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Champagne: Drink for the young

There was a time when champagne was an older person’s drink. It was a mark of sophistication and taste. But over the last decade or so, champagne has changed its image. Now, it is a drink that is also favoured by rappers, pimps, nightclubs, mobsters and younger people.

india Updated: Sep 03, 2011 18:33 IST
Vir Sanghvi

Over the last decade, champagne has ceased to be an older person’s drink. It has now become the epitome of fun for a younger clientele.

There was a time when champagne was an older person’s drink. It was a mark of sophistication and taste. But over the last decade or so, champagne has changed its image. Now, it is a drink that is also favoured by rappers, pimps, nightclubs, mobsters and younger people. To drink great champagne is no longer necessarily a mark of breeding and sophistication.

ChampagneTo some extent, the large champagne houses are responsible for this transformation. The brief for their marketing departments has been to transform the image of champagne from one of grown-up sophistication to becoming the epitome of fun. For instance, Formula One race drivers spray champagne over the crowd to celebrate victory. Traditional champagne houses regard this as an abomination and are horrified by the waste of champagne. On the other hand, the big champagne companies pay millions for this dubious privilege. For years Moet et Chandon, the world’s largest champagne house, had the rights for Formula One. Then, Pernod Ricard, a vast conglomerate, outbid Moet to buy the rights. Now, Mumm, a Pernod Ricard brand, is the one they spray.

So it is with fashion. Sensing an advantage in associating their brand with fashion, Moet et Chandon started offering splits of champagne (small bottles of the sorts you would find on aeroplanes) to fashion houses. You were supposed to sip the champagne through a straw (so that your makeup was unaffected) and feel sophisticated.

Sensing an opening, the old and respected house of Pommery (now owned by a conglomerate), inventors of Brut (dry) champagne, launched POP, a sweet, less alcoholic version of its champagne in small blue quarter bottles to also sip with straws. It is, I guess, champagne, but it is not the kind that anybody who loves champagne will drink. It appeals to fashion people who know nothing about real champagne.

ChampagneOther houses have followed this example. Lanson Noble Cuvée is a very good vintage champagne (it is the Club Class wine for Jet Airways on its America routes – the London route gets Dom Perignon) made by the respected house of Lanson but it launched its 1988 vintage in bottles draped in silver mesh (designed by Paco Rabanne) at Fashion Week. Piper-Heidsieck, another old champagne house, launched its Special Cuvée with bottles encased in red, lace-up corsets designed by Jean Paul Gaultier.

Champagne experts are leery of the fashion tie-ups. Nobody I know will willingly drink POP in place of champagne though it makes a good 7-Up substitute. (But then, few champagne lovers would drink basic Moet or Mumm if they had a choice, so these things are subjective and there are no hard and fast rules.)

But champagne’s appeal to fashionistas fades compared to its success with clubbers. If you went to nightclubs in the Nineties, the drinks of choice were cocktails. This was the era when the Cosmopolitan, the Mojito, the flavoured Martini, the Flaming Ferrari and the slightly ludicrous conception of the mixologist (i.e. highly-paid bartender) all found fame. But over the last decade or so, the drink of choice at nightclubs among the well-heeled has been champagne.

Go to any flashy Bombay club (Prive, for instance) with its audience of youthful drinkers (I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that the clubs pay the police off to turn a blind eye to teenage drinking) and you will find rich kids ordering Moet (which many people mispronounce as ‘Moey’ believing that is more sophisticated to keep the ‘t’ silent even though such a pronunciation is wrong) or Dom Perignon (the premium cuvée from Moet et Chandon – an excellent wine) at stratospheric prices.

Abroad, the drink for wealthy clubbers is Cristal, the premium cuvée from Louis Roederer. This is a really outstanding champagne, created in 1876 for Czar Alexander II of Russia. The wine has always been expensive because it is made mostly (or even entirely) from the best grapes from Roederer’s own vineyards so the company cannot expand its production even though demand has been rising. (In contrast, Moet makes no such claims for Dom – far from claiming it uses its own grapes, it will not even reveal the actual production numbers though experts believe that Dom Perignon is made in numbers that far exceed the norm for premium champagne because Moet keeps buying grapes from outside producers.)

Cristal would have remained a champagne for connoisseurs had it not been for the rap culture. The rapper Jay-Z made Cristal famous among a new audience with such songs as I Just Wanna Love You in which ‘love’ was a synonym for something more physical and in which he suggested that he would give a woman a bottle of Cristal if she would sleep with him. In his video for Big Pimpin (just the sort of title that champagne wine-makers love!) Jay-Z brandished a bottle of Cristal on a yacht. Thanks to the rap star’s promotion, Cristal then became the trendy, nightclub drink among rap-loving young people who had lots of money and knew nothing about champagne.

Faced with this kind of publicity, the makers of Cristal had two choices: they could have gone the Dom Perignon route, bought more grapes and increased production to meet the new demand. At the very least, they could have doubled the champagne’s price.

Instead Roederer adopted a very French approach. Frédéric Rouzaud, the managing director of Roederer, distanced himself from the rap world image of Cristal, refused to increase the price and turned his back on the new popularity. Because demand from nightclub drinkers has meant that demand vastly exceeds supply, every bottle of Cristal is now sold to shops and restaurants on the basis of a strict allocation. Being a family-owned firm (unlike say, Moet et Chandon or Mumm or Clicquot or even Krug, now), Roederer can resist market pressures to increase revenues by raising price. This is a serious champagne, it suggests, that was around long before Jay-Z’s grandfather was born and will be around long after his grandson is dead.

As for the nightclub and rap demand, Cristal said that it had no control over who drank its champagne and that it “could not forbid” rappers from buying it. Predictably enough, Jay-Z was angered by Cristal’s unwillingness to accept his endorsement and, as predictably enough, accused the house of “racism”.

What followed next is an interesting reflection on the power of marketing among the un-informed. Within a couple of years, Jay-Z was back drinking “premium” champagne, except that this time (Show Me What You Got), the rapper carried a gold bling-bling bottle of a champagne nobody had ever heard of: Armand de Brignac.

Within months, Armand de Brignac became the champagne of choice in rap and nightclub circles, the distinctive “premium” champagne for people who knew nothing about champagne or wine and had more money than sense to pay prices that often exceeded Cristal’s.

I first drank the champagne a couple of years ago at an Indian hotel where it was offered to me as the “best champagne in the world”. I had never heard of it so I tried it. To be fair, it was not horrible. It was a perfectly acceptable, mid-range champagne. But “the best champagne in the world”? You had to be joking.

Then, I went to France. On two different trips to Paris, and Provence, I asked about the champagne. Not one sommelier had heard of it. I was mystified. A couple of weeks ago, I went to Champagne. At half the restaurants I went to, the sommeliers said they had never heard of it. Then, at L’Assiette Champenoise, the top restaurant of the region (Michelin two-stars), I found it on the list. I asked my friend Romain Bonnand, whose wife is from Champagne, to find out about it. The sommelier shot us a nervous look and then told Romain (in French) that it was a rubbish wine they were forced to put on the list because tourists asked for it. Romain asked him how he would describe it. “Bling bling,” said the sommelier, using a term that needed no translation.

At the respected Taittinger house, I asked Clovis Taittinger about Armand de Brignac. He was not dismissive. Instead, he was respectful of the marketing success of a mediocre champagne. In his view, this was Jay-Z’s revenge on Cristal.
Bit by bit, I pieced the story together. Armand de Brignac is a new champagne. It was made in 2006 by Cattier, a little-known, mid-level champagne house of no great distinction (though the name Armand de Brignac was registered in the 1950s). When Jay-Z had his spat with Cristal, he looked for a rival champagne that could become his favourite brand.

He asked Cattier (in all fairness, it is not clear who approached whom – Jay-Z or Cattier) to make a so-called “luxury-champagne” and they came up with this stuff using packaging they had previously used in a mid-priced champagne brand called Antique Gold. What was once vulgar and cheap is now bling and high-priced.

Is there a lesson in this?
I think there is. When a product (champagne) becomes associated with values (luxury, good times, or pimping in the case of some champagnes) rather than quality then it becomes easy to separate the two and to create a product that promotes the values without bothering with the quality. As the success of Armand de Brignac proves, the rich are different from you and me. They have more money – and less taste.

From HT Brunch, September 4

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