If there is one wine in the world that has benefited most from its single regional/appellation title, it has to be undoubtedly Champagne. It is also probably the most recognizable brand in the wine world and certainly one which epitomizes luxury and celebration. Whether it is a Bond movie, a sporting triumph, best exemplified by Formula One Grand Prix events, a beverage to usher in special moments like new year, celebrating anniversaries and birthdays or even launching of ships, Champagne is intimately connected with the spirit of celebration and is a traditional symbol of luxury. Its lofty status can largely be attributed to the smart marketing by a consortium of influential producers who have successfully managed to associate the drink with luxury and style. This initiative which started in 19th century, still remains the cornerstone of the product’s success.
But apart from a traditional glory, does Champagne deserve all the hype and most importantly the stratospheric prices that a lot of them demand? A question which may be considered almost a blasphemy in the larger wine world where any such ‘unconventional’ opinion is frowned upon, more so when the wine in question is the ‘iconic’ Champagne.
There is no denying that Champagne offers the best representation of a style of wine that is much imitated the world over and is savoured for this unique style but is that reason enough to justify the prices and often compulsive overrating? Let’s try to reason this argument using three basic facts:
■Regional characteristics – The northerly latitude of Champagne and its limestone rich soil are the main features of the region’s grape growing conditions but unlike other appellations, like the top ones from Burgundy or Germany for example, where the ‘great’ wines come from individual vineyard sites (monopole/einzellage), the Champagne areas are divided as villages/communes with the best ones recognized as Grand Crus. Does this mean that the terroir across the village/region is homogeneous and therefore grapes grown anywhere in this large tract of land is suitable for Champagne production? Although it defies the quintessential logic behind exceptional terroirs, Champagne is somewhat different to this concept as it is essentially a blended wine, either of different vintages (with the exception of vintage Champagnes) or from different parts of the region. But in effect, it does prove the point that these broad regional characteristics cannot be factored in terms of aligning superior terroir to the quality of the wine.
■Profile - Champagne is one of the very few wines whose overall profile is not only influenced by the fruit (primary aromas) but also to a large extent by the period of contact with the lees after the secondary fermentation which imparts the autolytic characters (secondary aromas). This is thought to be a prized characteristic prompting many producers to introduce late disgorged variants. It cannot be disputed that a combination of fruit and a well-integrated autolytic character does add to the complexity of the wine and is the hallmark of the best wines, but a lot of the top Champagnes (not all by any means) are simply too yeasty giving them a rather uni-dimensional flavour profile. This is more evident in wines made from Chardonnay only (Blanc de Blancs) due to it’s rather neutral character. I have come across many tasting notes where the so called complexity is highly exaggerated when it is clearly evident that the autolytic notes (toasty, yeasty, biscuity, cheesy etc.) are the most predominant.
■ Price- This has to be the most significant factor which makes Champagne a candidate for being an overrated, and hence overpriced wine. Over the years, many different styles of Champagne have evolved and with each new ‘avatar’ came a price tag that catapulted it to a higher category. Bizarre it may seem, but in reality, it is the only wine which, in essence, defies the QPR (Quality-Price Ratio) theory. Take Prestige/Deluxe Cuvees for instance. These ‘crown jewels’ of many Champagne producers are sold at astronomical rates. Nothing seems wrong with that as top wines always command higher prices but try and find a rosé version of the same wine and you will realize the vagaries of Champagne pricing. A quick look at Wine-Searcher.com reveals that the average retail prices for a bottle of the pink versions of two of the most famous of these wines are almost double the amount as compared to the regular styles (Louis Roederer Cristal – $599 Vs. $308 and Moët & Chandon Dom Perignon – $416 Vs. $215). How can this vast gap be explained, considering that there is no significant difference, either in quality or wine-making procedures, between these two styles? Probably the colour makes the rosé more prestigious!
Many believe that Champagne’s inflated price is due to the high production costs. This is only partially true as a lot of these justifications do not often present a broader perspective vis-à-vis the expensive wine-making techniques related to many other fine wines, like the use of new oak (which is still rare in Champagne). Apart from a few notable exceptions, it is also not generally an investment grade wine as the delicate nature calls for extreme care in cellaring and temperature control, which, if lacking, can seriously alter the wine’s quality for worse.
Let me conclude with a reiteration that Champagne, in spite of the price, is and will continue to be one of the most sought after wines. A continued surge in demand, demonstrated by the recent expansion of the region, speaks volume of its popularity. Its uniqueness, strongly backed up by an image of sophistication and style, is its trump card and as long the hype surrounding its stature continues, Champagne will keep on enjoying its coveted position in the wine world. Any attempts to brand it as overrated and overpriced will only be considered as rare idiosyncrasies!