When it comes to intellectual property in the world of wine, the prize for the ultimate brand must go to Champagne. The area, which lies a few hundred kilometres to the east of Paris and which used to battle in most years to ripen its grapes sufficiently to make decent wine, enjoys the rights to the most recognised drink in the world of alcoholic beverages.
In the days before climate change, only a few vintages every decade yielded fruit worth transforming into table wine. The cold winters further retarded the evolution of the wine in cask. This meant that, come spring, there was still a post-fermentation fizz in the wine. Capturing the bubble and controlling the extent of it was the work of centuries, and the names of many of the brands in the market today celebrate the innovators who played a role in this process.
The varieties which today are associated with Champagne are the survivors of a Darwinian elimination. Chardonnay (which gives freshness and age-ability to the base wine) pinot noir (mouth feel and complexity) and pinot meunier (easy and early drinkability) dominate the vineyards. There are others which are permitted, but have almost vanished: arbane, pinot blanc, pinot gris and petit meslier. To consumers around the world (though not perhaps in the United States where “champagne” is still used to describe any sparkling wine) Champagne is the benchmark fizz. The flavours imparted by a lees-aged cuvée comprising one or more of the three major varieties, are, of course, the benchmark taste.
Making a sparkling wine from other cultivars, or in places where the hallmark freshness is difficult to capture for geological or climatic reasons, is a special kind of challenge. Wine buyers are expecting the taste of Champagne, that biscuity fresh baked bread aroma, that textural creaminess on the palate, the refreshing, zesty bubble, the intensity as well as the elusiveness of the usually bone dry finish. Producers in the Loire Valley have had some success with their Cremant de la Loire produced from chenin blanc, cabernet franc and, increasingly with chardonnay. Delaire-Graff’s Sunrise Brut is the South African equivalent – and one of the few Methode Cap Classiques (MCC) not made from the Champagne varieties.
Champagne’s dominance as the eponymous name for the drink, as well as the prevailing style of the wine, has contributed to the region’s powerful branding. The fact that the producers have also banded together to form an organisation – one of whose functions is to defend the integrity of their appellation around the world – has also been vitally important. When you ask for a glass of Champagne, you expect exactly that, not a fizzy drink which bears no resemblance to the real thing.
This does not mean that Champagne is not subject to fashion. Until the 19th century it was sweet, and only gradually, under pressure from the British market, did it shift in the direction of dry. This trend is not ubiquitous: in South Africa, the sweeter cuvées of the top brands are again in ascendant and account for much of the growth in the market. What we have seen is that the local MCC trade tracks the imported sales – or possibly vice versa. Both have seen a sales boom in the past decade, a sign that fizz drinkers are not simply using it as a celebration drink, but as an aperitif, or even as an accompaniment to food.
Part of its success resides in the brand value inherent in the category as a whole (whether Champagne or MCC). People are happy to have a glass of “champagne” when offered, and aren’t expecting the mention of the producer’s name. The same is certainly not true (to the same extent) of the other wine categories – where’s vastly more pressure to make the “right” choice. Champagne method fizz may be amongst the most difficult of wines to produce, but it’s one of the easiest to order, and clearly, one of the easiest to enjoy.