. Other sparkling wines are not champagne.”
Champagne, a Protected Name
Since a decree by the French government on June 29, 1936, champagne has enjoyed a Protected Designation of Origin label (or Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, abbreviated as AOC). Its production is limited to the 35,000 hectares that make up the region of Champagne – home to 635 municipalities spread across the départements of Marne, Aisne, Aube, Seine-et-Marne and Haute-Marne – and subject to a strict list of specifications. Thanks to the 1936 decree, only sparkling wines produced in the Champagne region have the right to display the name “champagne” on their labels.
Established in the town of Epernay in the northeast of France, the CIVC unites winemakers and wineries from the Champagne region, and fights against the misappropriation of their hallowed name. Some 115 countries recognize the Champagne AOC, but this is not the case in the United States, where “half of sparkling wines are sold as ‘American champagne’ or ‘California champagne,'” says Thibaut Le Mailloux. “American producers are trying to promote their wines by using the prestige and reputation of champagne.”
“We Don’t Play in the Same League”
American producers have been forbidden from calling their sparkling wines “champagne” or mentioning the méthode champenoise on their bottles since 2006. However, this law only applies to wineries and vineyards founded after December 31, 2005. In compliance with a section of U.S. case law known as the “grandfather clause,” producers in business before that date are only obliged to display the state of origin on their bottles of wine. The labels “California champagne” featured on bottles of American sparkling wine, such as Korbel, Cook’s, André and J. Roget, to name but a few, continue to sow doubt among consumers. But the similarity with French champagne stops there.
“Our wines are not too different from their French cousins, but we don’t play in the same league,” says Claude Thibaut, one of the founders of the exploitation Thibaut-Janisson winery in Virginia, nicknamed T-J in a nod to Thomas Jefferson, another famed champagne enthusiast. Born in the Marne département in France, Claude Thibaut has been established in Afton in the Shenandoah Valley since 2005, and produces 40,000 bottles of sparkling wine per year.
His Blanc de Chardonnay Brut, enjoyed for its apple, white peach and hazelnut aromas, is served at receptions at the White House and in gourmet restaurants in Washington D.C. “Sommeliers struggle to say if our wines are French or American, but we’ll never match up to the leading houses in the Champagne region”, he says.
French Brands on a Quest to Conquer California
While they may not match up to French champagnes, the American versions make up half of the sparkling wine consumed in the United States every year. This figure led French champagne houses west to expand their market as early as the 1970s. Moët & Chandon, Piper-Heidsieck, Taittinger, Louis Roederer and Mumm have all invested in vineyards in California, and Frenchman Gilbert Gruet founded a winery in New Mexico.
French champagne houses in the United States enjoy more flexible laws and can produce wines for two or three times less than in France, while covering two distinct segments on the American market: champagnes imported from France and sold at more than 40 dollars a bottle, and superior sparkling wines sold for between 10 and 40 dollars. The segment of wines sold at less than 10 dollars a bottle is given over to “American champagnes.”
“We are a French champagne house,” says Arnaud Weyrich, VP Production and Winemaker at the Roederer Estate in California. “We apply our skills and expertise learned in Champagne in another country.” The techniques are champenoises, but the climate is distinctly American. North of San Francisco, Roederer Estate cultivates 240 hectares of vines in the Anderson Valley – located on the same latitude as the south of Spain – and produces four types of sparkling wine. Given the temperature moderated by the Pacific Ocean, which creates hot, dry summers and mild, rainy winters, the grapes ripen quicker than in northern France. “In Champagne, there is always a risk of rain and the cold stop- ping the grapes from ripening”, says the wine-maker. “In California, it’s the opposite: we have to hurry to harvest all the grapes before they become too ripe.”
Pink Champagne Wins Over the Americans
The milder Californian climate enables American brands to produce a wine that was long scorned in Champagne: sparkling rosé wine. “It’s hard to find black grapes that are ripe enough to make sparkling rosé wine in Champagne, but it’s easy in California,” says Arnaud Weyrich. Unlike regular rosé wine, which is produced by macerating a must of black grapes in their clear juice, sparkling rosé wine is made by blending different white and red grape varieties. This helps to explain its dubious reputation as an adulterated wine. Until her death in 1977, Lily Bollinger actually forbade her family from producing what she referred to as “champagne for prostitutes.” Ironically, Bollinger rosé champagne is now considered one of the best on the market.
The West Coast of the United States is rich in white and red grape varieties, making it the ideal place to produce sparkling rosé wines. Long judged to be a novelty, and nicknamed “pink champagne,” rosé now makes up 15% of the sparkling wine consumed in the U.S.A. (In comparison, the global average is around 9%.) “It’s not a trend,” says Gary Westby, Champagne and Sparkling Wine Buyer for the K&L stores in California. “Rosé wines combine some of the best flavors and elements from white wine and red wine. You have something that is refreshing like a white wine, but you also have this complexity and the layers that you usually get from a red wine.”
Sparkling Wines Invited to Dinner
Rosé wine is far more than a lucrative maneuver used by American and French winemakers for the last ten years, and has in fact enabled brands to tap into a new customer base. Especially in the United States – the second largest market for French champagnes after the U.K., but the first for rosé champagnes – “many customers who are unfamiliar with champagne are drawn to the pink color”, says Thibaut Le Mailloux.
In an attempt to attract new consumers, producers are now looking to extend the season for sparkling wines. Between 40% and 60% of champagne sales are made during the last two months of the year. But “selling bubbly at Christmas and New Year’s is not enough,” says Arnaud Weyrich. As well as sales in stores, producers are increasingly turning to bars and restaurants to sell their wines. In the United States, champagne is now enjoyed in the summer, during the week after work, at meals in restaurants and on Sundays for brunch. The craze for Mimosas, Bellinis and other sparkling wine cocktails is ample proof, and the Moët & Chandon U.S. website even offers 58 difference recipes!
Through tasting sessions and food pairing examples showcased by leading chefs, producers are showing that their wines are an excellent accompaniment for dishes such as cheese gougères, seafood platters, Cajun-spiced jambalayas and triple chocolate tarts. As Arnaud Weyrich puts it, “a good vintage champagne or sparkling wine is an excellent replacement for a bottle of white wine at the table.”
Article published in the December 2016 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.