The champagne industry has now successfully persuaded us that the only really celebratory drink is champagne. Other fizzy wines will not do. The bubbly wines of the rest of French are never heard of in India (though Vijay Mallya owns one of them); Prosecco is okay as an aperitif but not worthy of a real celebration; and Indian sparkling wine is déclassé.
Such is the success of the champagne industry’s marketing that Chandon, an Indian sparkling wine made in Maharashtra from non-Champagne grapes (Chenin Blanc, which you don’t find in Champagne), has taken the country by storm because its name, Chandon, echoes Moet et Chandon, the world’s best-selling champagne. It is made by Moet-Hennessy which owns Moet et Chandon.
But now, the leading champagne houses are pushing their luxury wines in India, leading people to ask “What is a luxury champagne?”
It is a good question. But there is no simple answer. French wine is about terroir so the vineyard is of paramount importance. The great wines of Bordeaux or Burgundy, for instance, are ranked according to vineyards. Champagne has always been the great exception to this rule. Most of the big champagne houses buy their grapes from independent farmers. Rare is the Champagne about which it can be said, “all the grapes were grown in the same vineyard”.
The cult of luxury champagne came about because of the tradition that when the vintage was very good (i.e. the grapes were perfect), the big houses would make their usual champagne, but would hold back the best grapes for a special champagne. This champagne would be matured for many years and then released under a different name. That is how Moet et Chandon launched Dom Perignon, its luxury champagne.
Some houses, on the other hand, did go the vineyard route. For instance Cristal, one of the world’s best and most expensive champagnes comes from grapes growing in a single vineyard. But this was the exception.
As time has gone on and the demand for luxury Champagne has grown, the big houses have had to devise new ways to cope. Moet et Chandon has now issued a new Dom Perignon every single year and over the last decade, the production has been so high that nobody at Moet Hennessy is allowed to say how many bottles of Dom are sent to the market every year.
So what makes a luxury champagne like Dom Perignon so special? Why does it cost several times the price of normal Moet?
The cynical view is: marketing. But that’s not actually true. If you like champagne, then a blind tasting will reveal that Dom is several times better than the relatively anodyne champagne sold as Moet et Chandon.
How do they do it? Well, the funny thing about the Champagne region is that there are actually Grand Cru villages with the best vineyards though this does not usually reflect on the bottles. So, Moet Hennessy, with its vast resources, buys up the best grapes produced in all the Champagne villages every year from the best vineyards. (The grapes that go into normal Moet are much cheaper and not so special). Then, the wine is blended by Richard Geoffrey, one of the greatest winemakers in France. Only when it passes the most rigorous tasting standards does it go out into the world.
I know the Dom Perignon story because I’ve visited their vineyards, and seen their wine being made. But I’m sure that, to some extent, the same is true for all the other great luxury Champagnes of France.
Even those that are always sneered at as being marketing successes and rarely drunk in France, such as the rap musicians’ favourite Ace of Spades, are actually very good champagnes and perform well in blind tastings.
So the general rules I find are that a) there are virtually no bad wines in Champagne, b) much of the basic Champagne, however, can be boring because it appeals to the lowest common denominator and c) the luxury Champagnes are not just about hype; they are very good wines.
Yes, they are expensive. But consider this: the best wines of Champagne cost a fraction of the best wines of Bordeaux or Burgundy. For what they are, they are actually undervalued.
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Vir Sanghvi is India's best-known food writer and TV host. His book, Rude Food won the Cointreau Award for Best Food Literature book in the world and his food and travel shows on channels such as TLC and NDTV Good Times have won numerous awards and continue to be watched by millions.
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