‘Champagne’ vs. ‘Sparkling’–What Even Is a ‘Blanc de Blancs’, Anyways?

The tinfoil hat is only the beginning.

So, it’s 8:45 on the 31st, you’ve been sent to fetch a bottle of ‘champagne’ for New Years. You’re standing in front of the shelves of the wine shop, wondering why some labels are in Spanish, why some of the bottles proudly proclaim, ‘blanc de blancs’, why are those French ones $15 and those $95?

Well, let’s start with the most basic clarification, and a misconception I run into a huge amount:

All Champagne is white sparkling wine, not all white sparkling wine is Champagne.

In the same way that ‘Kleenex’ has become another term for ’tissue’, Champagne has become the catchall term for white sparkling wine.

This is not actually the case, of course. Champagne is a region in France–in fact, an AOC. Which, in short, means that any wine labelled ‘Champagne’ must come from Champagne, France. You will occasionally see ‘méthode Champenoise’, or ‘méthode champagne’, which is a reference to how the wine itself is made–not where it’s from.

The reason that this distinction is important is that les viogniers Champenoise have–not without reason–capitalized on the region’s reputation, and will charge accordingly. One can find perfectly lovely sparkling wine for mimosas and such at $15. But most people balk a touch at the price of Champagne proper, which generally starts around $40.

Is that price difference worth it? I mean, you’re asking a wine person. I’d say yes, course–if it’s a special occasion, nothing really does fit the bill like bona-fide champagne. We’re playing into the cultural perception of champagne being the ‘proper’ thing to do at a celebration (like the New Year), but the reputation of Champagne as the preeminent sparkling white wine is not wholly undeserved.

Champagne, as a region, draws on hundreds of years of winemaking experience, as well as soil that is ideally suited to, as the Wikipedia article rather eloquently puts it, ‘making wines of a incomparable finesse and lightness’. Chalky and mineral soil absorbs heat and lets it out slowly over the course of the evening, as well as encouraging good drainage. This results in grapes that create sparkling whites that are hard to compete with. Sometimes, when the situation calls for Champagne, there’s simply no substitute.

That is not to say that other regions don’t make good sparkling wines, though.

Other French sparkling whites.

Most regions in France generally have at least one example of a sparkling white–or a sparkling rosé! Some regions even enjoy making sparkling ciders (such as Normandy), which are an essential competent of any fall wedding.

They often can be found to be of comparable quality to the lower half of champagnes, though some of the truly exceptional examples can command similar prices to champagne. Should they be, they will boast of being blanc de blancs or méthode champagne–these are good ways to get ‘something Champagne-ish’ at half the price.

Prosecco.

Perhaps the second-best-known sparkling white wine, prosecco is another AOC, located in the far North of Italy. Surprisingly, it produces sparkling (‘spumante‘), semi-sparkling (‘frizzante‘), and still (‘tranquillo‘) wine. Of course, when someone says ‘prosecco’, one’s mind goes immediately to the fully sparkling version.

In contrast to Mimosas, which generally specify champagne, prosecco is the wine specified in Bellinis. They generally have ‘sharper’ bubbles to better cut through the heavier peach purée.

That’s not to say that it can’t be drunk on its own–and it would make an admirable (and much less expensive!) substitute for champagne at any celebration.

Keep in mind they tend to be just a touch sweeter than champagnes as a whole–but there are exceptions to every rule, as always.

Cava.

The Spanish throwing their hat in the ring, cava originally hails from the Penedès area in Catalonia–though several other regions in Spain make it in much smaller amounts.

To be a true cava, the wine must be made using the méthode champenoise. Interestingly, this led to the wine running afoul of champagne’s AOC–it used to be referred to as ‘Spanish champagne’ before the producers in Champagne made sure that practice stopped. It’s still colloquially referred to as such in Catalonia, however.

Cava also makes use of different grapes than champagne: Macabeu, Perellada, and Xarel-lo are numbered among the key varieties. Incidentally, since those grapes are all white grapes, cava made from them can correctly be labelled blanc de blancs.

It can be either white (BdB or BdN) or rosé–and either dry or semi-sweet. Like its cousin prosecco (and originator champagne) lovely examples can be found at just about any price point.

New World sparkling whites.

Many wine-making regions of California, Washington, as well as some (limited) sections of South America make sparkling whites. Simply because the tradition has not had as much time to develop, they often lack the distinct regional characteristics that their European counterparts have cultivated. That’s not to say there aren’t fabulous examples from those regions–I recently had an excellent sparkling Muscatel from Brazil, of all places–but they lack an identity as distinct as champagne, prosecco, and cava.

Blanc de blancs is white sparkling wine made exclusively from white grapes.

While I stand by the idea that ‘blends are friends’, there is a certain cachet in a varietal wine (for clarification, a ‘varietal wine’ is any wine made from only one type of grape). Some people would argue it gives sparkling wine especially a certain specific clarity and flavor profile only achievable with a pure white wine. It also allows for a slightly higher margin, as the wine is considered a more selective distillation of true white sparkling.

Blanc de blancs is compared with much-less-well-known term blanc de noirs, which, predictably, is a white sparkling wine made with a mix of white grapes and ‘black’ (i.e., red) grapes.

The three primary grapes that make up Blanc de noirs (and the only grapes allowed to be included in true champagne), are chardonnay, pinot meunier, and pinot noir. The two pinots serve to give a champagne (or whatever sparkling white they happen to be in) a softer, ‘plushier’ fell, as well as adding some fruity notes and aromatics.

Should you care? It’s hard to say. If you’re drinking sparkling once a year, I would be hard-pressed to argue that one needs to drink a blanc de blancs. As with many of the distinctions in wine, they’re there for people who often drink exclusively that type of wine. Unless you were to sit down with a blanc de blancs and a blanc de noirs from the same region, and compare notes, there’s not much reason to lose much sleep over it.

Unless someone explicitly specifies blanc de blancs, or really, really hates chardonnay (at which point you’re better off with a sparkling that excludes it entirely), blanc de blancs versus blanc de noirs is not something I’m going to let my decision making affect too too much. It’s nice, I guess, but hardly a deal-breaker.

You can find good sparkling for $15. Good champagne starts at $40. How much is ‘real’ champagne worth to you?

Admittedly, my locale (NYC) may increase these prices a bit, but unless someone clearly states that they want champagne, and isn’t too too picky about their sparkling wine, I would definitely just try to find a solid bottle of sparkling at a more reasonable price point.

If I were going to a fancy party and they asked me to bring a bottle of champagne, I probably wouldn’t skimp out–or I might just get a decent bottle of another French sparkling and sell it a bit. I would argue that there is no situation where champagne proper cannot be substituted for; it’s merely how much you enjoy the specific taste of champagne.

That being said, the New Year is a special occasion (and it will be nice to see the incredibly awful 2017 go), so maybe just grab a step up from your normal Sunday-brunch-sparkling? You can justify spending $25 on a nicer bottle once a year!

Regardless of your sparkling choice, I wish you and yours all the best in the coming year–may it be better than our last!