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.