For years and years, the world used the term ‘champagne’ to refer to any sparkling wine. This annoyed the hell out of the French who argued that ‘champagne’ can only refer to a sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France by a specific method involving a two-stage process, the key to which was a second fermentation in a bottle.
About two decades ago, the European Union, egged on by France, began to aggressively protect the term. Now, much of the world accepts that a sparkling wine, no matter how good, cannot be called ‘champagne’ if it is not made in Champagne from grapes grown in the region. Then, the French cracked down on uses of the word ‘champagne’ to describe other products. Yves Saint Laurent was forced to change the name of a perfume called ‘Champagne’. A cheap sparkling pear juice drink called ‘Babycham, champagne perry’ came under sustained attack.
Eventually, the French even controlled the name of the process. Sparkling wine is usually made in one of two ways. Either they make gallons of the stuff at a time by what is called the vat process or they ferment it in the bottle (a more expensive enterprise) using what used to be called Methode Champenoise. But now, unless you make the wine in Champagne, you cannot use the term Methode Champenoise either. You have to call it Methode Traditionelle.
All these restrictions have helped the French champagne industry. Nobody takes New York State champagne seriously any longer. The world’s largest and most famous champagne brand is Moët et Chandon (Dom Pérignon is the premium wine from the house) and it is certainly the champagne we know best in India. (Even if we mispronounce the name. The ‘t’ in Moët is not silent. It is not pronounced ‘moe-ay’ but Mo-ët.) Though Mumm, long Moët’s traditional rival in the champagne world, is now relaunching itself in a big way, Moët still remains the better-known brand in India.
But the French possessiveness about the term ‘champagne’ poses problems for any global brand. The wine industry is now expanding internationally and Moët et Chandon has always seen the logic in making sparkling wines in other locations. The solution has been to create a second brand called Domaine Chandon, made using the traditional champagne method but capturing the distinctive character of the terroir where the grapes are grown. So there is a Domaine Chandon in South America, one in California (which I tried many years ago and really liked) and a Domaine Chandon in Australia.
For any champagne/sparkling wine producer, India presents special problems. The two basic champagne grapes (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) are difficult to grow here and so producers have experimented with other varietals. The first Indian ‘champagne’ I drank was called Marquise de Pompadour from Champagne India and I didn’t think it was bad when it came out. Then the French forced the company to drop the champagne from its name and in any case, quality went rapidly downhill. Every other Indian sparkling wine I have tried has – to my unsophisticated palate at least – tasted like cat’s piss. (This is only a personal opinion and I could well be wrong or ignorant. But there it is.)
So when I heard that Moët et Chandon had launched a top-secret project to make an Indian sparkling wine some years ago, I was curious. I reckoned they would have to use non-Champagne grapes and I wondered if they would give it the Chandon branding. And though I asked around, the folks at Moët et Chandon remained tight-lipped.
Last week, they finally launched the Indian Chandon and came clean about the project. The idea came from Mark Bedingham, the veteran Asia hand who heads Moët Hennessy in Australia and the East. Mark believed it could be done and conducted surveys of sites and soils before setting on the Nashik valley. It helped, I imagine, that Bruno Yvon, Moët’s India head, is also an accomplished winemaker himself, having helped create the Grover wines in their early years, and understood the Indian terroir.
Once they had settled on the terroir, they had to tweak the grape composition around. They found they could grow Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Nashik, but not in sufficient quantities to ensure production of an Indian sparkling wine. So, along with the celebrated Australian winemaker Kelly Healey, who was actually going to make the wine, they settled on Chenin Blanc as the primary grape. Chenin Blanc grows well in India but so far, Indian winemakers have tended to use it to make weak, sweet wines. Healey had to produce a great sparkling wine, worthy of the Chandon name, from Chenin.
They planted the grapes a few years ago and the wine has been going through two fermentations since then. A tasting committee of Moët et Chandon experts from around the world has been involved in tweaking the final product. And last week, they launched it at a glitzy party at the Bombay Four Seasons.
I was fortunate enough to try the wine along with Mark, Bruno Yvon and their colleagues before the formal launch. We started with the white, which will form the bulk of their production. I’m no expert, but I found it fresh, light, refreshing and yet a serious enough wine with enough champagne character to be worthy of the Chandon name. Then we moved to the rosé, which I thought was wonderful too. It is a great food wine. And just to be sure, we got the Four Seasons to send us chicken tikkas and galouti kebabs to eat with it. The wine complemented the food perfectly. Finally, we have an Indian wine that is terrific with Indian food.
I asked about prices. Moët Hennessy has had huge success with Moët et Chandon champagne so I wondered if they were worried that this might cannibalise that market. But obviously they had thought of that. The Indian Chandon will cost `1,200 or so (prices will vary from state to state depending on taxes), about a third of the price of a French champagne. So the products will appeal to different markets.
Given the quality, it goes without saying that Chandon will eventually wipe out other Indian wines in this segment (though it is a little more expensive than some local rivals). But I suspect the impact will go beyond that. It will now finally be possible to order a good sparkling wine at a club or a restaurant without paying through your nose. It will be possible to go to your local booze shop and buy a good bottle of bubbly for a celebration. Standalone restaurants will be able to offer “champagne brunches” at reasonable rates with a decent sparkler. And the market for Prosecco will take a huge hit because frankly this tastes a lot better than most of the mass-market Proseccos we get in the Indian market. And if you go for an Indian meal and want to order a wine that will stand up to the kebab, then the rosé gives you a relatively reasonably-priced option.
At the launch party, I noticed guests knocking back both the blanc and the rosé versions of the wine. I conducted an impromptu (and entirely unscientific) poll and found that more people liked the rosé, though Sanjay Menon, who knows more about wine than anybody else in India, thought that the blanc was the real knockout. For once, I disagree with Sanjay. Chandon has taken a chance by mixing Syrah (or Shiraz) with Pinot Noir (an unusual combination) to create a sparkling wine that smells faintly of rose petals and lingers on the palate. In Sanjay’s defence, I think you need to try the rosé with food to fully appreciate it. (The rosé will cost a little more than the blanc, in the same way that rosé champagnes cost more than white but at `1,400 in retail shops, it is well worth it.)
Where does Moët et Chandon go from here? There is a sparkling-wine launch coming up in China (next year, I think) but for now, Mark Bedingham is focusing on the Indian Chandon. His portfolio at Moët Hennessy is vast because it includes Moet’s Australian and New Zealand operations, the growing Chinese market, the sophisticated Japan territory (the second largest market for Dom Pérignon in the world) and of course, Hennessy cognac, which sells brilliantly wherever there are Chinese people to drink it. But as somebody who has been coming to India at least three times a year for the last two decades, he seems particularly committed to this country not just as an export market but as a source of good wine. With the launch of Chandon, he has proved that not only can India make world-class wine, but that Moët et Chandon will even put its name on local bubbly. A still wine must be on the horizon. But for now, Bedingham says they are focusing on making Chandon a success.
With this quality, the Chandon branding and Moët Hennessy’s marketing team (headed by the irrepressible Gaurav Bhatia), that should not be difficult to pull off.
From HT Brunch, October 27
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