Champagne

Sparkling Wine Takes Flight in Economy

Traveling.  It’s one of my favorite things in life, but each time I begin the long slog to my seat in the back of an airplane I look with longing at the lucky few in first and business class.  The wide seats, fluffy duvets, and real cutlery are enough to inspire envy.  Then I spy someone sipping something bubbly from a (real) glass.  This causes a sharp pang of jealousy.  Every.  Single.  Time.

plane bubbles

For too long holders of coach class tickets have been denied a sparkling wine option in their cabin.  This, to me, has always been counter-intuitive on the part of the airlines.  The greatest concentration of passengers embarking on a vacation to somewhere are seated in economy.  People going on vacation are happy people.  People who want to toast the start of an adventure.  Luckily, three enlightened airlines are changing the sparkling status quo.  Bubbles are now an option for everyone, coach passengers included, on Delta, JetBlue, and Southwest.

All three are going the fee for purchase route for domestic flights.  However, if you happen to be flying international on Delta you’ll be offered Avissi Prosecco free of charge in coach class regardless of whether you paid to upgrade to the exit row for the extra leg room or you’re traveling on the rock-bottom-cheap-middle-seat-next-to-the-lavatory ticket.  It’s not Champagne, and you will drink it out of a plastic cup, but I daresay it makes traveling in the back of the Airbus feel just a little more celebratory.  Cheers to that.

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Why Is Champagne So Expensive?

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It’s Valentine’s Day.  Perhaps, like many, you’re planning on buying some bubbly to toast your sweetheart (or your singledom) tonight.  According to Bankrate.com, we’ll spend an average of $51.91 on a bottle of Champagne for Valentine’s Day this year. Given that a lot of people are prepared to spend more than $50 on a single bottle of wine for a Tuesday night, it’s obvious that we are in expensive territory.  But, why is Champagne so expensive? Before I answer, let me clarify that this discussion applies to wines labeled with the word Champagne that hail from the region of Champagne in France, not necessarily to sparkling wines from other parts of France or the rest of the world.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, there are two answers to this question:

First, the word Champagne alone is in itself a luxury brand; it’s an aspirational product, and the Champenois protect its status by pricing it accordingly.

Secondly, Champagne is arguably one of the most hands-on, labor intensive, and expensive wines in the world to produce.  The average cost of the grapes needed to make a single bottle is approximately $8.  That’s $8 per bottle in basic raw materials before adding the cost of glass, corks, labels, equipment (tanks, barrels, presses, etc.) and labor (vineyard, winery, marketing/sales) required to make and sell the wine, the winery facility in which it is made and aged, and the land upon which that building, and any vineyards the winery owns, sit.  On top of those costs, by law Champagne may not be released for sale until it has had a minimum of 15 months of aging.  This means that from the time the grapes are picked until the first day a Champagne is available for sale – at minimum – almost two years have passed with no return on investment.  And for the record, very few Champagne producers do only the bare minimum when it comes to aging.

Since we’re starting with a pretty high cost of admission, how do you get the most for your money, whether that falls into the high-end or average category?

At the High-End

Tip #1:  If you’re going to spend more than $150 on a Champagne, don’t go for the Dom.  I am asked quite frequently by customers if Dom Perignon is “worth it.”  For my money, no. Fortunate as I have been to taste Dom on many occasions in my line of work, I have always been underwhelmed by it.  If you have your heart set on  a high-end brand with a lot of cachet, spend the extra $25 – $30 bucks and buy Cristal (around $200).  Louis Roederer, the house that produces Cristal, has the largest share of organic and bio-dynamic vineyard holdings in Champagne so the quality of the fruit going into the wine is very fine.

If a big name isn’t important to you, seek out Laurent-Perrier “Grand Siècle” Brut (around $130).  While Laurent-Perrier is a well-known Champagne house, this particular wine is not produced in nearly as large quantities as are Dom Perignon and Cristal, so it’s more under-the-radar and thus less expensive.  It is an elegant Champagne that shows purity and depth as well as the chalky minerality that makes the region unique.  A classic.

For a richer take at the high-end try Krug Grand Cuvée (around $160), which is full of generous nutty, toasty, and creamy flavors.  An excellent choice to savor solo or to pair with a meal.

At $50 Give or Take

Tip #2:  One secret to finding really good Champagne well below Cristal pricing and often around $50 lies in two letters – RM. Every Champagne has a set of what looks like initials listed somewhere in tiny print, usually at the bottom of the front label.  The letters RM stand for récoltant manipulant, which translates to grower-producer, also known as grower Champagnes.  Chances are you won’t recognize any of their names or labels.  All the bottles you might recognize, like Veuve Cliquot, carry the letters NM.  NM stands for négociant manipulant.  These Champagnes are referred to as the “big houses.”  For most, the names and packages of NM Champagnes conjure up notions of luxury and class, which inspires confidence that we are getting something that is worth its high price tag. Grower Champagnes, in addition to being harder to find, offer no recognizable labels to reassure us of their worth.  That’s not because they are not as good as their NM brethren (Many are better for less money!), but because big houses have financial resources at their disposal to produce, advertise, and market on a scale that RM Champagnes do not.

If you are curious about grower Champagnes, I enthusiastically encourage you to seek them out, but I’ll be straight – your local grocery store, big box liquor store, or Costco is unlikely to carry any Champagne with RM on the label.  You’re going to have to go to a specialty shop, wine bar, or online retailer to find them.  One excellent online resource is Fat Cork, which specializes in grower Champagne and ships to about 30 states.

If you’d like names of RM or NM Champagnes to look for in your area and price range, please post in the comments or email me and I’ll be happy to offer some suggestions.

 

 

 

Nine Reasons to Drink White Wine

They say Cabernet is King, but I don’t believe them.  Here are nine reasons why you should drink more white wine.

Diversity

For the purposes of this post (and this blog), the term “white wine” includes not just your everyday Chardonnay but also rosé, orange, almost all sparkling, Sherry, Madeira, most Sake, and any dessert wine that is not red.  Basically any wine you serve chilled as you would a regular table white counts.  White wines run the gamut from crisp and fresh, to full-bodied and buttery, to off-dry, to sweet, to aromatic and floral, to nutty, and everything in between.  There’s virtually no chance that there isn’t something here for everyone to love.

Refreshment

Sometimes you just want something refreshing, whether that’s due to the time of year, the meal you’re planning, or because it’s simply what you’re craving.  When is the last time you described a Syrah (or most any red for that matter) as refreshing?  Refreshment is white wine’s wheelhouse.

Diet

Are you a vegetarian?  Pescatarian?  Vegan?  Trying to incorporate more plant-based meals into your diet?  Maybe you’re just eating less red meat lately?  If any of these is true, you’ll find far better pairing options for what you’re eating now in the white wine family.

Acidity

Speaking of pairing options, there’s a reason sommeliers love Riesling, Chenin Blanc, a multitude of Italian whites, Sauvignon Blanc, Sherry, and rosé just to name a few.  That reason is acidity.  At its very basic level, acidity makes your mouth water, which makes you want to eat.  When it comes to pairing with food, wines higher in acid allow for more versatility and more options.  They can match citrus flavors and vinaigrettes, balance the richness of creamy sauces, soups, and cheese, cleanse the palate when paired with fatty or fried foods, hold their own with high acid foods like green apples and tomatoes, and provide the best partner for things that are difficult to pair like asparagus and artichoke.  There are many high acid white wines out there, but not so many reds.

Fewer Stains

Drinking white wine means fewer wine stains on your clothes, your carpet, and your teeth.  Who isn’t in favor of that?

Reduce Headaches

For those who experience wine-induced headaches not caused by excess consumption, choosing white wine may mean enduring fewer of them.  While there are no comprehensive studies on this topic, doctors overwhelmingly agree that wine headaches are not caused by sulfites.  Sulfites, typically present at higher levels in white than in red, cause a severe asthmatic reaction in those who have sulfite allergy, but they are not believed to trigger headaches.  While there are many theories on what does, the one that seems to have the most traction in the scientific community is that wine headaches are somehow associated with tannin.  Good news for white wine drinkers as whites are far lower in tannin than reds.

Red is Still an Option

Many white wines are made from red grapes.  Rosés are the obvious example and are made from pretty much any red grape you can think of.  I’ve also tasted a number of traditional still whites made from red grapes from Oregon, California, and Germany in the last couple of years.  The most successful of these, in my opinion, were made from Pinot Noir.  It’s a great new way to experience an old favorite.  And then there’s Champagne.  Two of the three traditional Champagne grapes are red (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) but all Champagne is in the white wine family.

Because…Champagne

If you don’t drink white you can’t drink Champagne, and that would be a tragedy.

The Final Pitch

While there are unquestionably some amazing red wines out there, and I have been very lucky to taste more than a few, for me the most exciting, memorable, and astonishing wines I’ve experienced have overwhelmingly been white.  The best are rich without being weighty, light without sacrificing texture, lit from within by acidity, and anchored by a striking depth of flavor. They have a stunning, almost crystalline purity; a complexity that invites quiet discovery, like turning pages in a book.  The best whites are every complementary opposite – familiar memories and new adventures in a single sip.  They have made me a believer in the great power of subtlety. I hope they’ll make you one, too.