I am sitting here with a glass of Sangiovese di Romagna – Fattorri Zerbina's Torre di Ceparano to be exact, more on that in a second – listening to Nina Simone and thinking about Champagne.
Sangiovese di Romagna is, for better or worse, a very typical DOC in Italy in that the quality of the wines is famously uneven. Zerbina's wines are excellent and reliably good if a little bit too international in style for my taste but they are another arrow in the quiver for the old saw that in Italy you need to know the producer above all. There are many reasons for the variability in quality within Italy's many DOCs but I believe a key element is the propensity to allow the defined geographical zones to sprawl out over both choice and secondary vineyard sites. This has much to do with the Italy placing more emphasis on typicity than on quality – at least in the structure of her wine laws. In a zone like Sangiovese di Romagna it means that both heroes and goats get to use the designation because, well, because this is the area that produced this wine from these grapes. Really, who are we to argue?
In France it would be different. There would be communes and subzones written into the DOC structure so we would have the equivalent of Sangiovese di Romagna Forlì or Sangiovese di Romagna Bologna sitting underneath Sangiovese di Romagna Ordinaire. The French system bestows quality on its smallest zones that exist within larger areas and thus is supposedly a better indicator of quality. Maybe, the way I see it is the Italian system says to their producers that if you want to rise above the noise than by all means, go to it. The French system bestows greatness, asks you to find fault, and perhaps punishes those producers foolish enough to produce on the wrong side of a line.
Which brings us to Champagne; I don't think it is a stretch to say that Champagne is one of the world's great wines. A fiercely defended appellation with a long history of production, Champagne sales have been on an upward swing for some time keeping prices high. Not a bad problem to have you might think, except from the producers' standpoint the tightly defined rules of the Appellation essentially put a cap on how much wine can be made and sold. The options are twofold, keep raising prices to balance demand or increase the amount of wine that can be made. In a very Italian move the latter choice was made; welcome the new communes of Champagne.
I am here to neither praise nor bury this turn of events, simply to note the expansion and perhaps chuckle just a little. Not having dropped soil sample rods and conducted a battery of tests on the newly included vineyard sites I can't really say if this is good or bad news, if the vineyards have always deserved inclusion in the appellation or if this is simply a craven money grab. I can say, however, that Champagne production just got a little more Italian and the Grand Marques are going to have to defend their positions with a little bit more vigor and just perhaps the spell that was Champagne has been broken. Welcome to Champagne DOC.
Robert Scibelli is a lecturer and administrator at New York's premier wine school, International Wine Center.