Korbel Champagne | A Controversial California Champagne

Korbel Champagne | A Controversial California Champagne | Trader Joe’s Wine

Korbel Champagne

Made famous by it’s controversial yet wildly successful Korbel Champagne, the Korbel Winery in California’s Russian River Valley was founded in 1882 by the Czechoslovakian Korbel brothers: Francis, Joseph and Anton.

The producers of Korbel Champagne sold their winery in 1954 to Adolph Heck and then in 1974 Adolph’s son Gary took over the winery. While in charge at Korbel, Gary succeeded in increasing production of the now ubiquitous Korbel Champagne from an already healthy 150,000 cases per year to today’s impressive level of 1.3 million cases per year.

Today, by volume, Korbel Champagne is the most popular sparkling wine produced in the United States using the traditional ‘méthode champenoise’ method. The incredible success and popularly of Korbel Champagne surely only adds to the frustration of the French officials and Champagne producers in Champagne, France. What’s the rub? Korbel has insisted on marketing themselves as Champagne when in actuality it is merely a California sparkling wine.

They have continued to capitalize on the highly-recognized Champagne brand while most other U.S. producers have ceased to do so. Check out this these advertisements I found in this Adweek article about the controversy between Korbel and French officials looking to protect the use of the valuable Champagne name. The first ad was released by Korbel in 1988 and the following is one released by French officials looking to educate consumers about what Champagne really means.

Korbel Champagne

Borrowed from Adweek.com

In 1919 the Treaty of Versailles was signed and in it were limits on the use of the word Champagne. But Korbel Champagne had been in production long before, as early as 1882. This history would prove quite beneficial to the continued success of the Korbel Winery and it’s controversial Korbel Champagne.

As Adweek explains, ” Everything finally came to a head in 1996, when the international Agreement of Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights finally restricted wine brands in the U.S. and Europe from the indiscriminate use of regional names.”  But an article of this agreement included an exception for those wineries that were already marketing themselves as Champagne.

This meant that the Korbel Winery was officially grandfathered in and could continue to capitalize on the Champagne name in it’s marketing. Another trade agreement decision is made in 2005 which required Korbel to precede Champagne with California in it’s labeling and marketing efforts, making it California Champagne. So how does Korbel Champagne, or California Champagne, actually taste?

Korbel Champagne

Appearance: A light golden-yellow with medium sized bubbles.

Nose: Fresh honeysuckle and sweet orchard fruits, namely green apple and pear.

On the palate: The Korbel Champagne is bright and lively on the palate with a good medium body. It offers uncomplicated notes of honeyed ginger, spice, lime and orchard fruits. The slightly sweet core is nicely balanced by zesty acidity.

Varietal Composition: Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, French Colombard and Pinot Noir

Dosage (Sugar Content): 1% by volume.

Vintage: Non-Vintage

Origin: California

Value Rating:  3.75 / 5

Where I got it: Trader Joe’s (Clarendon, VA)

Price: $11.99 (It’s only $9.89 in the Costco Wine Section)

Score: 86

Should you buy? If you like your sparkling wine with a bit of sweetness then the Korbel Champagne is a decent option, but make no mistake that this California Champagne isn’t to be confused with real Champagne! There are better values (such as Cava) in the Trader Joe’s Wine Section.

Korbel Champagne

Value Proposition – Korbel Champagne | Trader Joe’s Wine

Not to my surprise, the Korbel Champagne doesn’t taste much like a real Champagne from France. Having said that it isn’t a bad sparkler, just not the most complicated and with a bit more sweetness than I personally prefer.

I’d feel much better about supporting the Korbel Winery if they were more clear in their advertising. Even today the Korbel Champagne label states that, …”Korbel has been honored to become America’s best selling premium champagne. Light and crisp with spicy fruit flavors, Korbel Brut is the perfect champagne to toast all of life’s great moments.” With that proudly printed on the label, you could certainly be forgiven for thinking you were picking up a bottle of real Champagne.

Instead of riding the coattails of French Champagne, why not be proud of your American heritage and market your Korbel Champagne as what it really is: Korbel Brut California sparkling wine. There are many exceptional, well-respected producers of sparkling wine in the U.S.

I guess it’s hard to turn down associating yourself with such compelling brand name recognition. But it begs the question… Is Korbel Champagne the best selling U.S. sparkling wine because it’s an exceptional wine, or because they have keenly leveraged a big loophole. I’ll let you decide the answer to that question!


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6 thoughts on “Korbel Champagne | A Controversial California Champagne

  1. Tom

    I must admit I have a soft spot for Korbel, because my father’s maternal grandmother’s maiden name was Körbel and she was born in Prague, so perhaps I’m distantly related to the family. It makes a reasonably good cocktail mixer. They’re definitely capitalizing on the champagne thing, though.

    Reply
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  3. Jay

    The writer here is pretty obviously bias against “American Champagne” It is a ridiculous argument. The history of American alcohol is almost completely borrowed from other countries (Europe specifically) since our history is much younger than theirs. Its ridiculous to think that a region of the world can lay sole claim to the production of a product unless that product has specific rates from that region. The example that comes to my mind is Islay whiskey. Where the peet from Islay has high acid and mineral contents and provides the flavor that is distinct to Islay whiskey. An old name doesn’t mean anything. Vodka is Russian word but is marketed by Sweden and yes France. Etymology has of a word has little to do with the production of a product.

    Reply
    1. The Fermented Fruit Post author

      Jay,

      Thanks for your comment. I can assure you that I am in no way against anything American, but to call an American sparkling wine American Champagne is really not correct. Champagne is a region in France, which much like Islay whiskey possesses its own distinct characteristics from a very unique micro-climate with chalky soils. To call an American sparkling wine Champagne is akin to calling an American Meritage an “American Bordeaux”.

      In my article, I said “Instead of riding the coattails of French Champagne, why not be proud of your American heritage and market your Korbel Champagne as what it really is: Korbel Brut California sparkling wine. There are many exceptional, well-respected producers of sparkling wine in the U.S.”

      I regularly purchase and enjoy American sparkling wines, and frankly most of the wines I write about are American. One of my favorite bargain US sparklers is the Roederer Estate Brut, which gives many Champagnes a run for their money and doesn’t need to masquerade as Champagne in the process.

      I just think that wine is best when it’s true to it’s place, and isn’t pretending to be something that it’s not.

      Thanks for reading,

      Ryan

      Reply

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