Champagnes That Aren't Champagne

American sparkling wines are surprisingly good. Even more surprising, the best stuff is priced between $15 and $30

No, I'm sorry, but you may not call it Champagne.

I know. The American producers have failed to come up with an attractive alternative, so we are stuck with the clumsy handle "sparkling wine," but that's the way it is.

I love France, but it is not an unconditional love. I have plenty of problems with French winemaking, but when it comes to Champgne, the French get it right. The Champenoise have, after all, spent several centuries cultivating the term "Champagne" as the epitome of luxury, celebration, and good times. So when a bunch of upstarts in California and Australia started trying to horn in on a good thing, the French cried "Non!" and rightly so.

Half of Sparkling Wine is Incorrectly Labeled

Interestingly, while nearly all of America's serious producers of sparkling wine—the stuff that can rival Champagne in terms of quality and that I sampled for this article—have stopped using the offending "C" word on their labels, it is the low-end producers—the people who make the $5-a-bottle fizzy grape juice that would never, in a thousand years, pass as the real thing—who continue to do so.

And according to Sam Heitner, director of Champagne USA, the Champagne producers' promotion and, note this, protection, arm in America, more than 50% of all sparkling wine sold here is incorrectly labeled Champagne. You only have to imagine the outcry if a French company started making Harley-Davidson knockoffs at a rundown factory in Lens to see the point.

But we are not concerned here with the ersatz trying to gain a measure of respectability by purloining the Champagne name. What we are looking at is the many excellent American sparklers that are proud to be judged on their own merits.

Nothing Above $50 a Bottle

What most struck me in tasting my way through dozens of bottles of domestic fizz for this article was just how superior are the less-expensive bottles of American quality sparkling wines—those in the $15-to-$30-dollar category—while those in the supposedly luxury category, north of $50, just aren't worth the extra money.

It's not that the $23 bottle of Roederer 25th Anniversary Brut, to take one example, is better value that its $50 rivals. It's a better wine, period.

I am not sure why this is. Perhaps it's the soil. It might be that it's capable of yielding very decent simple fizz, but when the winemakers try to push beyond some invisible barrier that the terroir cannot support, they wind up with artificial-tasting wines. That is why there is nothing in the accompanying slide show above $50. It's not by design, it's just that I didn't like any of the more expensive bottles.

A Fragile and Fickle Relationship

At this more approachable level I'm not looking for the great depth and complexity you find in fine Champagne. What I do want is a clean, balanced, well-made fizz with no visible defects and that's a pleasure to drink. This I found in abundance, and a number of my favorites are included in the accompanying slide show.

However, despite the great improvement in quality domestic sparklers over the last decade or so, America's relationship with sparkling wines is fragile and fickle. According to the 2006 report of the Gomberg-Fredrickson consulting firm, sparkling wine represented only 5% of all U.S. wine sales, and homegrown fizz accounted for just 59% of that.

Also, as Charles Curtis, director of wine education at Moët Hennessy USA, a division of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH), told me, "the Champagne business is shockingly seasonal, and the more expensive the vintage, the more seasonal it is." The numbers back him up: December, 2006, accounted for 23% of that year's sales of Chandon domestic sparkling wines but only 13% of their still wine.

Bubbly Sales Peaked During the Tech Bubble

Also, it seems to be economically sensitive too. Figures from the Wine Institute show that Champagne and sparkling wine sales peaked at 37 million gallons in 1999—at the height of the tech stock bubble—then fell to a low of 27 million in 2001 after two years of a bear market before beginning a steady rise to 2006's 35 million gallons, an increase of almost 10% over 2005's 32 million.

These numbers should continue to grow. An importer of a major Champagne brand recently told me that he and many of his competitors were planning to raise prices in January in order to maintain their margins in the face of the continuing weak dollar. This can only be good news to the producers of America's excellent not-Champagnes.

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