|Keiths's take : ’Tis the season|
Keith Stewart reflects on the history of champagne.
There was a time not that long ago, when champagne was served at London’s most salubrious address, the Savoy, in silver beer tankards.
The reason was that France’s famous bubbles, its morality already tarnished by the excesses of the 1890s, had simply lost almost all its social currency during the Great War. So the idea of bubbles being more, not less, than champagne is not an entirely new idea.
The tankard tale was the result of too many common soldiers, who were serving their country during that brutal war in Northern France, becoming quite fond of the local wine, which just happened to be champagne. Being favoured by commoners was unacceptable behaviour for Britain’s aristocracy, and so champagne was for a time, less than appropriate even at Christmas time.
Now, with Christmas fast approaching, the silly fizzy season is about to begin all over again, with Champagne houses lurching into discount mode in their efforts to ensure their peak sales period delivers the sort of data their principals in Reims and Epernay expect. But for smart restaurateurs and wine retailers alike, there is as much business to be done during this time in offering reasonable alternatives to Europe’s holiest wine.
Of course the most tangible alternatives, if quality is a factor, which in many cases it is to give display and sales capital to the very fine local methode champenoise wines that the rest of the world is eager to equate with big brand French. Leading the pack is the French owned and suitably sophisticated Cloudy Bay label Pelorus, which is not only one of the finest bubblies made in this country, it also happens to be one of the world’s elite.
Given its price, a six-bottle case of Pelorus vintage makes a serious option for a shopper wanting to offer complete hospitality, without compromising their bank account or their reputation for good taste. Similarly, the remarkable Central Otago winemaker Rudi Bauer makes an equally cosmopolitan sparkler called Quartz Reef that could also be a bit of a gold strike this summer.
But all is not based on elan in the matter of bubbles. Not that most of the seriously cheap alternatives are worthy of being sold from any self-respecting operator, with the exception of those simply delicious muscat based wines that model themselves in varying degrees on the Piemontese wines of Asti.
Asti Spumante may have had bad press over the years, primarily because it is the favoured introduction to drinking of many a callow youth, but it has its charms – not least when it is served very cold following the main course and in advance of the dessert. Sweet enough for its time, yet light in alcohol and oozing a fruitfully abundant aromatic ripeness that is redolent of summer evenings, it is simply one of the most charming of drinks, even for hard palates standing ready for a large glass of Vintage Port.
Sell this idea, and be ready to be considered the latest wine guru for the coming season, as customers return full of your innovation and the praises of their dinner guests who were sweetened by such an unlikely bubble in the heart of a social event. Asti, or one of the local imitations, such as Bernadino, can work a treat in this.
There are other options, not least of which is the ubiquitous Lindauer, now part of the Lion family since Pernod Ricard dumped its Gisborne grape growers, but still the best value sparkling wine anywhere. It may be common, but not so long ago, champagne was too, and look how that has recovered to become the highest priced of all regional European wines.