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W ine & D ine

Fizzy Revelations A cork-popping insight into all things bubbly; from the enduring worldwide popularity of Champagne and interesting facts to fascinating new research that unravels the science behind the luxury tipple. Text: Gavin Nazareth Photographs: Frederic Belge

France’s Champagne region, 144km northeast from Paris


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o other sound screams celebration more than the sharp, explosive pop of a Champagne cork. Popping a bottle has been a tradition synonymous with special occasions; to toast newlyweds, seal a deal, welcome an envoy, celebrate a new king, a new champion, a new baby, even a new year. It’s customary to smash a bottle against a ship’s prow before its maiden voyage while, at many sporting events, it is not even consumed; instead, Champagne is sprayed over the new champion and his fans. In the world of wine, Champagne has the most unique tale to tell. Its sparkling effervescence has fascinated all. Historically, it was the toast of the royal courts in Europe, holding emperors, kings and the aristocracy in its fizzy thrall. In more modern times, it became the tipple of choice for Hollywood A-listers and rock stars as they swigged straight from the bottle and sang paeans about it. James Bond prefers Moët & Chandon’s Dom Pérignon, while Madonna sips Krug. But it was the hip-hop set that became the unofficial sommeliers for the bubbly industry. Stars like Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs, Kanye West and others made brands like Cristal a household name while waxing lyrically about it and quaffing it on nights out. Even rapperturned-record-mogul Jay-Z worshipped at the altar when he rapped “My motto, stacks rocks

like Colorado/Auto off the Champagne, Cristals by the bottle” on his 1996 song ‘Can’t Knock The Hustle’. But after years of popping Cristal corks in music videos and his nightclubs, the king of bling decided to boycott it in early 2012 over a perceived racial slur by the managing director of Louis Roederer, the house that produces the Champagne. Elite Champagne houses in France held their collective breath over which one of them he would switch allegiance to, but the rapper eventually settled on a lesser-known brand, Armand de Brignac, in what critics say was a multi-million dollar endorsement deal. In Touch magazine recently reported that Hollywood superstar Leonardo DiCaprio spent US$ 3 million on cases of Armand de Brignac to celebrate his 38th birthday at New York’s West Village hotspot The Darby.

seems to act as a useful portfolio diversification tool during periods of uncertainty”. Driven by such statements, collectors and investors vie with each other to acquire rare bottles, further buoying the luxe factor and mystique of Champagne. In June 2012, eleven bottles of some of the world’s oldest Champagne from Juglar, a now defunct house, Veuve Clicquot and Heidsieck were auctioned for US$ 156,636 after spending 170 years at the bottom of the sea in a shipwreck; the Cliquot sold for the top price of US$ 18,721 per bottle. In September the same year, the world’s leading wine auctioneer Acker Merrall & Condit put a rare bottle of 1966 Blanc de Blanc and a bottle of 1947 Krug Collection under the hammer, both of which sold for US$ 13,877 each. The top lot was six bottles of 1959 Salon, which achieved a record price of US$ 28,385.

U nder The H ammer Even in the world of high finance and investment the thirst for fizz continues unabated, with the word on the street being that bubbles from Dom Pérignon, Cristal and Krug Vintage from collectible years such as 2002 offer strong investment potential. The London-based Liv-ex Champagne 25 Index, which tracks the price of 25 of the world’s most sought-after Champagnes, wrote on their blog that while the rest of the fine wine market continued to experience a downward trend, “June 2012 has proved to be a sunny success for one region at least,” adding that “Champagne

C hampagne , D emystified What gives this artisanal golden-hued wine its almost mythical status? Borne of ancient knowledge and terroir through a process that is costly and labour-intensive, there seems to be more madness than method to this production of white wine using red grapes. Award-winning author Natalie MacLean in her book Red, White, and Drunk All Over probably put it best when she wrote, “First we’ll find one of the coldest climates on earth for growing grapes; and then we’ll plant red ones, even though we want to make white wine. We’ll

be completely dependent on top-quality grapes but we won’t actually own any vineyards – we’ll just have fun negotiating every year with the grape growers. Then, when it’s time to make the wine, we’ll do it not once but twice: we’ll ferment it in the fall and again in the spring. Over the winter, we’ll stand the bottles nearly upside down in massive racks and give them a quick turn every day for about eight weeks until all the goopy dead-yeast stuff slides into the neck. Then we’ll freeze the top and let the stuff fly out. We’ll add some sweetened wine and recork it and wait for it to age somewhere between three to 25 years. To do all this we’ll sink a small fortune into equipment, even though we won’t see any return for 15 years or so. Voila! Champagne in 300 easy steps!” Or, maybe a journey through the region where it is produced and gets its moniker from could explain it all. The name refers to both the wine (le Champagne), made by a traditional method known as méthode champenoise, and the legally denoted region (la Champagne). Champagne is 144km northeast of Paris, the northernmost point in the country where viticulture is possible. Nature has not been kind to the region; it is swept by icy winds from the east during winter and scorched by a merciless sun in summer. The bone-white chalk soil, the result of the fossilised marine organisms that once lived in the warm inland sea that covered most of France until 70 million years ago, is light and poor. Through being porous, it absorbs water that it releases again during dry periods, naturally irrigating the vines. It also retains the heat from the sun, warming and, in the process, ripening the grapes. In the end it all comes together to create a unique terroir like no other that produces wines low in sugar and alcohol, light in body, but with a refreshing acidity. But it doesn’t end there. The Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVIC) set up to protect the region’s economic interests has a framework of rules so stringent it would deter any sensible person. These include the most appropriate places to grow and the most suitable grape types: most Champagne is a blend of three varieties – pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay. Other regulations cover vine pruning, the yield of the vineyard, the degree of pressing applied to the grapes, and the time the wine must remain on the lees. Then there is the limited area that ensures demand always outstrips the supply. Grapes for Champagne are today grown in four districts in the region: on the slopes of the Marne Valley, the Reims Mountain in the north, Cote des Blancs in the south, and Cote des Bar in the southeast. Almost 90 percent of the vineyards are owned by the over 15,000 growers who sell their grapes to the big Champagne houses that own the remaining percentage of the vineyards.

Myths and L egends Above: The very spot where the 17th-Century Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon first “drank the stars” Top right and directly below: Harvest-time in Champagne

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Even the legacy of bubbly is shrouded in myth. One legend says the namesake of Moët & Chandon’s tete de cuvee is credited

“I only drink Champagne when I’m happy, and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I am not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty” – L i l y B o l l i nge r

with making the discovery. “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!” Dom Pérignon, the blind 17th Century Benedictine monk and cellar master of Hautvilliers Abbey, is supposedly to have exclaimed on tasting his new creation. Another narrative tells of him trying unsuccessfully to rid this “mad wine” of its bubbles. Many dismiss this as marketing hype and claim the English were in fact making sparkling wine two decades before the French, adding sugar molasses to a variety of wines to make them “brisk and sparkling”. It is also said that they were producing strong glass bottles at the time as well as using cork stoppers much before the Champenois did. “We definitely beat the French and Dom Pérignon by at least 22 years,” said Tom Stevenson, the author of Christie’s World Encyclopaedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine in one interview. He researched the work of Dr Christopher Merret who, in 1662, presented the Royal Society with an eight-page paper detailing experiments of English cider makers, who had begun adding sugars to wine to create a bubbly, refreshingly dry drink — remarkably similar to modern-day Champagne. He added that, “Merret was not only the first to describe the deliberate addition of sugar to create a sparkling wine, he was also the first person ever to use the term “sparkling wine”. Regardless, the French monk, who top British wine expert and author Hugh Johnson calls “the first man to design a wine” is believed

to have had a remarkable sense of taste; developing the blending of three grape varieties that give fine Champagnes their character today, inventing the pressure cork that was wired or tied into place, and refining the basics of what is known as methode champenoise, the complicated and expensive way of adding bubbles and complexity to still wine. Effervescence lends Champagne its distinctive character and it was thought that the carbon dioxide in the bubbles just gave it an acidic bite and a tingle. But recent research shows that they do more that just tickle the tongue, with a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealing that the bursting suds provide aromatic compounds that add to the taste – making every glass an uplifting sensory experience.

S hedding N ew L ight Researchers at the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne in France, led by Professor Gérard Liger-Belair, using a mass spectrometer to analyse component chemicals as wines effervesce, estimated (and revealed recently) that an average 75cl bottle of Champagne produces 100 million bubbles and releases five litres of carbon dioxide. The test also revealed hundreds of chemical components in bubbles, many of which are “organoleptic”, meaning they affect the senses through taste, odour, colour or feel. Liger-Belair wrote, “As Champagne is poured

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into a glass, the ascending bubbles collapse and radiate a multitude of tiny droplets above the free surface into the form of refreshing aerosols.” Love the smell of the ocean? The scientists say the sea and bubbly share the same secret. Compounds called surfactants are dragged along with bubbles in the waves. When the bubbles burst, these surfactants break up into smaller molecules called aerosols that stay suspended in the breeze, giving coastal regions their unique eau de océan aroma. A flute of Champagne, they say, hosts a smaller version of this process. The research also focused on ascending bubble flow patterns, with findings that are important for lovers of bubbly and the restaurant industry. They figured out the reason the strings of bubbles, known as ‘the bead’, rise from certain points in a glass is when microscopic fibers – left by a kitchen towel or just an airborne particle – stick to the side of the glass, allowing molecules of dissolved carbon dioxide to coalesce and form bubbles. Glasses that have been washed and blown dry upside down, could be so ultra-clean ensuring few bubbles form. Top-quality glass manufacturers now use lasers to etch a tiny crown of spots at the bottom of the glass, creating flaws to make bubbles form and rise in a pretty ring. The team of scientists also put to rest a debate that raged for years, whether one should drink Champagne from a flute, or the coupe (the shallow cup, rumoured to have been modelled on the shape of Marie Antoinette’s breasts). Gas chromatography showed that a coupe loses CO2 at least one-third faster than a flute. So, unless you drink very quickly, you lose the precious effervescence.

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These findings explain that Champagnes and sparkling wines produced using the traditional method ensure there is a fine stream of bubbles that probably give it a more lasting aromatic lift.

C ream of the C rop In their annual ‘Brands Report’ published in July 2012, the drinks business, Europe’s leading drinks trade publication based on case sales in 2011, put Moët & Chandon at the top of the heap with over 2.2 million cases, with Veuve Clicquot taking second place selling over 1.4 million cases. Other brands topping the charts included Nicholas Feuillatte (800,000), G.H. Mumm (639,000), Piper-Heidsieck (520,000), Tattinger (464,000) and Perrier-Jouët (211,000).

Local Scene The froth seems to be bubbling over here in the Kingdom too with the joys of vinous effervescence becoming more accessible. Pernod Ricard Thailand, which brings in brands like G.H. Mumm and Perrier-Jouët, saw “total sales increase by 14 percent last year” and, according to Group Product Manager Aphivich Panya, “this year is expected to keep the same pace”. A wider distribution and a more sophisticated lifestyle of consumers are some of the key reasons for this increase, he says. “Champagne is not seen as a drink most suitable for celebration alone anymore, but is also great for a nice night on the town or a get-together with friends at a dinner party.” In 2011, the company introduced the Cuvee R Lalou 1999 from the House of G.H. Mumm, ranked as one of the greatest Champagnes ever made, exclusively available at Breeze Bar on the 52nd floor of the Tower Club at Lebua. And then, in March this year, along with Emporium Shopping Mall, launched the city’s

first pop-up G.H. Mumm Champagne Bar at the mall’s entrance. On the other side of the glass, rivals Diageo Moët Hennessy Thailand with Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Dom Pérignon and Krug also say there has definitely been an increase in sales over the past few years. “There are many reasons for this; tourism plays a big role, as does the trend of new wine bars opening over for the past few years,” says Chris Kennedy, the company’s Marketing Director. “The maturing of the local market also has a great impact. As more people discover quality sparkling wines like Chandon from Australia, they in time will want to try some of the more expensive Champagnes like Moët, Veuve Clicquot or even Dom Perignon.” Faiek El-Saadani, Director of Food & Beverage at The St. Regis Bangkok, concurs that there has been a significant increase in people ordering bubbly at the hotel. “It has a strong correlation with our Champagne promotions that are taking place – ‘Moët Moments’, ‘Dom Pérignon Sunday Brunch’, previously held ‘Dom Pérignon Friday’, our Champagne sabering ritual and other events with Champagne at special prices.” Tiwa Yenwattana, sommelier at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok for the past eight years says that they sell more Champagne during the Christmas/New Year period and that most people still reserve it for special occasions. “We sell several thousand bottles of Louis Roederer per year. Other brands that we stock are Taittinger, Krug, Bollinger, Salon, Veuve Cliquot, among others.” Winemaker and importer Siam Winery Trading Plus became the official distributor of Armand de Brignac – better known as ‘Ace of Spades’ – and put 30 bottles of the house’s Brut Gold, Rose, and Blanc de Blanc up for sale this year. They followed it up with the launch of top brand Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte. Not surprisingly, Bangkok also got its first Champagne bar early in 2012. Thai celebrity Krirkphol ‘Fluke’ Masayavanich opened the 20-million-baht The Restaurant & The Bar because he was “trying to do something different”. He says: “There are a lot of wine bars in Bangkok. We didn’t want to follow everyone else. Also, since our food is at another level, we thought Champagne would be a perfect fit for the premium imported ingredients we use.” He adds that Moët & Chandon is the best seller at his establishment and believes the increase in bubbly sales in the country can be attributed to “an evolution among consumers who understand and have started to drink for taste rather than to get drunk only.” Champagne, he says, will always be associated with celebrations. “We cannot change that but we can give people a good reason to celebrate more often.” While for some, bubbly’s appeal lies in its reflection of luxury and celebratory image, others indeed celebrate it as one of life’s great sensorial delights. •

“I drink Champagne when I win, to celebrate… And I drink Champagne when I lose, to console myself” – N a p o l e on B on a p a r te

Champagne 101 The French do think of everything. Not only do they want you to enjoy their wines, but they also want you to do it the right way. G.H. Mumm, the 185-year-old French Champagne house, has compiled 100 rules of conduct for all things Champagne; a ‘Champagne for dummies’ if you wish. Champagne Protocoles de G.H. Mumm shows you how to pick the right bubbly for any occasion, what temperature to chill it at, the right way to open a bottle, and other dos and don’ts. For example, Protocole No 52 ‘Whom To Serve First’, gives this advice: “First, present the bottle to your guests, so they know what they are about to savour and can enjoy the sight of the bottle and its label. Then of course the order is ladies first. Offer them the first taste, discreetly going in order of age (sometimes these old values hold true). Then move on to the senior men, and proceed as common sense dictates. Is a particular guest to be honoured? Make an exception and start with him. Don’t worry: in the end, you can help yourself too...” Or learn the art of sabrage, a technique invented by French cavalry officers to open a bottle on the battlefield with a sword, or show off with sabreless sabring skills in the advanced chapters. Stylised illustrations by Israeli artist Noma Bar capture the essence of each of the 12 chapters of these age-old rules of etiquette. And it does not end there. Using the innovative Apple technology, a sophisticated application has been created. With a simple click, you can access the array of etiquettes and the proper way to enjoy bubbly.

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Fizzy Revelations  

A feature on Champagne for Sur La Terre magazine in Bangkok

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