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A great Champagne is really a great white wine

Champagne is probably the world’s most famous wine --- and the world's least understood.

For a start, Champagne does not mean a “sparkling wine with a cork that goes pop”. To be called Champagne, the wine has to be made from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France and also bottled there. All other sparkling wine, no matter how good, cannot be called Champagne.

 

Then, there are the grapes. Champagne is usually made from three grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Some Champagne, intended for long maturing, will not have Pinot Meunier but the majority of all other Champagne will have the other two. You can make champagne from a single one of these grapes (Blancs de Blancs is all Chardonnay) but you must say so on the bottle.

 

   These three grapes do not grow easily in every country so most countries use different grapes for their sparkling wine. Even the world’s largest champagne company, Moet-Hennessy decided to use the sweeter Chenin Blanc grape when it started making Chandon, a sparkling wine in India. This is why Chandon, while wonderful in its own way, tastes nothing like Champagne.

 

   The process of making Champagne is even less understood, even by those who drink it. And frankly, it is a little tedious. Most wines are treated in vats or barrels and then put into bottles. But champagne has a complicated double fermentation system, that involves two different corks or stoppers, twisting the neck of each bottle, adding sugar halfway through the process and lots of other refinements.

 

   The consequence of all this is that Champagne will never be a cheap wine. It is almost impossible to make a bottle of champagne for less than £14 (or around ? 1400). By the time you have added transportation, packaging, marketing distribution, profit margins, etc., champagne could cost a minimum of £20 (or ? 2000). In fact, it often costs considerably more.

 

   Naturally, this limits its appeal so cheaper bubbly wines (chiefly Prosecco, a sweeter Italian sparkler and Chandon) fill the gap in the Indian market. But it is hard for a Champagne drinker to get used to the substitutes and anyway, none of the surrogates have the celebratory associations of real Champagne.

 

   And so, Champagne still continues to sell well all over India. The leader is Moet & Chandon (you pronounce the 't' in Moet, it is not “Moey”), which has cultivated the market for nearly two decades. The giant Pernod Ricard owns Mumm, but for some reason that Champagne has never taken off and so, smaller (and often, excellent quality) brands pop up all over India.

 

   But even people who drink lots of Champagne, don’t always realise that it is usually a blend. The bulk of the Champagne business is in the non-vintage (NV) sector. A bottle of Moet & Chandon Brut Imperial will not mention the year it was bottled. That is because NV Champagne is supposed to taste the same, year after year.

 

   In practice, this is difficult to achieve because each year's harvest is different. So, every Champagne house keeps vast stocks of so-called reserve Champagne from previous years. Each year, when the NV Champagne is being readied for the bottle, the wine-maker will create a blend, using the newly harvested wine and his reserve wines so that it tastes just the same as the year before.

 

   Then, there are the premium labels, names we have all heard: Dom Perignon, Krug, Cristal etc. These will cost three to four times as much as ordinary NV Champagne.

 

   And yet, even at those prices, they are some of the best value great wines in the world. These days, the increase in demand from the global (mainly, Chinese) market has pushed up the prices for most of the world’s great wines. Fortunately, the Chinese have yet to fall in love with Champagne. So, for the moment at least, a bottle of Dom Perignon will cost only a fraction of the price of say, Chateau Lafite.

 

"I am not sure what the cut-off point is but speaking for myself, I drink Moet & Chandon in flutes but Dom and all the vintage Champagnes get white wine glasses in my house."

   The Champagne companies say that this is terribly unfair and perhaps it is. But speaking for myself, I am delighted because it means that of the world’s great wines, premium Champagne is the only one that I can sometimes afford. It is also relatively easy to get my hands on. (Most great Champagnes are legally imported into India and many turn up on restaurant wine lists.)

 

   I have been, on my visits to Champagne, to most of the great houses but the one I am most familiar with is Dom Perignon, largely because I am friends with Richard Geoffroy.

 

   Within the wine business, Richard is a legend. When he took over as winemaker at Dom Perignon in 1990, it was a very great house but it did not have the kind of stature it has today. Not only did he change the character of the wine (for a start, he reduced the dosage or the sugar that is added during the second fermentation), he also held the ship steady in the crucial decade from 1990 to 2000. Though there were bad harvests in that decade, he managed to make great wines. And as his bosses at Moet-Hennessy asked him to ramp up production, he was able to create more bottles of Dom Perignon without sacrificing the quality. In fact, you could argue that quality actually improved during that period.

 

   Since 2000, production numbers have remained largely fixed. But Richard has faced a new challenge. Traditionally, you only make Dom Perignon in an exceptional year, when the grapes are of high quality. But as global demand has grown, there has been more and more pressure on Richard to create a Dom Perignon vintage in a less-than-extraordinary year. Other wine makers may have funked it. But there have been times when Richard has accepted the challenge and surprised everyone.  Given the state of the 2003 harvest, it should have been impossible to turn out a great champagne. But Richard did it and he now says that the 2003 is his personal favourite.

 

   India is not a huge market for Dom so Richard is here infrequently. I first met him over a decade ago at a jolly Dom Perignon dinner at the Delhi Oberoi where everyone got drunk and the Spanish ambassador’s wife danced the flamenco. (“I thought to myself,” Richard recalls, “so this is what India is like: singing and dancing!”)

 

   Then, a few years later, he came for some socialite-heavy Dom Perignon events which I gave a miss. But we spent a quiet evening at the Delhi Leela matching two bottles of Dom Perignon he had brought along (his 2003 and an older 2000 Rose) along with two bottles I had got from home (1998 and 1999) with all kinds of food: mutton biryani, Wagyu carpaccio (those were the days!), a porcini risotto, sashimi and much more.

 

   We met a little later in Istanbul for the launch of the 2002 Rose (where the pouring Champagne was the Oenotheque, a range of wines that deserve a column to themselves) and then again at the Dom Perignon chateau in Champagne where he led me through a tasting of a dozen vintages, dating back 50 years. I am not sure I could tell the difference but Richard is a nice man so he pretended not to notice.

 

   Richard was back in Bombay for a packed two days last week. He spent one day at a media lunch and then, before we went out for dinner, he dropped into my room for a tasting of two more recent vintages and a long natter.

 

   Moet had requested the investment banker Rajiv Sahney to host a small dinner (ten people in all) at his house with catering from Prateek Sadhu, the chef behind Masque. The food was interesting, the Sahneys are good hosts (they opened a 1962 Chateau d'Yquem and had to be dissuaded (not by me, I hasten to add) from opening Chateau Margaux! Richard was relaxed --- not bad going considering that he was off at 7.30am the next morning for a day trip to the Chandon winery in Nasik.

 

   We talked about wine, of course, and about Champagne in general. Ever since I first met Richard all those years ago, I stopped drinking good Champagne in flutes. According to Richard, they do not show off the wine to best advantage and they demean Champagne. A great Champagne is really a great white wine (like a great white Burgundy) and it should be drink in exactly the same way.

 

   I am not sure what the cut-off point is but speaking for myself, I drink Moet & Chandon in flutes (because that is how people serve it) but Dom and all the vintage Champagnes get white wine glasses in my house.

 

   The discussion about glasses brought us back full circle. Yes, Champagne is the world’s most famous wine. And yes, it is the right drink for celebrations. But it is first and foremost, a very good wine. (There should be no bad wines in Champagne.) And when you are dealing with the great vintages, then you treat them with the respect you would accord to the world’s great wines.

 

   It is about depth, not about the pop!

 


 

Posted On: 25 Jul 2017 10:53 AM
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