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Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Substance and style - Champagne

Champagne is a triumph in many senses - it is technically very difficult to make, requiring secondary fermentation in bottle with all the remuage and degorgement that that entails; before that, it requires the the making of a base still wine in a northerly and pretty marginal climate, no mean feat in itself.

The finished product, with its fine bubbles, yeasty aromas and hints of brioche and toast is one of the great wines of the world and the consumption of it is usually also a triumph of some sort - a wedding, anniversary or significant birthday.

But it is also a triumph of marketing and pricing strategy - Champagne is the sparkling wine for an occasion; you do not need to be a fan of motor sport to be familiar with the image of Formula 1 drivers dousing themselves with a magnum of Champagne on the podium, you do not need to be in politics to talk of Champagne Socialists, you do not need to be a Socialist - Champagne or otherwise - to speak of Fat Cats and their Champagne lifestyles. It is a product that has captured the public imagination and become a symbol for so many things.

Pinot Meunier grapes
Separate the myth from the reality and there are three things that make Champagne what it is - grape variety, terroir and production method and none of these is unique to Champagne. Grape variety is easy - Chardonnay plus Pinots Noir and the lesser-known Meunier - production method is widely known and the UK at least has similar chalky soils and a similar marginal climate.

The results have even beaten certain Champagnes in blind tastings in the same way that some Californian wines have trumped claret in international competitions.

And yet people speak of English sparkling wine as being "quite good, actually" rather than de rigueur for any celebration. And producing a bottle of cava or prosecco is a subtle, subliminal sign that the occasion is not quite special enough to warrant The Real Thing.

So, Champagne has definitely got its PR right - but what of the wine itself?

If I'm honest, it would not figure in any of my desert island wines - or rather, perhaps, it would. I enjoy drinking Champagne readily enough, but as a lifelong bargain-hunter, I struggle to justify the cost of actually buying it for myself; my analytical mind says "This cost so much, it has to be correspondingly good". And of course it never is, because with Champagne, you are buying The Myth, in the same way that you are with the Porsche 911 or designer perfumes.

Other related articles
On Sherry's Image
On Madeira - the background

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