Champagne is the one drink that seems to signify celebration, it makes most of its appearances at happy moments in our lives, engagements, weddings, birthdays, promotions, new jobs, new houses, lottery wins, the list is almost endless. And despite the best efforts of the champagne houses to convince us that champagne is a versatile wine that be served throughout a meal, it remains almost exclusively an aperitif, drunk before a meal.
Of course now that we seem to be stuck at the beginning of what could turn out to be a major financial econopocalypse there are fewer and fewer reasons to celebrate. The major champagne houses are starting to shit themselves, their caves sit full of wine, the orders from the UK have almost halved, and the next "batch" of NV is ready to be bottled. As last years vintage is ready to go to bottle, the cellarmasters are wondering where it will go, with their cellars backlogged with previous vintages no-one wants. Apparently one major house has decided to put the whole of the 2008 vintage into NV as they are sitting on a backlog of four vintages they cant sell. When you consider that by law, champagne must mature in the bottle for a period of 36 months, they are working on wines that will appear on the market in 2012.
Champagne is quite interesting in that they have the almost unique safety net of being allowed to blend the wines of multiple vintages together to create NV champagne. So in years when the weather conditions provide a challenging vintage they can blend away any challenges with reserve wines from other vintages to create a homogenised wine. Each house has its own style that defines it and for many people they will quite happy provide a loyal following. I personally prefer the more Pinot orientated styles of champagne - Pol Roger, Perrier-Jouet, Bolly and Im a sucker for a grower champagne too - Aubry, Egly-Ouriet and Jacquesson being amongst my absolute favourites. For NV I think one of the best is the Perrier-Jouet Brut, and I was fortunate enough to visit the house earlier this year and had an amazing vertical tasting of the Belle Epoque with the winemaker Herve Deschampes.
While at Perrier-Jouet we had quite an interesting discussion over dinner one night with Pierre-Aymeric du Cray, who holds the wonderful title of Marketing director for Pernod-Ricard/Perrier-Jouet. We were discussing the challenges of selling Vintage champagne over NV and what a customers perception of the differences were. From my own experiences, we find it quite difficult to sell vintage champagne unless it is a prestige cuvee - by which I would define a pc as Dom Perignon, Cristal, Belle Epoque, Krug, Comte de Champagne, Cuvee Louise etc. I know from speaking to my peers and colleagues in the industry that I am not alone in this. Many of them struggle to sell a vintage champagne outside of the top cuvees. Im not sure, but I am starting to believe it is down to the relative inconsistancy of the vintage compared to the individual house style. One bottle of PJ Grand Brut is pretty much the same as any other bottle of PJGB but there is a world of difference between a bottle of PJ 96 and 98. I dont think that your average customer can get their heads round that. But maybe im wrong, and its purely a price driven issue. It was an interesting discussion, alas one that alcohol and time have erased most of the salient points from my memory.
Recently I began to think about it again though. I must try and conduct some research amongst our customers and see what they come up with. Who knows maybe it could become the focus of my dissertation one day should I ever decide to go for the WSET diploma.