Hamish Anderson: Champagne Houses

Drinks: Drinks

There’s a serious contradiction in how the on-trade approaches still and sparkling wines

Even with the prospect of an impending recession, the demand for champagne seems insatiable. Pressure on stocks is at an all time high, hence the region’s decision to expand its vineyard area. Far from being a cynical exploitation of a buoyant market, to me, many of the proposals seem sensible.

There is, though, a far more pressing matter at hand and that is current quality. Champagne is an AC that allows some of the highest yields in France, yet even these gargantuan limits are regularly exceeded as growers, desperate to hit the maximum, over-produce and leave the excess on the vine, thus negating the whole point of regulating yields in the first place. In the vineyards, meanwhile, the litany of abuse goes on. It is no fluke that compared to France’s other fine wine regions there is a dearth of organic producers. To put it bluntly, it is too easy to sell over-produced, underripe grapes.

I recently ran a sparkling wine tasting with a group of corporate customers, the focus of which was smaller producers, though I included a couple of big brand champagnes, more to see how the general public would react, rather than through any desire to prove that big is bad.

An Aussie sparkler from Tasmania (comfortably the cheapest) won the palates of many. However it was the performance of a trio of site-specific, tiny production champagnes (all retailing between £30 and £40) that was most startling.

We disconnect our taste-buds from our brain when we taste the big houses

It wasn’t just the fact that these were recognised by all as the highest quality wines, but that their character shone through. As one taster put it – here were three distinct, truly great white wines that happened to have bubbles in them.

The two big names (including my house champagne!), retailed at roughly the same price and did not perform badly overall. However they just seemed so middle of the road and pedestrian, as if all the character had been squeezed out of them; it really got me thinking about the context of champagne in the on-trade.

The on-trade sells lots of champagne and plays a crucial role in building the brands. Yet rather like the general public (who stick to what they know), many of us seem to disconnect our taste buds from our brain when we taste the bigger houses’ offerings. Frankly, many are not very good.

Sommeliers and wine buyers are generally cynical of big brand companies, yet when it comes to champagne, we welcome them with open arms. The best boutique wineries make up the country’s top wine lists, yet with a few honourable exceptions, this ethos goes right out the window when you turn to the champagne section.

You could argue that consumers like to see their favourite brands on a list and the smaller producers don’t sell. If that’s true, we might as well all hand in our notice and let our employers fill the cellar with Pinot Grigio and New Zealand Sauvignon.

We have always been the ones to champion the niche, provided it is quality led, and I see no reason why this shouldn’t be true of champagne. The time has come for the on-trade to select fizz that reflects the value of the rest of the list.

Hamish Anderson

Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – September / October 2008

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