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Champagne? No Tanks


The American consumer should be told how the bubbles got into a bottle of sparkling wine, a federal agency has decided, ending a bitter three-year battle between bulk sparkling winemakers and those who make sparkling wine by a more costly, time-consuming method.

The ruling by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was viewed by both sides as Solomon-like: Each side gained something, but neither got what it really wanted.

The dispute arose when a group of bulk sparkling wine producers, led by E & J Gallo Winery of Modesto, asked BATF to eliminate the requirement that the process be named on the label, arguing that it was immaterial to consumers.

Opposing that view was a coalition of forces including the National Assn. of Beverage Importers, many premium California wineries that produce sparkling wine by the classic method and Classic Methods/Classic Varieties, a marketing group that represents many foreign-owned California producers which use the classic French methode champenoise.

The French method calls for placing still wine in a bottle, adding additional sugar and yeast, sealing the bottle with a steel cap and allowing the second fermentation to complete in the same bottle in which the wine eventually reaches the consumer. (At one time, such wine was routinely labeled as "Fermented in this bottle.")

Bulk sparkling wine is made by putting still wine in a large tank, adding yeast and sugar, sealing the tank and allowing the second fermentation to complete in the tank, before bottling. The bulk producers claimed this method (sometimes called Charmat, after its inventor, Eugene Charmat) was no different from the methode champenoise , since the tank was, in effect, just a big bottle. If the fermenting method had to be spelled out, they proposed that the phrase "Charmat Method" stand alone on the label, without the word bulk , which they said was demeaning.

Those who use the more costly and time-consuming methode champenoise said the process was critical to understanding the product.

The new ruling says that sparkling wine that gets its bubbles from a second fermentation in a tank (the Charmat method) need not carry the phrase "bulk process" on its label. But if that phrase isn't used, the label must include one of the following statements: "secondary fermentation outside the bottle," "secondary fermentation before bottling," "not fermented in the bottle" or "not bottle-fermented."

Both sides hailed the ruling as a victory for their side. And both still had grievances.

The Gallo winery said, "The new Champagne labeling regulations . . . represent a significant, but partial reform of an area long in need of overhaul."

Robert Maxwell, president of NABI, said he was "pleased that the federal government has once again recognized a critical principle, that there is a difference between methode champenoise and bulk-produced sparkling wine."

Wine of the Week

1992 Davis-Bynum Fume Blanc ($8.50) --Made from grapes that just five months ago were growing in California's cool Russian River Valley. Bynum sold out of the 1991 so quickly that this wine was released earlier than usual. I recommend that you try this wine as soon as possible, to see what a really young Sauvignon Blanc tastes like, and then monitor it for a year to see how it ages. Right now the wine still shows youthful aromas of grapefruit rind and underripe pears. These will recede over time, and I expect melon and spice will creep into the wine within six months. After that it will smooth out and become creamier and more complex.

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