Recently I was invited to join in a competition to win a scholarship for the French Wine Society’s Champagne Master-Level Program. Of course, I would love to win such a scholarship. Learning more about this intriguing wine, digging deep into the how’s and why’s, to understand more of one of the world’s most magical drinks, who wouldn’t?
To win, I only have to write an article on the essence of champagne. And there, I have a problem, because I have never visited the region of Champagne and my knowledge of the wine is limited. My knowledge comes from tasting many wonderful examples and from books. I read about the history of champagne, of course: about Jean-Rémy Moët and Napoleon, about Veuve Cliquot and Dom Perignon. After reading a book about the science of champagne, I had to admit: it really is a magical thing to be able to make a drink with tiny bubbles of air, rising to the surface in long pearly strings.
But in this, champagne is not unique. There are other wines and winemakers that manage that feat, and so the tiny bubbles are not the essence of champagne, I think. Maybe I should talk about the soil then? About chalk and cru’s, prehistoric ages and fossils? Or about caves, crayères and constant temperatures? Several wine regions have all that too. No, this is not the essence of champagne either. The grape varieties then? The harvesting of rather unripe fruit? Aging the wines for months on the lees? Second fermentation in the bottle? No, all this is also done in other wine regions.
Now I have to start racking my brain really hard. What else is there? Is it the climate, on the edge of the accepted wine-making world? No, wine (and sparkling) is even made in The Netherlands, my home country, although not with the same quality, I admit.
Is it perhaps the perfect combination of all these elements? Maybe, but I am still not convinced. I still don’t see what it is that makes the whole world want to drink champagne on Valentine’s Day (apart from the fact that it is a delicious drink).
Wait a minute, Valentine’s Day! That clever invention of advertisers and marketing men, good for selling millions of roses, chocolates and bottles of champagne. Could it be that the essence of champagne lies in marketing, in carefully building a brand image? Getting the courts of 19th century Europe to drink this elegant and at the same time frivolous wine? Offering it to baptise ships, drench Formula I-winners, toast Wimbledon champions? Could that be the essence, then? No, that would be all too cynical.
So let’s conclude that I don’t know precisely what the essence of champagne is. But I would really like to learn!
And then there is something else: I am not happy with some aspects of ‘Champagne’ at the moment. I recently learned that the Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne, which promotes and guards the interest of the wine and its producers, is filing a lawsuit against an Australian wine communicator, Jayne Powell, who works under the name of Champagne Jayne.
I quote a fellow wine writer*: ‘Although Jayne is a great champagne enthusiast and advocate, she stands accused of benefitting from the renown of Champagne and for tarnishing Champagne’s reputation by occasionally mentioning and tasting non-Champagne sparkling wines.’
But Jayne does so to better explain the essence of champagne to her students, which is what every wine communicator does! Is this how ‘the essence of champagne’ has to be defended? To prosecute a person until her means of income is destroyed? That cannot be true! I think the CIVC is damaging the name ánd the essence of champagne with this lawsuit! A wine that has to defend its name by attacking one of its most sincere promotors, loses a lot of its glamour and specialness to me.
A difficult topic, the essence of champagne…
*Jim Budd follows the lawsuit closely. At this moment, Jayne Powell is waiting for a mediation attempt in March. Read more here.