Champagne vs. Sparkling Wine

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

The Dilemma: You're itching for a hangover, so you know bubbly is the way to go. But when you awake in the cold gray light of the morning after, will one promise you a purer headache than the other?

People You Can Impress: everybody at the New Year's party. Auld lang syne! Whatever that means!

The Quick Trick: This should be pretty easy to remember: Champagne is from Champagne; sparkling wine isn't.

The Explanation:

The French are really, really prickly about misuse of the word "champagne." Only sparkling white wine that comes from the Champagne region of France, in the northeastern part of the country, can be called champagne.

And that's not a suggestion; in Europe, it's the law. It has been illegal for non-Champaignois vineyards to call their booze champagne since 1891. So important is French ownership of the word "champagne," it was reaffirmed in no less important a document than 1919's Treaty of Versailles - the one that ended World War I.

But here's the loophole: The United States never ratified the Treaty of Versailles - not because of the champagne clause, but because the Republican-controlled Congress didn't want to see the formation of a League of Nations. And so, in America, it's perfectly legal to call your sparkling wine "champagne." In fact, you can call your gym shoes "champagne," if you'd like.

For decades, American producers of bubbly called their products "champagne" left and right, but these days they tend to stick with "sparkling wine." Today many California producers believe their products are superior - mainly because California gets so much sunlight, and the richer grapes tend to produce drier wines.

That may be true, but Cristal is still a heck of a lot better than Andre's pink champagne. True champagnes are usually aged longer than their American counterparts, and they're generally considered "more complex," which is sommelier-speak for "more expensive."

Dom Perignon

Although he did not invent champagne (it's been fermented in France since the Roman days), Benedictine monk Dom Perignon (1638-1715) perfected it with improved fermentation and aging procedures. Upon first tasting his vastly improved champagne, Perignon is said to have exclaimed, "Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!" The champagne branded Dom Perignon, however, wasn't produced until 1936.

Bubbles (aka when size matters)

Conventional wisdom holds that the smaller the bubbles in sparkling wine, the better the booze. And it's true. Smaller bubbles mean more total bubbles, which help release the wine's flavor in the mouth. But bubble size is only one of many factors in determining champagne quality. The surest gauge? Price.

Adapted from What's the Difference? (HarperCollins), available at leading bookstores. For a daily dose of quirky fun visit and check out mental_floss magazine at your local newsstand.