(Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post; food styling by Kara Elder/The Washington Post)
Columnist, Food

Last of a two-part series on sparkling wines

Champagne is the ne plus ultra of sparkling wine.

That statement, from my column last week, packs a lot of meaning — even beyond the pretension of using a French expression to say champagne is da bomb. So let’s unwrap it.

Perhaps it is stating the obvious, but it bears repeating: Not all sparkling wine is champagne. Properly used, the name refers to sparkling wine from the Champagne region in northern France, an hour or two’s drive from Paris. The region smacks of history. Chalk quarries that yielded stone for the Roman Empire’s northern fortifications are today the cellars where top champagnes are aged. France’s kings and queens were crowned in the cathedral at Reims. Some of the fiercest fighting in World War I occurred here, and there are still occasional reports of people discovering wines that were hidden from Nazi occupiers during World War II.

And did I mention that those wines are darned good? Oh yeah, I guess I did.

From the late 19th century with Belle Epoque, champagne producers were so successful in marketing their wine as the symbol of luxury and celebration, that even today we equate any bubbly vino with champagne. CIVC, the association of champagne producers, has been very zealous — often too much so — in protecting the image and insisting that the name only apply to the wines of the region. And yet, we persist in equating all bubbles with champagne. To be honest, if you welcome me to your house with a glass of champagne and I later see the label and realize it’s something else, I won’t think any less of you. I will still thank you for your hospitality.

Yet the distinction in terms is important. By calling all sparkling wine “champagne” we not only insult champagne but we also do a disservice to Spanish cava, Italian prosecco and bubblies from California and elsewhere. These are wines in their own right that should be recognized and appreciated for what they are. They should not be lumped together with champagne, or held up to its standards.

Champagne is wine first, bubbles second. This is a point many champagne producers have emphasized in recent years, but it hasn’t always been so. Doug Rosen, co-owner of Arrowine & Cheese in Arlington recalls visiting a young champagne producer named Cédric Bouchard in 2005 as he was scouting new talent to feature at his store. Bouchard’s father was skeptical of his son’s winemaking, which included low yields and minimal intervention in the nascent movement of natural wines. “Champagne is about the bubbles,” Bouchard père huffed.

“No, it’s not,” Rosen recalls replying. “It’s about great wine, with bubbles.” Rosen featured the wine, and today, the younger Bouchard’s Roses de Jeanne label is highly sought after by fans of boutique “grower” champagnes, wines made by the vintners who grew the grapes. These are still rare in champagne, where the market is dominated by large houses that purchase most of their grapes.

When we think of champagne as wine first and bubbles second, we can move beyond the celebratory toast and, budget allowing, put a bottle on the dinner table. A good champagne has depth and complexity to match dishes such as roast poultry and fish. As I’m fond of saying, “Bubbles go with everything.” That’s even more true with champagne. Champers’ fiends love it with anything salty, even popcorn.

“Champagne is incredibly food-friendly, which most people don’t realize,” says Alison Smith Marriott, founder of Bon Vivant DC, a wine education consultancy focused on champagne. “It’s often treated as an aperitif or something for caviar, but its high acidity and diversity of styles work with many cuisines. I’ve paired champagne with everything from seafood to fried chicken — even steak,” Marriott says.

“My little brother loves junk food, as well as great wine, so last time he visited I served Pol Roger with pork rinds,” she added. “The pairing doesn’t have to be precious to be exceptional.”