The champagne problem

I am no wine expert. My understanding is that the way the wine industry talks about champagne (by which I mean sparkling wine from Champagne—forgive my idiosyncratic-but-consistent use of capitalization) is largely at odds with how we employ champagne in mixology. In mixology, the overriding concern is sweetness. In recent times, brut is obviously the most popular, to the extent that some of the non-brut champagnes seem vanishingly rare in the market, and any drink that calls for “champagne” is presumed to be require brut. Grapes, vintages, and other blending and production factors are almost of no concern to drink mixers, even the point where people blithely substitute any not-sweet sparkling wine for actual champagne without giving it a second thought. (These days in NYC that seems to most often be prosecco. Ugh!)

Further complication: it seems that in the 19th Century, maybe even up until our Prohibition, nearly all the champagne exported to the American market was vastly sweeter than even today’s Doux. Wikipedia says as high as 165 g sugar/liter! And that for the domestic French market was even sweeter still. It was all (?) dessert wine, except for the English market, which merely liked it sweet (today’s Doux levels), not saccharine. Where does that leave the Champagne Cocktail, Champagne Cobbler, Champagne Julep, Champagne Sour, Imperial Fizz, Prince of Wales, etc? Were they wildly sweeter drinks, and we make them dryer now, and that’s all there is to it? Or are we maybe missing something? (I question because while Old Tom Gin may essentially be sweetened dry gin, I find that somehow significantly underrates it.)

And how do we feel, today, about the generalizing of champagne? I know it’s nothing new—champagne has always been supply-limited. The stuff is damned expensive. And yet, my impression is that there remains a significant difference between the real stuff and all the ostensible substitutes, despite two hundred years of effort to reproduce it elsewhere, cheaper. If so, why?

If I state that a menu item is a ‘Champagne Cocktail’, then that is what I use. If I can sub in a Cava or other well- curated sparkling in a more complicated or less demanding recipe in order to keep the price and cost in line, I will do so without reservation.
As for the dosage, I figure sugar content declined after prohibition as well and went with what works for the individual cocktail today. In the past, I was lucky enough to have been able to offer demi-sec Champagne BTG and occasionally used that in a specific cocktail or two through the years. Not because that is closer to what the 19th century imbiber was knocking back, but because it was another color on my (very fortunate) palette (and palate).
As for usage, anything that I can do to elevate the offerings from the bottom up is what I do. I go out of my way to offer unique expressions of Prosecco, Cava, Cremant and domestic sparkling wine on my BTG menus. Utilizing these wines that are meant to be enjoyed on their own, in a cocktail recipe, does not lessen the finished cocktail in anyway. I build around and with them. I never list ‘Champagne’ as an ingredient if it’s not.
I know that based on my recent budgets that I had a wider berth than some, but I would hope that if you have a good cocktail program, you care enough not to have something terrible in the sparkling wine slot. Believe it or not, very decent juice can be had at low prices, just not from Champagne. In other words, I use it where it counts the most. Hope that helps.

3 Likes

Feels like pre-1900 sweetness levels of wine in general is a constant issue in the liminal space between the wine/mixology worlds–I don’t feel like I have any good answers there.

However, as someone who sells sparkling wine most days of the week and is constantly helping customers figure out how to parse the confusing world of champagne vs. non-champagne, I do feel like the “generalizing” issue is not as much of a problem as people would make it out to be (or, rather, it is an issue–but we’re focusing on the wrong pieces of the puzzle). The specific terroir of a true champagne, it seems to me, wouldn’t really be clearly identifiable in a cocktail that’s got bitters, gin, or any other spirit-like ingredient swimming around in it.

The more important thing, to my mind, would be that mixologists recognize that anything substituting for champagne in a recipe should also be made in the method champenoise-style (that is, with the secondary fermentation happening in bottle, rather than in a tank). It’s frustrating to me that folks get wound up over the price of champagne, and then go ahead and dump in a prosecco in its place. There are plenty of champenoise-style sparklers out there (cremant de limoux, franciacorta, and even most high-quality cavas are good, affordable examples) that would give you all of the yeasty, autolytic notes of a true champagne, which simply will never be present in a prosecco, or any other cheap sparkling wine made in the tank method. The flavors that develop from the wine being in closer contact with the yeasts during aging in-bottle, to my mind, are the components being lost when champagne is substituted for cheaper sparklers; so it’s really production method that matters more than place.

3 Likes

I agree that the méthode champenoise is essential; the acidity and the yeasty notes it brings keep cocktails or other drinks mixed with it from tasting flabby and cheap. And it’s definitely not snobbism to call for them, since you can get a perfectly acceptable bottle of Gruet Brut for well under $20.

Presumably all those very sweet champagnes still had the balancing acidity and funky yeastiness of champagnes today. I find that in general a sweet + acidic ingredient is much easier to accommodate in a mixed drink than one that is just sweet.

2 Likes

These are wonderfully helpful responses! Thank you, all.

Is it fair to say that any recipe (historical or contemporary) calling for “sparkling wine” implies méthode champenoise, and, if the recipe expects for something else (like prosecco) it’ll say so?

Idk if it’s “fair” but in my opinion no recipe would be harmed by that assumption. :slight_smile:

1 Like

I’m pretty sure it’s fair to assume a contemporary recipe that doesn’t specify the type of sparkling wine is not a good recipe.

1 Like

So far, it seems this is where we’re headed:

  • when wine people talk about Champagne (big C), they’re usually talking about the region of France and its wines that share the same name
  • when mixologists talk about champagne (little C), they’re talking about sparkling wines that are created using the méthode champenoise, a.k.a. méthode traditionnelle/traditional method, a.k.a. classic method/méthode classique, that employs secondary bottle fermentation to produce a yeasty, acidic sparkling wine, whether from Champagne or elsewhere; ‘champagne’ in this context is shorthand for all that, even if it irritates wine people (too bad, so sad)
  • within champagne (little C), mixologists have to identify and select product that best meets their requirements and taste, with sweetness (residual sugar) usually being the most significant variable; most (not all) ‘champagne’ products are already imitating the Brut style of Champagne (big C) and have very low sweetness levels
  • several other approaches exist for producing sparkling wines, but whatever their redeeming characteristics, they generally do not produce a suitable substitute for ‘champagne’ (little C)—exceptions may exists

About right?