It’s clear to me now: French Champagne is the triumph of turning trash into treasure.
The first time I can remember buying a bottle of champagne was in 1988. I bought it in anticipation of the birth of our first child. The hospital staff offered to let me keep the bottle in their refrigerator (so long as it was wrapped up in foil) and we toasted Anne’s arrival in the universe.
Of course, it wasn’t actually champagne, but an Oregon sparkling wine from Argyle Winery designated “methode champenoise.” That’s because the Champagne region of France has been quite successful in prosecuting unauthorized uses of their region’s name.
Is it only exclusivity that makes Champagne’s sparklers so expensive?
The theory advanced on the English Wikipedia page for Champagne’s origin is that the region is too cold and wet to produce mature grapes with sufficient sugar and ripeness to product good quality wine. How could Champagne compete with the likes of Burgundy to the south with their more favorable climate?
The answer of course is in the “methode” of a second fermentation. The first fermentation is quite natural and produces a lower alcohol wine. Then man intervenes and engineers a secondary fermentation, which produces bubbles. In a flash, a poor wine becomes the tipple of kings and hip hop stars.
Of course, “a flash” takes at least 15 months of bottle aging, a week of mechanical riddling, disgorgement of the sediment, dosing with sugar, corking and labeling. Such processing means that there is considerable investment of capital and time. Repeated for over 300 million bottles per year.
But this is only part of the story. The consumer pays for this investment by the vintner, but also for the reputation French Champagne has built up. After all, the kings of France were crowned in Reims, which is the largest city in the region. How better to advance your fortunes than to make your local beverage the literal “drink of kings.”
There are other ways in which the farmers of Champagne are turning lead into gold. One recent blog post complained about the dumping of Paris garbage on the vineyards, injecting liquid iron into the soil to push yields and extreme use of pesticides. I’m not sure any of these are any more surprising than the practices of factory farms in the US but they are not flattering.
There are many less costly options. I tasted a wonderful sparkler from Volnay recently. Some French houses have offshoots in California. Spanish cava and Italian proseco are terrific options. And here in Oregon, there are fine choices from Argyle, Soter and the Dobbes Family. I suppose if I had to toast a grandchild some day, I would have many options to consider.