I came to the realisation that Champagne is one of the most affordable everyday luxuries in wine consumption, tied closely with dry aperitif sherries (but that, perhaps unjustly, lacks prestige). I feel that there is no need for me to explicate the luxury status of this yellow (or pink) effervescent drink, for it is well and truly established. Champagne is luxury. But I want to go beyond this, beyond the idea that Champagne is an exercise in celebration of some meritorious action. For despite its exaltation, Champagne is still a wine, and it will still face the same degree of scrutiny as a Chablis or a Barolo ought.
And if I begin to do this, if I gaze upon a flute of non-vintage Bollinger, a full-bodied and elegant wine with resounding tension, I find a drama of bold textures layered into one coherent whole. Of brioche, almond meal, and an echo of heady blue cheese cut with the laser-like precision of tuned acids, and a tone of poached pear and lemon blossom. There is resonant finesse within the body. Bollinger is extraordinary, for it feels firm and tastes celebratory.
Then there is Perrier-Jouët Blason Rosé, a pink sparkling, full in a different way to the Bollinger. It has an indefatigable and tempting elegance, a rhythmic dance full of kinetic energy and intensity – it is a perfumed Champagne, blooming lushly with the springtime smell of orange blossom, violets and singing petals of rose. The rounded bottom weight of strawberry and raspberry helps the wine melt and spread over the tongue, saturating and coating it with infinitesimal bubbles, each opulent and special pearls on the palate.
It is Champagne, and perhaps only Champagne as far as sparkling wines go, that can offer such extraordinary refreshment and a sense of thrilling excitement. A good wine does just that. I was besotted upon my first sip of a German Riesling from the Rheingau, a 2012 Schloss Johannisberg Kabinett, which bore the same marked features of balance and refreshment in light of all of its contrasts. It was slightly sweet but not cloying; off-dry. Long but not overbearing. It was fruity and flowery but with speckles of abstraction – the taste of its terroir was prevalent. Non-Vintage Champagne has the fortune of constantly achieving balance, for it is a composite of various vintages, all blended to achieve a specific and well-delineated house style. This is one reason why Champagne is an extraordinary luxury in the wine world, it lets you experience the same moment of unfiltered exuberance in a self-dictated instant, again and again.
One buys into Champagne – a contract is fulfilled when you buy into a brand. When you choose to buy Louis Roederer over Pol Roger, you are entering into a contract which stipulates that the Roederer will taste as you expected it to be; a history of experiences prevails. Individual subjectivities will inevitably enter into this equation, for I prefer Moët over Mumm and I fail to understand NV Veuve Clicquot or NV Piper Heidsieck, as they’re just not me. But that is no matter to me, for they retain their pleasures – they succeed in fulfilling their style. And it is this pleasure, of a wine of such extraordinary quality so readily available that fascinates me. It is such an extraordinary luxury when Champagne is available within the unassuming supermarket alcohol cabinet, rendering it an affordable and accessible luxury. Whilst a bottle of Moët might be covered in an innocent film of aged dust in the inconspicuous suburbian deli, the very same Moët may be stacked up to dizzying heights, on branded boxes in a fine wine merchant during the Christmas time. And in that way, Champagne is the great equaliser; a relatively egalitarian luxury, for even the pedestrian has had Champagne, and even the pedestrian knows to buy and consume Champagne in times of celebration. You just don’t see Le Montrachet or Clos Vougeot retaining the same celebratory, vivacious or gregarious magnitude as Champagne – acceptably drunk whenever and wherever. For what other wine at $100, or perhaps more generously, at the $50 mark is so good, so reassuring and self-satisfying than a bottle of Champagne? That to me is the mystery of Champagne as a luxury commodity – it’s everywhere, and it’s not unobtainable or inhibitive like some of the great Bordeaux or Burgundy cru wines.
Why is this the case for Champagne? Is this inherent to the beverage? Or is it drowning in marketing? What projects Champagne into the luxury stratosphere? It is tempting to focus on the marketing – A blonde Scarlett Johansson clutching the neck of a Moët Chandon wrapped in golden foil, or the sublimely austere Christoph Waltz shot in black and white to showcase the mature and rather vintage Dom Perignon P2: it’s truly endorsement. But this isn’t done in a traditional sense or direct manner. In my view, it’s not a matter of whether or not a person will purchase Champagne, for that is already established. People set out to buy Champagne. Rather, it is a question of what brand of Champagne will be purchased. Champagne houses, through marketing, force a deeper connection with the consumer. For whilst Champagne is Champagne, one asks if they align with the English, say, Bollinger and its connection with 007 and The Royals, or Hollywood with the celebrity-driven, glam-focussed Moët Chandon; or perhaps more imaginatively through some sense of tradition where the consumer’s mother insistently drank Dom Ruinart, as she was a closeted oenophile historian besotted with Champagne. The taste for a specific house of Champagne prevails on account of tradition and self-alignment with a particular image.
Therefore, it is not enough to talk of Champagne as a celebratory drink, reducible to some bubbly and acidic grape drink housed in heavy glass and nice ornament, but to talk of Champagne as a maneuver. A grand gesture. For Champagne is the everyman byword for luxury. Nothing comes close to Champagne when it comes to accessible luxury – an apparently plain contradiction of terms that somehow manages to magically sustain itself, coming to epitomise a quintessential object of desire – metamorphosing into a necessary prescription for joyousness and an equally necessary remedy for defeat. Perhaps it is this universality – a drink for all occasions – with the ability to heal as it reinforces, to bolster as it reaffirms, that makes it a luxury – the do all and be all tonic for an otherwise uncertain condition aptly called life.