Okay, let’s be clear: sparkling wine can be any old fizz, but Champagne is always a particular sparkling wine made in a certain way and that can come only from the legally-delimited Champagne region of northern France. (Now, that should keep the Champagne lawyers happy.)
How it’s made
Surprisingly for a wine that’s primarily light and white, champagne is made mostly from red varieties Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, which are blended with white Chardonnay. This is the standard ‘recipe’ for bubbly wine that is much emulated across the world. The effervescence results from an in-bottle secondary fermentation that is provoked by the addition of sugar and yeast – carbon dioxide being a by-product of fermentation.
Champagne’s most important category is the unpromisingly-named ‘non-vintage’ (NV), comprising 80% of output and based largely on grapes from a single year but including about a fifth of ‘reserve wine’ from past harvests. Offshoot styles include ‘vintage’ (the product of just one year), ‘prestige’ (producer’s most extravagant product), ultra-crisp ‘Blanc de Blancs’ (Chardonnay only), full-bodied ‘Blanc de Noirs’ (dark grapes only), rosé (pink) and (rare) sweet Champagne.
Why can’t it be cheaper?
Champagne is destined to forever be pricey, sadly: grape prices in the region are higher than anywhere else in the world; the production method is laborious and expensive; and the supply is limited (although there is talk of expanding the appellation) even while demand is growing as the world (especially east Asia) gets wealthier. Very cheap Champagnes (which will still be €20+ here in Ireland – thanks, tax!) are invariably coarse and acidic as they come from grapes grown on the least suitable land in Champagne, which are vigorously pressed (not good!) to extract as much juice as possible, and the ageing period isn’t nearly long enough to make the end wine enjoyable. Better to buy expensive Prosecco or Cava than cheap Champagne!