Bubbles Not So Galore Anymore (December 11, 2007)
In 1982, when I was wet behind the ears as a wine writer, I was invited to a champagne tasting at the King Edward Hotel. The host was Robert Gourdin, the traveling ambassador for Moët & Chandon, the largest champagne house. Gourdin had two party tricks sabering a bottle of champagne and creating a champagne fountain.
Sabering champagne is the ultimate expression of Attention Deficit Disorder Syndrome. First practiced by Napoleon's victorious generals hot from the battlefield, the purpose is to remove the cork, the wire muzzle and the mouth of the bottle with a single stroke of a heavy sword.
Gourdin had constructed a conical pyramid of Baccarat crystal glasses which stood five feet high on a table. The idea was that he would pour the single glass at the pinnacle to overflowing and the champagne would cascade down filling the glasses below. After several bottles every glass would be filled and the fountain would then be disassembled stem by stem and handed to the appreciative guests. A jaded press corps, including two TV crews, had turned out in force at the thought of free champagne and the entertainment to boot.
Since Robert Gourdin had been traveling around North America with this act I imagine he got a bit bored with the repetition in city after city and he decided to reverse the order of his performance. Instead of starting with the fountain he took up his saber. A champagne bottle contains a pressure of up to 90 lbs per square inch, equivalent to the pressure in a double-decker bus tire. He adopted his sabering position, instructed the cameras to roll and with a flourish swept the blade along the side of the bottle. Unfortunately, he did not aim in the right direction: the cork and muzzle with its glass collar shot like a mortar shell across the ballroom and landed right into the pyramid of glasses, bringing them all down. A CTV cameraman who had moved in for a close-up was cut across the forehead by flying glass and he had just returned unscathed from covering the war in Lebanon.
I tell you this story because you won't find such a performance happening any more. Champagne is getting too scarce a commodity to be treated so cavalierly. Such is the worldwide demand for champagne driven by newly-minted millionaires in China, India and Russia that the French are researching ways to expand the 35,000 hectares of vines that have been delimited since 1927 for growing the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes for this exquisite beverage. Champagne, by law which most countries around the world now respect, thanks to frequent court cases brought against sparkling wine producers who have used the name, can only come from this region 180 kilometers east of Paris.
If champagne prices are already looking pretty steep, here are my recommendations for wallet-friendly, dry bubbly.
Seaview Brut (Australia) LCBO #216333 $11.95
Bottega Vino dei Poeti Prosecco (Italy) LCBO #897702 $13.35
Segura Viudas Brut (Spain) LCBO #158493 $14.15
Colio CEV Lily Sparkling (Ontario) LCBO #509083 $14.95
Wolf Blass Yellow Label Sparkling (Australia) LCBO # 649996 $16.95
Champagne sales worldwide have grown from 287 million bottles in 2002 to 321 million in 2006. This year they will probably reach 330 million. Currently, estimates suggest that the designated vineyards of the region can only produce a maximum of 350 million bottles. The net effect is that champagne prices will rise and some canny producers are sitting on stocks waiting for that to happen. (As an aside, I attended a tasting of First Growth Bordeaux at Sopra restaurant last month, conducted by Robert Parker, the world's most famous wine critic. Such is the global demand for these icon clarets that he predicted that it won't be long before a case (12 bottles) of First Growth Bordeaux will be released at $20,000 to $25,000.)
If the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO the French organization that regulates controlled place names) gives its blessing to expanding the region, new plots adjacent to already existing vineyards could be available to champagne houses by 2009. Wines grown in these new vineyards would probably not be on wine shop shelves before 2015.
Another factor that is seen as a mixed blessing in Champagne is global warming. Grapes are ripening more, which means the vintners have had to adapt their winemaking techniques. According to Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, the Associate Director of Champagne Louis Roederer, "Climate change is a major challenge for our generation ... Planting grape vines in a southern climate in which the fruit was unlikely to reach optimum maturity was quite an achievement in French wine-growing history. However, producing from those grape vines a sparkling wine fine enough to grace Europe's most discerning tables was no less than extraordinary a global achievement."
Lecaillon told me that over the past 30 years average temperatures in the region have risen from 10.2° C to nearly 12° C. Some of his colleagues are even looking at vineyard land in southern England, which shares the same limestone soil as Champagne.
So buy your champagne while you can because next year you'll definitely be paying more.