Thursday, 16 February 2017

Champagne for my real friend real pain for my sham friends

Everybody loves a party and nothing says party better than a glass of bubbly but which one to buy and why. It's a dilemma for even the most discerning quaffer do I buy two bottles of something cheap or blow it all on something pricey and is it worth spending the extra on a famous brand than Supermarket own label stuff. Before I even try to answer this here comes a history lesson...

Just like everywhere in Europe the Romans planted here first but it was the Abbeys of the middle ages where the real story of Champagne begins. but it is not with fizz the wines then were very pale red wines in the Clairet style typically high in acidity due to the northerly location. The grapes used at the time were Gouais for red and Fromenteau to make white.

Champagne wasn't even the first place in France to make Sparkling wine that honour belongs to Limoux who did it kind of by accident. Yeast from fermentation found its way into the bottles and continued to ferment giving these wine a slight sparkle unfortunately they sometimes exploded when rattling their way to market along unmade country roads.

Fast forward to the 1730's and  Champagne in a form we would recognise has become widespread but it is a costly and technically difficult process requiring extensive cellars and costly investment of time and materials beyond the capability of the tennants growing the vines. Only a few aristocratic families enjoy the wealth and connections to both produce and market the wine to the courts of Europe where it becomes the "Wine of Kings and King of Wines". From the very beginning it is a luxury product for the wealthy and well connected and the aspiring middle class want in and a re willing to pay a little extra to be like their social betters, sound familiar.

Its not all fawning and social mobility though there is plenty of corruption and class war to culminating in Champagne Riots in 1910 and 1911. The growers fed up of grapes being bought in from other parts of France to undermine their prices and constant bribes being demanded from middle men attack some of the warehouses and destroy shipments of illicit grapes. Eventually a fairer system that guarantees prices for growers and prevents them being undercut is established and this is pretty much where we are today.

So why is Champagne expensive well first off it is a time and resource intensive process and the land costs are higher than in many other vineyard areas. Secondly it has always been that way so why would producers choose to make it cheaper as long as the demand is there and given that historically at least these have been fairly limited production there has been no need to reduce price. Thirdly and this applies to the big Champagne houses mostly advertising and sponsorship of prestigious events and making sure the right people are drinking your brand or more importantly seen drinking your brand doesn't come cheap. So if you are persuaded to drink a particular brand just because Jay-Z, or whoever likes it then just accept that your paying a little bit extra for that association. 

So two bottles Supermarket or one Veuve Cliquot/whichever big brand you prefer. One of the weird things about Champagne which makes this a tricky one to answer is anyone can have their own brand of Champagne and it isn't easy to tell where or how that wine was made. This means supermarkets can create their own brand and you might not be able to tell from looking at it if that is a Champagne house that makes their own Champagne or a grower who has produced something from his own grapes. So what the brands offer is a guarantee of authenticity and of style so that the Veuve you buy this year tastes like the Veuve you had last year and will taste like Veuve you buy in 10 years time. There is rarely the same guarantee with an own label wine this is also why if you love one brand of Champagne you should stick with it rather than switching as styles of Champagne are very variable. 

What is so special about Champagne anyways. Champagne at the entry level can be hit and miss and I would opt to spend my money in the ten to twenty pound range on a good bottle fermented wine from somewhere other than France or Cava or Prosecco than a very cheap Champagne. Why? well because unless you know it then it's a massive punt in the dark and there is more chance than not it will be boring and even if it is OK then that is probably the best you can hope for while say Pelorus or Jansz Vintage in the same price range are going to be really well crafted wines with depth balance and true enjoyment. However what these wines lack and which truly exceptional Champagne can offer whether that is a bottle of Dom Perignon, A Vintage Pol Roger which has been hidden in a cellar for fifteen years or Drappier's Grande Sendre with its balance of rich toast and bright acids is the width and depth of wines crafted from vines grown across different vineyards and a supporting cast of wines from previous vintages blended to create something living and vital.

So is it all just hype like always with Champagne the answer is no but it also yes.


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