Like mistletoe, eggnog, and despised relatives, Champagne is something that people typically see only during the holidays. Even when Champagne is broken out at other times of the year, it is usually to mark special events—births, marriages, weddings, divorces, graduations, promotions, etc. Champagne is the ultimate celebratory tipple, yet this limited, somewhat frivolous role obscures a fundamental point—Champagne is a wine, one that happens to pair exceedingly well with all sorts of foods and that can offer year-round pleasure. As someone who drinks Champagne whenever possible and often with meals, I would love to see it embraced as a regular wine, one uncorked as routinely as cabernets and syrahs. But what are the chances of that ever happening?
The case for making Champagne a quotidian pleasure was memorably advanced by the late Lily Bollinger, matriarch of the eponymous Champagne house. Describing her personal Champagne consumption, she said, "I drink it 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'm not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it, unless I'm thirsty." But an equally famous comment attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte—"Champagne! In victory, one deserves it; in defeat, one needs it"—cast Champagne as a wine reserved for important milestones. The Napoleonic view has long prevailed, thanks in no small part to the Champenois themselves, who have relentlessly marketed their signature sparkling wine as a luxury product best-suited to festive occasions and fancy restaurants (where it is invariably drunk simply as an aperitif).
From an economic viewpoint, Champagne hardly needs a makeover. If it's a niche wine—and according to the Nielsen Co., three times more Champagne is sold in December than any other month of the year—it occupies what is normally a very profitable niche. Champagne sales plunged with the onset of the Great Recession in 2008 but rebounded sharply in 2010. The CIVC, a Champagne trade association, says shipments were up 12.4 percent through the first nine months of this year and had increased by more than 30 percent over 2009 in countries outside the European Union. It estimates that 315 million bottles of bubbly will have been distributed worldwide in 2010, versus 293 million last year and not far from the record 338 million that left the region's cellars in 2007. Champagne is doing just fine in its role as a prop for Polaroid moments and a warm-up wine.
But revolutionary ideas currently afoot in Champagne country are going a long way toward redefining what Champagne is all about. In recent years, the so-called grower Champagne movement has turned the chalky hillsides northeast of Paris into arguably the most dynamic viticultural hub on the planet. The big brands that dominate the Champagne industry normally purchase many if not most of the grapes they use from farmers throughout the vast (Champagne) appellation. They blend them together to produce wines that are meant to reflect the "house style." Some of those farmers, however, prefer to keep their grapes and make wines themselves. They work on a much smaller scale than the majors, often using grapes from just one village or even a single vineyard, and the sparklers they turn out are meant to reflect the particular attributes of the sites in which those grapes were cultivated— what is otherwise known as terroir.
Part of the pleasure of drinking Burgundies is exploring the differences between villages (Chambolle-Musigny vs. Morey-Saint-Denis) and vineyards (Meursault Perrières vs. Meursault Charmes). Grower Champagnes afford the same opportunity, and I think the better ones are very distinctive wines that demand to be treated as seriously as other wines—that deserve the kind of consideration that takes place at the dinner table as opposed to, say, at midnight on New Year's Eve. And in my experience, grower Champagnes really blossom in the company of food. While certainly excellent on their own, they tend to be quite dry and vinous in character and benefit from being served with meals and allowed to evolve over the course of an evening. Jon Rimmerman of the online retailer Garagiste urges his clients to drink grower Champagnes this way and often advises opening the bottles a day in advance—to essentially turn them into "normal" still wines. (He suggests keeping the open bottles in the refrigerator or a very cool cellar.)
And it is not just the Champagnes that benefit from being served with the food; the food benefits, too, a point emphasized by acclaimed importer (and now author) Terry Theise. The 57-year-old Theise didn't introduce grower Champagnes to the American market, but he has a large portfolio of them (15 producers at latest count) and is their foremost champion on these shores. ("I wasn't first to do it," he jokes, "but I was the first to overdo it.") He has long encouraged consumers to broaden their conception of Champagne and to approach it as they would other wines. He contends that Champagne is a great and remarkably versatile food wine because it is moderate in alcohol and offers very refined and harmonious flavors. He also says the fizz has a palate-cleansing effect. "Diners who retain their Champagne to contrast it with the white wine they thought would be good with their food will nearly always discover the Champagne is the better match," Theise says.
But here's where Champagne's powerful identity becomes its straightjacket. Bernard Sun, corporate beverage director for Jean-Georges Vongerichten's restaurant group, thinks the notion of Champagne as a celebratory or aperitif wine is deeply, perhaps unalterably ingrained in the public consciousness. He suggests that older Champagnes—ones that are 20-30 years old and that have lost much of their effervescence and became more winey in character— would most likely convert people to the virtues of Champagne as a food wine, but they are rare and expensive. He told me that wine geeks are often open to the idea of drinking Champagne with an entire meal but that regular restaurant-goers would likely chafe at the idea. "A nice glass of red wine with the main course is a tradition that is not easily broken," Sun says. "Champagne can pair very well with food, but for most people, I think the concept is a bit alien."