So you’re in England, or Tasmania, or Trentino, or Patagonia. Your dream – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Traditional Method. “Ah!”, your friends say. “You’re going to make Champagne!”
No, you say. It will be different from Champagne. The vineyard site is different. The soil is different. Yes, the grape varieties and the method are the same, but the wine won’t be. You’ll see.
Eight years later you have the first bottle. You pour it for your friends. “I like this more than champagne!”, they say. You get a gold medal in a competition. A notable Grande Marque NV receives a Silver. Your marketing guys decide this is a worth hammering home – “Better than xyz Brut Réserve, say the judges!” appears on your social media, on a poster in your tasting room, in the local press. You are being compared to champagne all the time. You find this annoying. Why do people do this?
There is something cringeworthy about watching a brand ambassador claim that their climate is actually superior to that of Champagne for sparkling wine (as I saw from a Northern Italian producer earlier this year), or that xyz estate has the edge over Champagne as they grow all their own grapes (a cynic might point out that they then have to use them). Then there’s the king of the cringey taste-offs – the English Sparkling Wine vs Champagne showdown! This kind of sales-orientated Champagne comparison is usually banal, over-generalised and gappier than an empty pupitre. There is no one Champagne, after all; it’s mind-bendingly varied, reaching at extremes of site and vintage towards both warmer- and cooler-climate wines.
The truth is that all Tradional Method wines come back to Champagne. It’s not worth pretending we can sever the link – we can’t. The more we assert our independence over our parents, the more we (begrudgingly) end up learning the same lessons. It’s no coincidence that English Sparkling Wine Producers, for example, often end up Champagne-ising when they want to push quality: wider grape sourcing, non-vintage production, reserve wine usage, specialised presses. Champagne represents culture, craft, tried-and-tested methodology; you can try and solve the puzzles yourself, but you’ll probably come up with similar answers.
These answers point to us keeping open boundaries in the way we taste. Knowledge reflects both ways, and we can learn a great deal about Champagne by getting to know the relatives. Putting these next to classic wines, shaped by hundreds of slowly-improving iterations, proves fascinating not for the purposes of finding champagne-beaters, but for hunting down what is (and what isn’t) unique about both. Getting to the heart of any wine means trying to understand elements of style that can transcend regionality, and fundaments that can’t.
Next year, your friend returns from France, holding a bottle. “I’ve found a champagne I really love!”, they say. The blend is the same as yours. The oak regime is almost identical, as is the time on lees, the texture. The shape is different, the acidity a bit finer, the fruit a shade paler. The two are hardly worlds apart, though. You should be disappointed – you thought your wine wasn’t like champagne at all.
Deep down, though, you feel the warm glow of satisfaction.