New Year’s Eve is the time to open that special bottle. Great Britain imports more champagne than anyone else in the world, but for the second year running sales are well down and continuing to fall. The French dug up over 40 villages to plant more champagne grapes when sales were booming, and are now stuck with a champagne lake.
First came the artificial inflation of champagne prices during the ‘Loadsamoney’ era of the late 80s. Champagne became too ubiquitous, then, when the economy collapsed, too expensive. It’s no longer taken to parties as a gift.
Then came the blind taste tests that revealed a surprise; humble cavas and proseccos, which for years were written off as a very poor relation (or according to Wine Life Magazine, ‘an economical alternative’) to champagne, started to triumph in quality and price.
Three grapes can be used to make champagne; Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. You can use one or combine them. Méthode Champenoise involves allowing the wine to continue fermenting in the bottle. During this time, the bottles are capped to withstand the pressure building inside. They’re also slanted down so the yeasts settle in the neck. When the wine is judged ready, the neck of the bottle is submerged in a freezing solution, which freezes a few inches of the wine inside at the neck, where the yeast is. Then, with the yeasts trapped in a plug of ice, the bottle is turned upright, the cap removed, and the pressure from the gas inside expels the plug. The winemaker can top up the wine with the same wine or can give it a dose of wine with some sugar to increase fermentation or add sweetness.
Three grapes can be used to make cava too, but cava got stuck with its name (‘cellar’) because although it uses the same traditional manufacturing method and is roughly indistinguishable in taste to many champagnes (although sometimes earthier), the French registered their regional name in the 1970s. Prosecco is different, sweeter and more fruity, close to ‘California Champagne’ which must now be called ‘Sparkling Wine’, although it is also considered very close indeed to many French champagnes.
The price of champagne is high because the weather in France is variable,which raised the value of limited crops, and it was ‘the drink of kings’, exclusively produced for royalty (‘Reserve’). But then it became available to all, hence all those operas extolling the virtues of champagne. Cava was cheap because it was readily producible in the guaranteed fine weather and crucially, did not have the royal connotations of champagne.
Champagne drinks are all about petillance, or fizz. To ‘charge your glass’ is to top it up and put back the fizz, which is what waiters do when you enter a big bash – the glasses have already been half-filled in advance, and are ‘charged’ as the guests pour in. There’s a difference in the quality of the bubbles, from harshness to the faintest of tingles.
Wine is a unique product because it is impossible to value unless you’re very familiar with the subject, and this can massively affect its its mark-up. The cost of transportation is also a factor. A bottle of Domain Ott, a good Provencal white, can be bought in a French restaurant for something like £25 but is on sale in a Mauritius restaurant for £130. When cheap air travel arrived in Britain in the 1970s, ‘Asti Spumante’ became a joke catchphrase for proletarian faux-champagne – but no more. Champagne marketing carefully distanced itself from cheaper wines. Moet Chandon and Perrier Jouet took out ads in high-end magazines and sponsored product placement in upmarket films. The strategy worked; champagne meant celebration and good French food.
Whether it’s actually superior or not, the French fight to maintain an artificial aura of specialness around champagne, thus keeping the price high. But unless you are a wine connoisseur experts now agree that it is not truly possible to tell the difference between a champagne and a good cava in blind taste tests. Another problem occurred – traditional French cuisine stagnated, trapped in the entrenched cooking methods of the past. The number of French restaurants in the UK has fallen as other world cuisines have been discovered.
To the experts, champagne will always have a more complex taste, but for the consumers who propelled its sales to new heights, prohibitive prices mean that it’s no longer something to share with strangers.
There are three subjects which always cause riots in print; religion, technology and wine. Hopefully our resident wine expert Darrell will be here to answer your queries!