A rosé by any other name wouldn’t taste as sweet. For centuries, winegrowers in a pocket of north eastern France–just 145 km from Paris–have embedded their rich soils with grape varieties that cannot be grown the same way anywhere else in the world.
But the grapes aren’t what is important. According to the Bureau du Champagne, USA, which is the American representative of the Comité Champagne, “the United States is one of the last countries in the world to not reserve the Champagne name exclusively for wines from Champagne.” For many, it’s a disgrace to a nation, its people, and its history.
Meryl Muldoon is one of Champagne’s biggest supporters. A Wisconsin native, Muldoon moved to Chicago two years ago to work as a Champagne specialist for Moët Hennessy USA. Her job involves education, advocacy, and branding through the creation of unique food and Champagne pairings.
Muldoon says the French are responsible for the advancement and perfection of Champagne. The Champagne we know and love today is because of a series of tiny improvements made by the French along the way; they chose English glass that was fired by coal for their bottles, corks instead of wet rags, and created the concept of Champagne’s wire caging.
But what it means to bear the name Champagne is about more than scientific advancements. It’s also about history.
“I was in a little grocery store in Fallbrook, California, and there was this $8 California sparkling that had the word ‘champagne’ on it,” she says. “And for me, it’s frustrating because it perpetuates the idea that sparkling wine is one thing. They’re not giving the Champanois credit for hundreds of years of history and to trial and error.”
Today, this history continues to run rampant in the cities of Reims and Épernay, which are home to an abundance of Champagne houses with various capacities. Thirty eight meters below the French soil are cellars whose musty smell comes from their chalk-lined walls, which extend for an average of 8 km. The oldest of these cellars belong to the Maison Ruinart and date back to 1729. Ruinart’s chalk pits have a constant temperature of 11 degrees Celsius with a high humidity rate and low lighting. This creates the ideal environment that Ruinart’s entrepreneurs have desired since its beginning.
Founded by Nicolas Ruinart, it is the oldest Champagne house in the world. Ruinart was created following an edict under Louis XV in 1728, which authorized the transportation of wine bottles. Prior to this, wine could only be sold in casks, which were too large to maintain the sparkling sensation of Champagne. Ruinart sold 170 bottles of Champagne in 1730, but by 1789 that number had increased to 65,000 bottles.
Since then, Ruinart has become a prestigious name in the champagne industry. It attracts visitors from around the world and exports 35 percent of its production to foreign countries.
But the serenity and beauty that is echoed in the caves today masks their troubled past. From 1940 till 1944 France was under Nazi control. Governmental takeover by Germany also meant a takeover of the Champagne houses.
During World War II, the city of Reims was not bombed, but the region was quickly invaded. Mylène Gastard who is a guide at Ruinart says that Champagne was greatly desired by the German soldiers.
“The Germans, they didn’t destroy anything, but they really liked the Champagne,” Gastard says. “They didn’t steal much, but they fixed the bottom price so they could buy a lot of bottles of champagne at a very low price, and the houses of champagne were obliged to sell at that fixed price.”
A few houses were able to save some of their production by building walls to hide the bottles. But Ruinart’s caves were listed on the historic register since 1931, so the house could not make any changes without the Germans noticing.
“Ruinart sold all of its champagne during the second world war,” Gastard says. “That’s a pity because our house, being the oldest house of Champagne, we would like to have much older Champagne. But that’s all we have.”
Its oldest bottle might only be 50 years old, but the traditions and practices that Ruinart was established on are still maintained today. All of the production is done on Ruinart’s property, and they are able to produce 3 million bottles of Champagne per year. But their main goal isn’t to become the largest producer if it means sacrificing their traditions.
“Our aim is to provide a fine Champagne,” Gastard said. “We are not going to change the taste of our Champagne just to make it easier [to produce].”
Ruinart’s philosophy of quality over quantity is in line with the Bureau du Champagne’s emphasis on the exclusivity of sparkling wine from the Champagne region. Legal restrictions in France for creating this iconic beverage are stronger than anywhere else in the world. These laws include the use of just three authorized grapes–Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier–short pruned vines, limitations on juice extraction, minimum annual required alcohol levels and a minimum 15 months storage process of bottled wines prior to shipping.
For Champagne specialists such as Muldoon, this knowledge of history and legislation makes working in the country with less legal restrictions such as the U.S. a unique task to navigate.
“The minimum age of a vintage is 12 months plus an additional three months under cork,” Muldoon says. “Our brands–even Moet Imperial and Clicquot nonvintage–they spend two years, [every single bottle] spends two years, aging. And I guarantee that a California bottle does not follow those same regulations.”
Although U.S. restrictions on bubbly has increased in recent years, loopholes exist that allow sparkling wine from other areas of the world to be classified as Champagne. But perhaps worse, is that the loopholes also allow for genuine Champagne to be devalued and sectioned instead as sparkling wine.
But the real problem expands beyond the legal realm. The U.S. ranks in fourth place for the largest countries which Champagne is exported to, and Muldoon says the reasoning behind this ranking is cultural.
“The average American drinks ⅓ of a glass of Champagne in a year,” she says. “What does that tell you? It’s like a little celebratory toast at a wedding or it’s New Years. It’s totally cultural.”
In other countries, such as Italy and Japan, Champagne is being recognized for its properties and its potential in food pairings. But the U.S. has crafted a different image. “With Champagne, you have a specialized flute, and it’s considered expensive,” Muldoon says. “Yes, it’s a celebratory item. This is a libation that can be consumed on special occasions. But what I believe, and what many people I’ve come across in the culinary scene here [believe], is truly that Champagne is one of the most versatile food-pairing wines. And you have to celebrate every day. Every day really is a celebration. I don’t care if it’s a Tuesday afternoon, and you’ve had a bad day at work. Have a glass of Champagne.”
She says that Champagne specialists and chefs in America are tasked with changing the perceptions of the American consumer. “It’s a pretty daunting task,” she says. “It’s not gonna happen overnight. But you know, that’s kind of what we’re here to do little by little. It’s one Champagne and food pairing at a time.”
In order for Champagne and the Champanois to gain their respect in the U.S. legally, they must first change the American ideas of the beverage. The most important way to do that is through education and food experiences, Muldoon says.
“Champagne is about more than just the flavor profile,” she says. “It’s not just about the texture of Champagne being good with things. Yes, the acidity of Champagne can cut through the fat of a fried chicken, whatever. So there is that straight-on flavor profile of the wine that is great with food. But an experiential form of it that you can have every day. You might not be able to purchase yourself a fur coat, but you can maybe purchase yourself a glass of champagne. It just enhances the experience overall. So approachable luxury, affordable luxury.”
Muldoon spends her time hosting various events throughout the Chicago area to educate locals on the versatility of Champagne. She believes that education is key in the process of bringing the U.S. up the standards of many advanced countries who are more knowledgeable about Champagne.
“It’s not just about educating the consumer, it’s also about educating the staff members of every restaurant that pours champagne,” she says. “It’s about creating ambassadors every single day in different atmospheres and getting Champagne in front of people. It’s demystifying it because it’s for everybody and for every meal.”