Christian Huot, for years the wine steward at the Fifth Grill in Toronto, emailed me with a growing concern: "It's time we stop using 'Champagne' for every wine with bubbles in it."
Real champagne, he points out, comes only from the Champagne region, a 9,600-square-mile area 75 miles northeast of Paris, whose chilly climate and chalky soil produce what many call the finest, most elegant wine on the planet. Often $100 a bottle or more.
Yet you can walk into any U.S. supermarket today and find the name "champagne" plastered on bottles of extra-modest bubbly selling for as little as $7.
It's like gluing a Lamborghini medallion onto a Yugo (sorry Yugo -- nothing personal).
And it's not just champagne. It harks back to the bad old days (which aren't entirely over) in which restaurant wine lists sometimes offered only "Burgundy, Blush or Chablis"). This usually was stuff in gallon jugs. The "Burgundy" had never been within 5,000 miles of the Burgundy region of France. The "Chablis" wasn't from the same grape as the wines of France's Chablis region. And the "Blush" -- as I've punned a thousand times -- had every reason to.
Such name rip-offs have been illegal in France since 1891. The ban was even reaffirmed in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I. Today, champagne's name is protected in Europe by a law called the "Protected Designation of Origin." The United States now accepts this rule, but grandfathers in wineries that started calling themselves "champagnes" before the current law was passed.
Years ago I met with a group of Chablis producers touring the United States and pleading with wine fans to help stop the misappropriation of their good name. Real Chablis is steely, august, minerally, often expensive wine made of the chardonnay grape in the Chablis region just south of Champagne. Burgundy, of pinot noir grapes, comes from the area of that name south of Chablis.
So if you want to stop "feeling incorrect" as Miss Manners would put it, here's how the world of bubbly works.
"Champagne" comes only from France's Champagne region. They don't even use that name in the rest of France. There, bubblies are called "vin petillant," "vin mousseux," "vin cremant" and other names, often translated as "sparkling wine" on bottles sent to English-speaking countries.
The "Domaine le Capitaine Sparkling Vouvray," for example, is an excellent bubbly made of the chenin blanc grape in Vouvray, in France's Loire Valley south of Paris. It makes no mention of the word "champagne."
In Italy, sparkling wine is "spumante." The well-known Asti Spumante is a sweet, sparkling dessert wine from the moscato grape. Chardonnay-based bubblies from the Franciacorta area in Italy's Lombardy region are often called "sparkling wines" on U.S.-bound bottles -- as in the crisp, minerally $15 "Quatro Mani Franciacorta Sparkling Wine." Prosecco, the inexpensive bubbly now soaring in popularity, made near Venice of a grape called "glera," also is often labeled "sparkling wine."
In the United States, the French argue that any bubbly made locally should be called a "sparkling wine." J Winery, for example, clearly calls its crisp, tangerine-and-citrus flavored $32 rose a "sparkling wine."
But a handful of California wineries continue to call their bubblies "champagne."
Huot, the wine steward, doesn't criticize consumers for calling sparkling wines "champagne." They're not expected to be wine experts, he says.
But he raps "professionals, writers, sommeliers, wine agents and people who sell wine in shops" -- who should know better. "Don't lie to me, do not false advertise in order to make money," he says.
You go, Christian. Let's call bubblies what they are.
This is not wine snobbery, by the way. If you believe Bud Light is the finest beverage on earth, how would you feel if its name was co-opted by, say, Pabst?
(Sorry Pabst. Nothing personal.)