The greatest achievement in the history of wine marketing and the biggest blunder may be one and the same: Casting Champagne as the singular wine of celebration.
The achievement side of this is obvious: For any wine producing region to get the entire world to associate its product above all others with joyfulness and triumph is an awe-inspiring feat of salesmanship.
Moreover, Champagne marketers have achieved an almost universal association of their product with luxury. Almost nobody is against luxury anymore, as Bolsheviks are now an extinct species. That’s true even in Russia, or perhaps especially there, where Chief Oligarch Vladimir Putin signed legislation on July 2 requiring that Champagne makers add a “Sparkling Wine” reference to the back label of bottles sold in Russia, whereas makers of Russian Shampanskoye (Russian for “champagne”) are exempt from the requirement.
The blundering aspect of what Champagne marketers have done during the past two centuries is nearly as obvious, but not quite. Associating Champagne with celebration and luxury causes most people, including wine lovers, to think of it as a wine that requires a special occasion, and enjoy it much less frequently as a result. That in turn has resulted in very widespread failure to appreciate Champagne’s reasonable affordability as well as its status as one of the world’s greatest and most versatile wines.
I’m sure you’re aware of this to some degree, given that you’re reading a wine-dedicated website. Still, my experience indicates that most wine lovers are nearly as afflicted as everybody else by the syndrome of thinking of Champagne as a special occasion luxury product. Here’s my argument supporting that assertion:
Example #1: My house is awash in wine, as you’d probably guess, and there’s never a night when I don’t bring up at least three bottles near dinner time. Often many more. My wife has been a happy participant in this routine for more than a decade, and she loves wine and has limitless access to it, but still: If I bring up a bottle of Champagne on a weeknight, she always says something like, “Champagne? What’s the occasion?”
Example #2: Because Champagne has been indelibly tagged as a luxury product, most wine lovers regard it as more expensive than it is—and often shy away accordingly. If you think you’re immune to this syndrome, just work through the following thought experiment with me. If you were planning on steak for dinner and came home from a wine shop with an entry-level bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet from a well-known winery, would your spouse or partner raise an eyebrow at a $40 bottle from Louis Martini, Buena Vista or Markham? My guess is…probably not. How about if you came home with a bottle of Mumm “Grand Cordon,” or Laurent-Perrier Brut “La Cuvée,” or Canard-Duchêne Brut? My guess is that you might be taken to task for extravagance or, at a minimum, hear, “Champagne? What’s the occasion?”
And yet, the three Champagnes in my thought experiment are all currently less expensive than the three Cabernets, at least when I just checked the website of Calvert-Woodley, a wine shop of note near me in Washington, D.C. I believe my example proves how widespread and deep-seated the special-occasion-syndrome is, especially if we reflect that “Napa Valley” is itself associated with luxury, as I know from having heard emerging regions try to cast themselves as “The Napa Valley of Country X" (or Y or Z...I hear this multiple times every year).
The Special Occasion Syndrome is an entirely natural result of marketing executives choosing to advertise their Champagne brand in publications where their ads can appear alongside the likes of Rolexes and Bentleys.
Although the syndrome is understandable, the result of it is madness: Those of us who love wine and prioritize it in our household budget don’t drink anywhere near as much Champagne as we should, or as often as we should, or on less-than-special occasions…as indeed we should.
So, please consider bringing home a bottle of Champagne this Thursday, or next Tuesday, or on Bastille Day if you need to wean yourself off the Special Occasion Syndrome.
To backtrack a bit, I'm aware that what I'm writing here must seem thoroughly insane to you if you've never tried a bottle of good Champagne. If your only experience with sparkling wine is the hideous swill poured for toasts at weddings, you'd rightly dismiss all the hubbub about Champagne as effete foolishness.
Moreover, if you've tasted solid sparkling wines and passably good Champagnes but never had a truly excellent one, you might be tempted to dismiss the whole category as something less than real wine. I have heard real people make statements to this effect. That's right: I've heard otherwise sensible people (mostly men) claim that Champagne is not real wine.
On the contrary, there are actually very good reasons to believe that Champagne is the world's greatest wine.
Excellent Champagne can provide innumerable aromatic nuances. It can deliver remarkable depth and persistence of flavor while remaining restrained in intensity and delicate in body. Its subtle power is demonstrated by its (underappreciated) ability to stand up to many foods, and to develop positively over many years of ageing. No other wine is as invigorating, and no wine can match it for textural complexity. Period.
Champagne's amazing versatility can be grasped by simply recognizing that it is not only one of the most food-friendly of all the world's wines, but also simply the best of all aperitifs. For sipping before dinner or as a partner for hors d'oeuvres, only Riesling or dry Sherry come anywhere close to Champagne. Its naturally high acidity provides a powerful stimulus to the appetite, and its effervescence makes Champagne peerless as a palate refresher. There is simply no better way to assure the success of a dinner party than by using the Pavlovian power of a popping cork, and when you hand a guest a foaming flute of Champagne, you tell them that you regard their arrival as a special occasion without having to say a word.
And yet, it is also terrific with food. The appearance of Champagne may prove surprising at the dinner table, but surprises are an important part of enjoyable dining, and the wine will convince any skeptics if paired with the right foods. There are many “right foods” beyond classic partners like oysters or caviar. Champagne's effervescence makes it a perfect textural foil for almost any soup, whether based on broth or cream (or tomatoes, for that matter; Champagne rocks with gazpacho). Moreover, Champagne's strong natural acidity neutralizes vinegar in a way that makes it ideal with salads. It is wonderful with almost any finfish that is either poached, sautéed or fried (though not grilled), and it is downright incredible with sushi and sashimi. Champagne works very well with lighter preparations of chicken, pork or veal, and is fantastic with white sausages (Boudin Blanc to the French or Weisswurst to the Germans). It is also excellent with rice, pasta, eggs and many vegetarian foods.
I could go on, but you get the idea. If you haven't tried Champagne with food, here are a few practical guidelines: Lighter, Chardonnay-based Blanc de Blancs bottlings make a particularly wonderful aperitif, though blended Bruts and Rosés work well too, and are actually preferable if more substantial hors d'oeuvres will be in play. With subsequent courses, you should simply follow the basic principle for pairing any wine with food, which is to seek symmetry between the robustness of the two. That is, with lighter and more delicate foods, use lighter bodied, subtly flavored Champagnes; with more robust foods, choose richer, more assertive Champagnes.
One last way to make the case for Champagne as the world's greatest wine is to observe that it is amazingly durable, age-worthy stuff. The power of these wines is under-appreciated by almost everyone who isn't fairly expert about wine, largely because it is so counter-intuitive. A light, delicate, fluffy little wine have durability, could it? Damn right it could! As my WRO colleague Ed McCarthy will attest, many of the best Champagnes from the 1996 vintage are only now starting to hit their prime. Some of these will not hit their peak for another decade. And there are wines from the 1988 vintage that still haven't peaked.
So there you have it. Pony up soon for a bottle of Champagne for a weeknight for no particular occasion…and strike a blow in favor of rational appreciation of excellence!