Food and drinks writer Nina Caplan on why Champagne is still considered the height of sophistication.
‘I love white Portugal wine better than Claret, Champaign (sic), or Burgundy,’ wrote Jonathan Swift ruefully: ‘I have a sad vulgar appetite.’ The strangest thing about this sentence is not that a sophisticated 18th-century satirist should prefer more basic drinks but that the criteria for sophistication have not changed in 300 years. Champagne is still the height of civilisation – however you choose to spell it.
Wines have flooded our thirsty island and we have certainly not turned them away, but nonetheless, we Brits have never relinquished our passion for ‘saute-bouchon’ or jumping cork, and not just any cork, either.
Even now that we have our own sparkling wines, we retain our fondness for the corks that jump out of wines made on some of the flattest, rainiest, most viticulturally unpromising land in France.
Maybe it is the affinity we feel for those poor, sodden pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay grapes, which have to struggle through the same grey days as we do.
Or maybe it’s old habits dying hard; we have always felt that the French knew best how to live, maybe taking our cue from the conquering Normans, and so if local wine (still and red, initially) followed the anointing oil at every coronation in Reims Cathedral for 1,400 years, we would follow suit, celebrating our own humble occasions in the manner of French royalty.
Since the 17th century Champagne has been intentionally filled with evanescent bubbles; nonetheless, like a royal succession, it offers continuity. All those King Louises and Charleses in their royal robes, raising a glass to their own glory!
No wonder our own Charles II, restored to the throne the Puritans had abolished after severing his father’s crowned head, made the newly bubbling beverage his own.
The French kings are long gone; ours persist, and with them a certain attachment to the status quo. Corks may jump, but the English prefer that everything else stays firmly fixed where it has always been.
And Champagne is not going anywhere. Cheaper bubbles crowd the market – some of them very good. Rain falls like the next flood, bringing mildew and grey rot to the vineyards.
The world, or at least the premium-drinking world, begins to shy away from the obviousness of enormous corporations – and Champagne’s biggest brands, the grandes marques, are mostly owned by behemoths.
And yet nothing affects Champagne’s world standing. Where once, the thousands of smaller growers simply sold their grapes on to become part of the big brands’ blends, now several of them keep their grapes and make their own wines under their own labels.
These ‘Grower Champagnes’, run by passionate winemakers with beliefs as individualistic as their wines, can sometimes make the big boys seem as sad and vulgar as Swift; never mind – Champagne needs both kinds of winemakers to thrive.
Continuity in the grandes marques comes from blending: immense effort, in the winery, to ensure that this year’s non-vintage tastes as much like last year’s as possible.
With the growers, it often comes with the genes. I have met Champagne makers who are the ninth generation of their family; many other makers of fine sparkling, like Rodolphe Peters of Champagne Pierre Peters or Raphael Bérèche of Bérèche et Fils, can trace their heritage back several generations but have very little idea when the first peasant ancestor actually planted a row of vines.
Champagne as we know it was originally an accident, and an annoying one at that: the monk Dom Pérignon, sometimes credited with modern Champagne’s invention, did everything he could to keep the wine still. However, the weather would chill, the yeast would stop working before it was exhausted, and come spring would awake, generate a second fermentation – and frequently, explode the bottle containing it. According to Hugh Johnson, in The Story of Wine, at that point nobody but a fool would have walked through a Champagne cellar without an iron mask to protect their face from flying glass.
The wilful bubbles were eventually harnessed, by stronger bottles and wire capsules. Dom Pérignon had achieved extraordinary quality via clever techniques for controlling pressing and blending, but he could not control public whim, and the bubbles he had tried to eradicate became his wines’ signature attribute.
Annoying for him, perhaps, but others had more to vex them, because those bubbles weren’t the only element of Champagne to rise to the top. Expensive presses, complicated production methods and the necessity for long cellaring put sparkling Champagne production beyond the means of those ancestral Peterses and Bérèches (whose name may well have been something else entirely: the first Champenois Peters was a 19th-century Luxembourgian who married into a vine-owning family). Champagne was made by the rich and drunk by them, too, which was – for the wine of kings – its own kind of continuity.
The ordinary folk carried on growing the grapes and selling them to the big boys. Phylloxera, the evil American louse that destroyed France’s vineyards, hurt them; the soldiers who marched and fought across Champenois soil didn’t help, either.
But the peasants stuck around, and kept planting their vines, and tearing their hair out over the wet weather or else, when there wasn’t wet weather, the dryness of vine roots buried deep in porous chalk.
Sometimes, wealthy incomers married local girls who brought vines as dowry to their marriages. When Florent and Lionel Boizel call themselves the sixth generation, they mean the sixth with that surname; Auguste Boizel had married a Julie Martin, and nobody knows how long her family had been growing Champagne grapes.
Let’s be clear – I am not suggesting that all Champagne makers have long histories, nor that winemakers from other regions don’t; one of the wonderful things about wine is how hard it is to generalise about almost any aspect of it.
But if Champagne retains its magic, despite the crémants and the cavas, the new world fizz and even the new English fizz, jostling for attention, it is not, as the 17th-century Irish playwright George Farquhar put it, because it ‘puns and quibbles in the glass’ – they all do that. It is because it has been made, and made much of, for 300 years as a sparkling wine, and for at least 1,500 years before that, and being restless creatures, we humans have a great fondness for roots.
A final example, from The Wine Society – itself a fairly venerable institution –Alfred Gratien Champagne. The company that makes The Society’s lovely own-label Champagne has been based in Epernay since 1864 and owned by wealthy German sparkling wine specialist, Henkell & Söhnlein, since 2000.
Nicolas Jaeger at Alfred Gratien
The continuity lies in two things: the tradition of fermentation in barrel, which is fairly unusual (Bollinger, too, does this, and even employs their own cooper to keep the barrels sound, which is really old-fashioned), and the cellar master, Nicolas Jaeger, whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather held the job before him. ‘You are a bit chez moi here,’ Jaeger says when I visit, and he isn’t kidding.
The oak comes from Burgundy barrels; it has been seasoned, while alive, by the rain so vital to France’s vineyards, and then later, by the wine that has, more than any other, made its name on continuity from soil to glass – and Burgundy surely bequeathed Champagne its pinot noir and chardonnay grapes, too.
Champagne’s place at the top of the hierarchy of sparkling wines is assured, like any aristocrat’s, by the length of its pedigree and the quality of its ancestors. As so often, Swift was right: his taste was vulgar, although given that he lived at a time when sparkling Champagne was the newest thing, perhaps he can be forgiven for failing to realise the quality of its breeding. Then again, he was not much in favour of good breeding, either, and stated, in A Treatise on Good Manners and Breeding, his strong preference for good sense – a quality, it must be admitted, that the Champagne-fancier can easily mislay.
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Nina Caplan is an arts, food, drink and travel writer with a regular column in the New Statesman. Her father Harold Caplan was a great champion of The Wine Society and served on the committee of management for 11 years. She is the Louis Roederer International Food & Drink Writer of the Year 2016.
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