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Champagne is more than just a drink

A synonym for the good life and the taste of luxury around the world, champagne is far more rewarding when you drink it as a wine more than any other wine, champagne is an idea, much more than it is a drink.

india Updated: Aug 22, 2011 11:56 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

A synonym for the good life and the taste of luxury around the world, champagne is far more rewarding when you drink it as a wine more than any other wine, champagne is an idea, much more than it is a drink. Over the centuries, it has been imbued with so many mystical qualities that it is sometimes hard to separate the myth from the wine. It has become a synonym for the good life ("a champagne lifestyle"), for celebrations (we pop champagne at birthdays, wedding etc.), and the taste of luxury around the world.

Because of all this, we often forget that – shorn of all the hype – champagne is essentially just a wine. The champagne growers themselves never forget this, of course. And so champagne is subject to the strictest controls. By law (accepted in most of the world) the term champagne can only be applied to a sparkling wine, fermented in the bottle, made in the Champagne region of France. If you were to make wine in exactly the same way, using exactly the same grapes in say, Australia, you would not be allowed to call it champagne. And even in France, if you made the same wine in Lyon, it would not be champagne but a mere sparkling wine.

Despite the fanaticism of the Champagne industry in protecting the name and despite the nature of celebrations associated with champagne, it is actually worth looking at the wine itself. Though we, in India, don’t often treat champagne as anything more than a pop at a party, it is actually an exceptional wine, made with care, patience and skill. Certainly, making champagne is much more difficult than making a normal red or white still wine. And while most French wine wisdom is about terroir (the soil, the exact location of the vineyard, the micro-climate etc.) champagne is about method and blending as much as it is about terroir.

The making of champagne itself is almost absurdly complicated. There are about 80-85,000 acres of vineyards, of which 80-90 per cent are owned by 15,000 small growers. The champagne houses include the huge famous names (Moet et Chandon, Mumm, Canard-Duchene, Laurent Perrier, Louis Roederer etc.) but also dozens of small, artisanal producers who few people have heard of. Some houses own their own vineyards (Roederer makes a majority of its champagne from its own grapes) but most (Moet et Chandon, for instance) buy grapes from outside producers.

ChampagneMost champagne is a blend of three grapes, one of them white – Chardonnay – and two of them black: Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. (To make white wine from black grapes – usually used for red wine – you simply limit the contact the wine has with the grape skins.) The grapes are fermented individually in steel vats (usually, wood can be used too). When the sugar has turned into alcohol, the wine is blended and put into bottles along with small quantities of sugar and yeast.

The wine then ferments again in the bottle with the yeast giving it the aromas and character we associate with champagne. But because the yeast leaves a sediment, each bottle is carefully rotated (by hand or machine) for several days till the yeast sediment gathers at the neck. Then, the neck of the bottle is dipped in an ice-cold solution of brine. This causes the yeast sediment to freeze; the cap is opened; the frozen sediment is removed; a liquid called the "dosage" consisting of wine and sugar is added; and the bottle is re-corked with the distinctive champagne cork and wine cage. All champagne is then aged in the bottle for anywhere from 15 months to 20 years before being sold.

If you think that sounds complicated, there’s more. When you buy a bottle of non-vintage champagne (the normal kind) you expect it to taste the same as a bottle of the same brand that you bought two years ago. But the quality of grapes changes with each harvest. So how is a champagne house to ensure the same quality and style year after year? The answer lies in the skill of the wine-maker. Each year, he makes a similar wine relying on "reserve wines" or wines from previous vintages which are stored in the cellar and then mixed with the new harvest to create a blend that never varies.

All this costs money and takes time; one reason why champagne is so expensive.

I had been to Champagne years ago but when I went back last week, I was surprised by how much things had changed. I visited as many houses as I could pack into three days: Moet et Chandon, Laurent Perrier, Canard-Duchene, Louis Roederer, Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot and Lancelot-Pienne. What struck me was how much champagne had become a marketed global product.

ChampagneThe big boy now is Moet et Chandon which makes millions of bottles of largely indifferent wine that few French wine-lovers would order out of choice but which is perfectly acceptable (and drinkable) if offered at a party or a reception. Its stable-mate, Veuve Clicquot, makes wine that is marginally better (though I was very disappointed by its prestige cuvee Grande Dame) but is sold mostly on the basis of marketing all over the world to people who do not know a great deal about champagne (which was not true two decades ago).

On the other hand, there are large houses which have clung on to their traditions. I tasted many of his family house’s offerings with Clovis Taittinger and was impressed by the mixture of tradition and innovation. Such houses as Taittinger have hit the export market without relying on marketing to make up for poor quality and have focused on making great wine. At Louis Roederer (makers of Cristal), it was like visiting a Michelin-starred restaurant: quality and excellence were paramount even though Roederer has to cater to a disparate market ranging from Russian oligarchs to rappers. (There is a great story in the marketing of very expensive nightclub champagne – but I’ll do another full column on it.)

Houses that were once regarded as so-so have suddenly upped their game. When LVMH (owners of Moet, Clicquot, Dior, Givenchy and nearly everything else!) ran Canard-Duchene, they treated it as their supermarket brand. Now, under new owners, Canard has gone upmarket. I tried its range of Charles VII wines and was astonished by the quality of many of them.

I discovered also that champagne is broadening its range. Once upon a time, we focused only on the basic non-vintage (say Moet et Chandon Brut Imperial) and the prestige cuvee (in Moet’s case, Dom Perignon), but now, houses are paying more attention to Blanc de Blanc and Rose champagne because consumers are educated enough to go beyond the basics.

While traditional champagne blends three grapes, Blanc de Blanc is a lighter style made with 100 per cent Chardonnay. It is more refreshing and can be excellent (Salon, owned by Laurent Perrier, is among the best Blanc de Blancs). At Roederer, they make very little Blanc de Blanc and sell it directly to gastronomic restaurants giving it a rarity value.

ChampagneAt Canard, I enjoyed a Charles VII Blanc de Noir made only from black grapes (70 per cent Pinot Noir and 30 per cent of Meunier) with no Chardonnay at all. Unlike Blanc de Blancs which makes a wonderful aperitif, Blanc de Noirs are serious wines to drink with food. (I think they work with Indian food.)

Rose champagne had its highs (as pink champagne) in the 20th century and then fell out of flavour. Now, it is back with a bang. There are two ways of making it, both entirely legitimate. The wine-maker either simply adds a little still red wine (which gives the champagne its colour) to the champagne. Or he keeps the wine in contact with the grape skins for just long enough to give it a delicate pink tinge and flavour, a process that is called maceration.

The simpler Rose, which is made by blending still red wine with champagne, can range from drinkable (Moet Rose) to very good. But my favourite Rose of all, Laurent Perrier, gets its delicate brilliance from maceration. Louis Roederer Rose, also made by maceration, can be excellent.

There are, I think, two ways of drinking champagne. You drink it for the idea (in which case, it doesn’t matter what you drink: Moet or Clicquot are fine) or you drink it as a wine. If you choose the latter course, then your path is more difficult because – as I discovered last week – there is so much to learn and appreciate.

But it is also more rewarding.

From HT Brunch, August 21

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First Published: Aug 20, 2011 15:07 IST