Look beyond the bubbles
What is the most expensive wine most of us will drink? The answer is easy if you think about it. Few of us can afford the Rs10,000 plus bottles of imported wine that we see on restaurant wine lists. And, for the average Indian, it makes no sense to spend as much money on a bottle of wine as we would spend on, say, a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label. The whisky will last for a week or two (or more, if you are an occasional drinker) while the wine must be consumed soon after the bottle is opened.
And yet, there is one expensive wine that nearly all of us will drink at some stage: champagne. We may be served it at a party or a celebration. We may even order a bottle ourselves for a special occasion. It will be served free as a welcome drink when we enter the business class cabin of an international flight.
Champagne is never cheap. First of all, it can only come from a certain region in France, so there is little chance of the supply increasing hugely to meet demand. And secondly, the process of making champagne is complicated, expensive and time-consuming.
It takes nearly two years for the average bottle of champagne to reach the shops because that is how long the winemaking process takes.(Vintage champagne takes at least double the time.) And one estimate has it that even the most basic champagne costs the manufacturer a thousand rupees to make. To that, you add transportation, distribution fees, retail and restaurant mark-ups and tax and you can see why, almost by definition, champagne cannot be cheap.
And yet, all this does not stop us from drinking it. The house of Moët & Chandon claims that “a bottle of Moët is opened somewhere in the world every two seconds of every day of every year.” Moët is by far the world’s leading champagne brand. It does not release production figures but is generally reckoned to sell 30 million bottles a year. And as big as Moët is, it still accounts for less than 10 per cent of world sales of champagne. Millions of other bottles are being opened everywhere else in the world every single minute of every day, every year, etc.
The sheer ubiquity of champagne is its greatest strength. Because the very name of the wine has come to be associated with celebrations, the good life and glamour, there will always be a market for champagne, even among those who don’t normally drink wine. There is no need to educate customers because everyone knows that champagne is a bubbly drink with a cork that pops. And because most people can’t tell the difference between two brands of champagne when they taste them, the champagne manufacturers don’t have to worry too much about quality. All they care about are branding and distribution.
There are, of course, top level, high-grade champagnes but even they sell largely on the basis of branding. Cristal was created by Louis Roederer for the Tsar of Russia. Roederer’s publicity machine tells us that the Tsar was frightened of being poisoned. So, even though most champagne comes in dark bottles, Cristal used transparent glass to reassure the Tsar. Most champagne bottles have an indentation at the base but apparently, the Tsar worried that a bomb could be placed in the indentation. So Cristal has no indentation: just a straight-bottomed bottle.
Are these stories true? We have no way of knowing for sure. But they are so widely disseminated that Cristal remains the Russian oligarch’s champagne of choice. Rich Russians buy whole cases of it because they think of themselves as the new Tsars.
But not all publicity is good publicity. A decade and a half ago, the top rappers suddenly discovered Cristal. It began to appear in rap videos and became a nightclub drink of choice. The folks at Roederer were appalled. This was not the right environment for the champagne of the Tsars. And they said so.
Inevitably, Roderer’s reservations were termed as racist. (I don’t think they were. They just wanted the champagne to be treated with respect.) The rappers dropped Cristal and nightclub sales took a hit. Sensing an opening, the previously middle-level champagne house of Cattier promptly pushed its premium champagne to the rap market. It is called Armand de Brignac and comes in a gold bottle. Because few rappers could pronounce the French name, they called it Ace of Spades.
Nobody of consequence in the champagne world will drink Ace of Spades and the gold packaging is considered too vulgar for a premium product. But the product sells – at Cristal prices! – and is a huge lounge/nightclub success.
In that sense, champagne has it easier than any other wine in the world. Just a little bit of branding and some hype can be enough.
But, in all this, the quality of the wine itself suffers. Try any bottle of champagne (not the vintages or the premium varieties). Forget about the pop and try and get past the jhaag and the bubbles. Then try the wine. Here is what you will usually get: a tingling, sparkling sensation on your tongue, the taste of yeast and a lot of sugar. You won’t get much fruit and the taste of the wine will not linger in your mouth.
There is now a strong resistance, within the Champagne region, to the champagne sold by the big houses. Discerning wine lovers are moving away from the big branded wines and finding small, previously little-known growers who are making champagnes of character with less sugar and a distinct taste of the grapes that went into the wine. One test of good champagne, they say, is to wait till the bubbles diminish and it goes nearly flat. That’s when you try it. Does it work as a still wine? If it does not, then it was never a good champagne.
These Young Turks have shaken up the world of champagne so much that the big houses are increasingly looking for newer markets where champagne can sell only on hype and glamour.
And yet, the change has been a long time coming. In 1990, Richard Geoffroy took over as chief winemaker at Dom Perignon. Moët & Chandon owns Perignon and had declared a Dom vintage whenever the harvest was outstanding. (Dom was only produced in good years.) Slowly, but surely, Geoffroy introduced his own philosophy. For him, Dom was about the fruit, about the nature of the vintage and especially about the way in which the wine fermented. It took people a while to notice, but Geoffroy’s Dom became much more a grower’s champagne with less sugar and longer maturation.
Many of the things that the growers are now saying are the very things that Richard did with Dom Perignon years ago. And even the new rebels respect Geoffroy.
I was in Dubai a couple of weeks ago for a tasting of Dom Perignon vintages organised by Emirates (the world’s largest buyers of Dom). Richard came and brought with him Vincent Chaperon, who will take over as chief winemaker from him in January. Vincent has worked with Richard for many years, so I don’t think the philosophy will change too much.
Richard and I used to do a tasting every two years so that I could see how Dom’s vintages were maturing. I hope I can do the same with Vincent. But my experience with champagne has taught me the following.
1) If you are going to drink champagne for the jhaag, then drink anything.
2) If however, you care about the taste, be careful. Most non-vintage champagne is over-hyped. There is some good stuff there but there is also a lot of rubbish. You may be better off buying a cheaper still wine rather than splashing out on champagne.
3) There is a new wave of champagne, made by producers who are already heroes in the business, but these wines are unavailable in India. Look for smaller higher-quality labels when you are abroad.
4) If you want to drink quality champagne, then splash out on Dom. It is cheaper than Krug or Cristal, its great rivals, and is much better value.
5) Do not use champagne flutes. Use proper white wine glasses and treat the wine with respect. And try pairing champagne with food. It goes well with most things (but not red meat).
6) Decide, in your own mind, why you are drinking champagne If you are never going to care about quality wine, then open an Indian sparkler (Fratelli, Chandon etc.) and don’t waste money on champagne. But if you care about wine, then be a little wary of many of the basic non-vintage bubblies. Either buy good still (rather than sparkling) wine. Or save your money and hold out for the vintage champagnes.
They will give you some idea of what champagne should really be about.
From HT Brunch, December 9, 2018
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