[Credit: Eric Lim Photography]

“Champagne only comes from Champagne.” This is a truism in the world of wine as well as a recent quote from Sam Heitner, director of the U.S. Champagne Bureau in response to the release of President Obama’s Inauguration menu featuring “Korbel Natural, Special Inaugural Cuvée Champagne, California.” For a couple of reasons, this raised eyebrows, if not hackles, in the wine world. 


Due to a 2006 legal agreement between France, the European Union, and the United States, American winemakers were prohibited from naming their wines with the geographic indicator “Champagne.” Only a few American companies were grandfathered in and allowed to keep the word Champagne on their labels. Even then, its use is allowed only if the state of origin is listed before the word Champagne, as on the Korbel label which reads: “Russian River Valley Natural Champagne.”


But in this use of the term “Champagne,” there are none of the requirements for specific methods, aging and grape production and handling that have led to the classic flavor of the sparkling wine from the Champagne region. 


This is very important legislation for the French, and in particular, the Champagne region of France. It has been repeatedly codified into law in 1891 at the Treaty of Madrid, in 1919 at the Treaty of Versailles and then most recently in 2006. Individual states and wine regions throughout the US have passed their own binding legislation trying to prevent the misuse of the proprietary term, Champagne.


Korbel is one of the few American sparkling wines allowed the use of the term, but as Dr. Vino (aka Tyler Colman) put it “(Korbel)…is not representative of the exciting things happening in California wine today.” This opinion seems to be held by many, though not all, in the wine world. For a response, look at this recent Decanter article, particularly in the attached comments. For alternative sparkling wine selections from America, a look at the comments on either of these articles provide a selection of more exciting candidates, all of them proudly labeled sparkling wine. One argument on behalf of Korbel is that the winemaker has been the selection of the Inaugural committee eight times in the past.


The fuss over the typo on the posted menu and the selection of Korbel really doesn’t amount to much more than a furor in the flute glass. This has been an opportunity to get a few organizations some news coverage and a chance to share their point of view. This Champagne blunder will be fixed in the official, printed version of the menu. As Tom Wark from Fermentation explains, this minor error, since corrected in the menu, provided an opportunity to gain the French Champagne industry some publicity and a little light-hearted French bashing as reported by Wine Spectator


As Inaugural Committee spokesman Matt House says in this article by The Week "The Champagne Lobby should have a glass of their own product and relax." I think that this is good advice for all of us.


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