Champagne is Back!

After a huge falloff during the pandemic, France’s prestigious sparkler is on the rise, again

While statistics on wine consumption last year are still being tabulated, the folks in France who calculate Champagne shipments got an early start this year by announcing a leap of 32-percent, according to Market Watch, to 322 million bottles in 2021. This is significant for France’s iconic sparkling wine because it signals a rebound after an 18% decline in 2020, a dip attributed to the market suffering a shock during the initial phase of the pandemic. 

Another fascinating figure, released by the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC), was that domestic Champagne shipments within France increased 25-percent to 142 million bottles, while another 180 million bottles were exported – a new record. How much of that was shipped to the US has not been disclosed yet, but what’s clear is that the French consumed the lion’s share of the 322 million bottles shipped last year. 

I find this all of this interesting because I’ve been hosting a lot of virtual wine tastings during the pandemic — over 400, and counting — as many companies choose to entertain their clients at home rather than risk inviting them into crowded rooms. While I’ve hosted all sorts of themes from “Around the World in Four Bottles” to “Cognac and Chocolate: Yes You Can!,” one of my favorites is “Champagne vs. Prosecco.” 

At the outset, let me assure you that neither Champagne nor Prosecco are my “go-to” beverages of choice, as much as I like both categories very much. Why I like talking about this during a tasting is because it’s honestly fascinating. Describing the massive differences between two of America’s favorite sparkling wine styles is exciting to me because in doing so, I blow a lot of minds. To put it one way, the only thing that Champagne and Prosecco have in common is that they are sparkling. From there, the differences are vast and mind-blowing. And yet, most people will call anything that sparkles “Champagne,” when in reality, what’s being handed to them at parties and weddings is likely more often Prosecco. While that has everything to do with economics, I prefer to focus on the differences.

“… the only thing that Champagne and Prosecco have in common is that they are sparkling.'”

To make a sparkling wine takes two fermentations: one to turn the grape juice into or still wine without bubbles, and a then another one to turn the still wine into a sparkling one. It’s that second fermentation that’s the tricky one, which is started by adding yeasts and sugar to the still wine, which are converted into carbon dioxide (CO2) — aka the bubbles. If fermentation takes place in an open container (i.e. a wine barrel), the carbon dioxide escapes. However, if it takes place in a closed container, the CO2 becomes trapped in the wine in the form of bubbles. This is where cost comes into play: produce the second fermentation in a tank or in a bottle.

“… the wine label may only be bear the word ‘Champagne’ if it’s made in the Champagne region..'”

The quickest, easiest (and less expensive) way is to produce the second fermentation in large, closed, pressurized tanks called Autoclaves. This method is called the bulk method or Charmat method. The whole process can take just a few weeks. And the grapes used can be far less expensive than those used to make Champagne (i.e. Pinot Noir, Pinot Munier and Chardonnay). This is how America’s current favorite bubbly, Prosecco, is made.

The more traditional method of producing sparkling wines is to conduct the second fermentation in each individual bottle. This massively difficult technique is called the classic or traditional method (though sometimes you might see Champagne method or méthode champenoise.) This is how Champagne has been made for over three centuries, and the wine label may only be bear the word “Champagne” if it’s made in the Champagne region. All other French sparkling wines made using the same process must use the term crémant instead of Champagne. This process is so much more painstaking and costly because every single bottle is its own individual fermentation tank. And then there’s the aging process, which in Champagne requires a minimum of 15 months, but usually takes three years or more. 

Ultimately, the two different methods produce sparkling wines with completely different tastes. Tank-fermented sparklers tend to be fruitier than traditional-method sparkling wines. Bottle fermentation makes wines that tend to be less fruity, with more developed flavors of yeastiness (think biscuit aromas) and creaminess. Which style is the right one for your celebration depends entirely on your mood, budget and menu. The possibilities are endless, so you might even pour both styles for fun comparisons, which is exactly what I’ve been doing during many of these fun virtual tastings.