A stickler about champagne

From left: Terra Andina Chardonnay, Durbanville Hills Savignon Blanc, Junior by Mitolo Cabernet, Barolo Cantina. (Photo: Chris Mikula)

Every year, between mid-December and early-January, I’m faced with this dilemma half a dozen times: someone says something like, “Let’s have a glass of champagne,” and then pours me a glass of sparkling wine that isn’t champagne.

Champagne is made only in the Champagne region, only from permitted grape varieties, and only by the “Champagne Method” (which involves a second fermentation in the bottle, among other processes).

A sparkling wine made anywhere else — even if it’s made from the right grapes and using the same method — can’t be called champagne. If it’s made in the same way as champagne, it can’t even be labelled “Champagne Method.” Instead, producers use terms like “Traditional Method” and “Classic Method.” That’s how tightly the producers of Champagne protect their brand.

So here’s the dilemma, when I’m offered a glass of sparkling wine that’s not champagne, but offered as champagne, should I let it go, or say that it’s not champagne? It sounds a bit impolite, doesn’t it? All I want to do is point out that champagne is one thing and sparkling wines something else. I’m not saying that my host is cheap or has poor taste; some sparkling wines are more expensive than some champagnes, and in many cases they’re as good or better in quality.

I know it’s a First World problem, but it does touch on a subject that’s important in the wine world, and that’s correct attribution.

Because of the widespread confusion, the Champagne Bureau has been running a smart campaign in the U.S., telling consumers that being offered “champagne” made somewhere in the U.S. is like being offered Maine lobsters from Kansas.

Overall, wine producers have complied with rules protecting names.

“Port” has largely disappeared from labels of fortified wine not made in the Douro Valley of Portugal, and “sherry” is pretty much limited to the wines of Jerez, Spain. And you won’t find many wines labelled “burgundy” if they’re made outside Bourgogne, or “clarets” made outside Bordeaux.

All this is good, even if it has made producers scramble to find new names, like “Starboard” for port-style wine and “Meritage” to denote a wine made from the grape varieties allowed in Bordeaux.

The dilemma I face with “champagne” is the same I would face if I were offered a glass of Ontario pinot noir and it was described as “a glass of burgundy,” or a glass of Chilean late-harvest wine described as a “sauternes.” To correct it might be accurate, but it sounds snobby.

Anyway, keep this in mind when Valentine’s Day rolls around.

You see a lot of restaurants offering special dinners for lovers, including “a glass of champagne.” When you’re reserving a table, ask if it really is champagne they’re going to serve.

Terra Andina Chardonnay 2010

From Chile’s Central Valley, this is a straightforward, good-value chardonnay that goes well with white fish, pork, and poultry. The flavours are fresh and bright, the acidity is clean, and the balance is right. 13.5-per-cent alcohol; $9.95 (234443)

Durbanville Hills Sauvignon Blanc 2011

This South African sauvignon delivers quality and value. It’s a crisp and juicy white with vibrant flavours, and it goes very well with grilled white fish (or fish and chips), seafood and moderately spiced curries. 13.5-per-cent alcohol; $11.95 (22251)

Mitolo ‘Junior’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2011

This cabernet, from South Australia’s McLaren Vale region, shows lovely fruit that’s concentrated and defined. The fruit-acid balance is very good and the tannins are sweet. Try it with red meats and hearty stews. 14.8-per-cent alcohol; $16.90 (292441)

Terre del Barolo Barolo 2007

As you’d expect, this is a big red, with deep and robust flavours. Fresh acidity keeps the weight in check, and the tannins have softened in five years. Enjoy it with hearty red meat dishes like braised short ribs or osso bucco. 14-per-cent alcohol; $23.90 (264333)

Email Rod Phillips at rod@rodphillipsonwine.com. Join him online Thursdays, 2 to 3 p.m. at ottawacitizen.com/winechat, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/rodphillipswine

Connect with Rod Phillips |@rodphillipswine|rod@rodphillipsonwine.com