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How Often Do You Get A Kick From Champagne?

2011 March 1
by Mike

I recently wrote a Slate column bemoaning the fact that Champagne has been so thoroughly pigeonholed as a seasonal/celebratory tipple and asking what it would take to get people to start treating it as a regular wine—to drink it more frequently, and with meals. I suggested that grower Champagnes, with their strong vinous character and emphasis on site expression, particularly demand to be approached this way. One point I did not make in the article is that I think that for the grower movement to ultimately succeed, a critical mass of consumers needs to be persuaded to look at Champagne in a new light—to drink it more often, to care about differences between individual sites, and to give it the kind of contemplation that they give other wines. The big idea driving the movement is that the vast Champagne appellation is not one contiguous terroir, that there are meaningful distinctions within and between the region’s many vineyards and that these distinctions are worth exploring—not only by winemakers, but by wine drinkers. But unless enough wine drinkers can be convinced to do that, I think the farmer fizz revolution, which has gone such a long way towards redefining Champagne, is destined to remain incomplete.

So I’m curious to know: How often do you drink Champagne? Do you drink it only as an aperitif, or do you sometimes serve it with meals? Do you care about what distinguishes, say, Aÿ from Avize, or is that a level of detail that doesn’t interest you when it comes to Champagne? If any retailers are reading, I’d love to get your views, too. How tough is it to sell Champagne outside the month of December? Do you see any indication that consumers are beginning to take Champagne more seriously—are they buying it more often, are they more inclined to drink it with food, are they expressing curiosity about individual terroirs? Or is it still seen as just a frivolous beverage that you uncork on holidays and special occasions?

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  13. March 7, 2011

    Glad you posted this! Sparklers are so underrated. We recently decided to drink sparklers on a weekly basis (Fridays). We’re exploring a sparklers from various price points, from various regions around the world, and very much enjoying it. We drink it both as an aperitif, and with meals because it’s so food friendly!

  14. March 3, 2011

    Mike-

    You should try Pinon, too. Less than $20 and excellent. There are three bottlings, the Brut, a non-dosé, and a (rare) rosé from grolleau.

  15. March 3, 2011

    Steve,

    I think you are right; Champagne with meals is just an alien concept for many people. Again, I think Champagne’s image is also its straightjacket, and it is a very difficult one to escape. I like the idea of converting people one dinner party at a time, and I’m going to try to do that myself. And great line about the Hennessy VS–and so true!

    Mike

  16. March 3, 2011

    Bill,

    I would love to taste those ancient Veuves; I hear Yellow Label was really good back then :)

    Good points all. I think many sommeliers would like to see Champagne “normalized,” but as Bernie Sun told me, it’s a tough sell. As for the Champagne houses–they pay lip service to the idea that Champagne should be a year-round drink and a food wine, but as you note, their advertising suggests otherwise. And, frankly, it’s not as if their businesses are hurting; they certainly don’t have a pressing need to try to re-brand Champagne.

    Mike

  17. March 3, 2011

    Hey VLM,

    Thanks for stopping by and for the comments. Yeah, cost is a factor; the grower wines have jumped in price, and it is a pleasure that can’t be indulged so easily these days. And I definitely agree with you about the Vouvray sparklers; Huet and Foreau make terrific bubblies, and they are certainly affordable.

    Mike

  18. March 3, 2011

    Tim,

    Thanks for the comment. As I noted in my Slate piece, Champagne’s image is also its straitjacket, and the reaction you got from your friends is indicative of that.

    I think you can find good stuff from Burgundy and even Bordeaux for $60, but I agree with you that you probably get more bang for the buck with a grower Champagne.

    Thanks for dropping by.

    Mike

  19. March 3, 2011

    Hi Toby,

    Thanks for the comment. That’s an interesting point re Moet, and you may well be right. However, I think LVMH has generally been a drag on quality–you certainly see that with Veuve, and a lot of people think Krug isn’t what it used to be. I think the Grande Cuvee has become a much less reliable wine; the jury is still out regarding the vintage wines.

    As for Pol Roger–the NV used to be pretty good, and the last time I tasted it I was also disappointed. To be honest, I think big-house NV is now just a very weak category. Bollinger still makes a good one, but otherwise I think it is pretty slim pickings.

    Mike

    Mike

  20. March 3, 2011

    Great points, Sebastien. Clearly, price is an impediment to Champagne becoming a “normal” wine. Burgundy is expensive, too, but a Burgundy fan can find good, affordable wines from the Macon and the Cote Chalonnaise; it is harder to make a habit of Champagne. But as you note, there are excellent sparkling wines from places other than Champagne, and those wines are often very affordable.

    Mike

  21. Sebastien permalink
    March 2, 2011

    Champagne is great but it is expensive to drink it on a regular basis. I must agree with a previous poster and in the discussion we should include sparkling wines from all over the world. My spouse and I drink between 3 to 4 sparklers per week. There’s fantastic stuff available for $22 and below. In the last year I’ve had a Jura rose sparkler from Labet (wonderful), as well as Loire sparkling wines imported by Kermit Lynch and Beaune imports. I’ve also tasted a couple of sparkling wines imported by Vintage 59 from Burgundy (one of those wines was Gamay based). Let’s not forget Cava. One fine Cava I enjoy is produced by Avinyo which retails for $16. The quality is unbelievable. I think sparkling wine and rose still wines are greatly underappreciated and yet they are so versatile at table.

  22. March 2, 2011

    My wife and I (and our small children!) regularly drink Champagne with dinner, but unfortunately that does not mean often. I’m always curious to try grower Champagnes, we’ve bought a lot of Gimonnet recently. Have also enjoyed the Tarlant zero. I have no appreciation though for how the sub-regions differ from each other.

    I agree with Mike’s comment about the low quality of NV Moet, but I would say it is so ordinary BECAUSE the Dom Perignon is so good. Managing a range of house cuvees is a balancing act and there will be only so much wine from the best sites/vintages to go around. After all the Dom is made I don’t think there is enough of the good stuff to go lower down the chain.

    Pol Roger has over its whole range been one of our favourite producers, but the last time we tried their NVit was disappointing. Has anyone else noticed a bit of a decline or was it just a blip?

  23. Tim Buzinski permalink
    March 2, 2011

    I enjoy a bottle about once a month or so, far more than anyone I now not ITB. I must agree with many of the comments above, Champagne is not on the radar for many people and when it is, it’s only as a toast. I enjoy it on its own and with food, but I fear I’m the only one I know who does. Arriving at a New Years Eve dinner at friends with multiple bottles of bubbles, they seemed shocked we’d only want to drink Champagne the entire evening.

    I have to say though I still find grower Champagne to be an affordable luxury. For $60 I can drink one of the better wines of the region, while that could never be said for Bordeaux or Burgundy. Leading by example sounds like a good plan, I’m with you Steve.

  24. March 2, 2011

    Truthfully, rarely. That was a different story 12 or so years ago when grower Champagne was first raging in the States and vintage stuff could be had for under $40.

    When I want bubbles, I generally turn to sparkling Vouvray from Pinon, Foreau, or Huet for great wine at a fraction of the cost.

    I drink a fair amount of Prosecco, but that is a different beast.

  25. Bill permalink
    March 2, 2011

    It wasn’t always this way for Clicquot:

    http://www.trdfm.com/alcohol/veuve-clicquot-champagne-found-on-baltic-wreck-1.715984

    Mike, you gonna nab a taste of one of these bad boys? You already sampled some ancient Madeira…time to take it one step further and knock back some sea-cellared bub.

    As for getting champagne or other sparklers out of the special occasion category, that’s a tough row to hoe, especially here in the U.S. It’s going to take a combination of things to alter the overwhelming perception that it’s a celebratory beverage. I think first and foremost, it starts with restaurants, both in terms of sommeliers recommending bubblies to have with the meal (which I personally have never had happen once…only recommended as an aperitif) and adding “house sparkling” to the usual house red and house white. As others have pointed out, the low prices of Cava, Prosecco, etc. make this “house sparkling” a real possibility for a many (and not just high-end) restaurants.

    Second, it’s going to take a marketing push from some of the big houses. Right now, it seems like they blow their ad budgets in December in time for the New Year’s sales binge, and the tone of the marketing is entirely geared toward the theme of celebration (the shamelessly Freudian ads from Korbel always take the cake: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qEJO-CL39O0&NR=1). Maybe if they ran some ads at other times of the year showing people around a table enjoying some champagne with a meal, it might change some perceptions? I served Roederer Estate Anderson Valley Brut at Thanksgiving, and it was a hit. I could maybe see some effective Norman Rockwell-esque ads making a difference around Turkey Day and get people thinking about it as a regular, inexpensive accompaniment to dinner. They might also think about mixing up the packaging a bit. The bright foil wrapping, hefty bottles, and fancy cursive probably contribute to the “this is special” vibe, so maybe some more conventional packaging might help a little too.

    Bill

  26. Steve G permalink
    March 2, 2011

    christina makes an excellent point about less expensive sparkling wines… i have more frequently had success in suggesting, for instance, jean-michel guillon’s cremant de bourgogne blanc de noirs (100% pinot noir from gevrey… we sell for 22.99) to accompany meals than champagnes per se.

    i think perhaps folks prepared to spend upwards of forty dollars for a bottle to accompany a meal (but who still want advice about their selection) are looking above all for confidence and security about the wine they buy (most often they ask for “the best” of a particular type in a particular price range), and champagne with meals is simply too far outside their comfort zone… not unlike the resistance many still have to fine wines with screw tops.

    perhaps the best we can do is set a good example as hosts and try to make converts couple by couple. i’m game.

    and yes, clicquot and moet (and krug, obviously) still make some fine wines. it’s just that yellow label brut and ‘white star’ ain’t them. :) to customers who find this heretical, i often ask “ever had hennessey vs?”

  27. March 2, 2011

    Steve,

    Thanks for the comment. That’s great that you guys drink Champagne so regularly, and Gatinois turns out terrific wines. I think Champagne is a great food wine in general, and pinot-heavy bubblies a la Gatinois present some very interesting possibilities at the table.

    I agree with you about Yellow Label (though I think the Moet Imperial, which used to called White Star, is even worse) and LVMH. Dom Perignon can still be very good, and given the quantities in which it is produced (they don’t disclose production figures, but it is universally believed that the numbers are not small), the quality is especially impressive. But, no, LVMH has not been good for Champagne overall, which is one reason the grower revolution has been such a welcome development.

    Mike

  28. March 2, 2011

    Thanks for this, Christina; very interesting, and an excellent point about broadening the discussion to include other sparkling wines. One of the problems with Champagne is the cost, and that’s obviously not as big an issue with cava, prosecco, etc. That’s great that you guys promote sparklers with such enthusiasm, and hopefully the effort will bear fruit. Thanks for visiting and for the comment; much appreciated.

    Mike

  29. March 2, 2011

    Hear hear – I wholeheartedly agree. However, I would like to expand the campaign to include all sparkling wines, especially since grower Champagnes tend to be out of reach for many people who want to drink it more often. Cava, Prosecco, American sparkling wines, etc. are so affordable, approachable, and food friendly, and at our wine store we try to emphasize this to customers. In fact, after a recent wine class in which we mentioned this, specifically with regard to Prosecco, we sold several bottles! However, I think overall people still view sparkling wines as meant for special occasions, and we realized that even around New Year’s Eve, people will still only buy one or two bottles for a whole party. I will continue to promote sparkling wine as assertively as possible! :-)

  30. Steve G permalink
    March 1, 2011

    we try to have champagne at least a couple of times a month. current favorite house is gatinois from ay, either the rose or nv brut. also like rodez from ambonnay and arnould from verzenay. i’m sure at some point we’ll go on a cote des blancs jag, but the others go so brilliantly with meals! like pol roger among the grand marques.

    and remember… friends don’t let friends buy the yellow satan. there are so many people who tell me “i don’t like champagne, and i’ve had the good stuff!”. upon investigation, lvmh is almost always to blame.

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