My father always described people who lived beyond their means as having "Champagne taste on a beer budget." From a very young age, I believed that Champagne was only for the rich, and it was a special treat the rest of us saved for a wedding toast or other once-in-a-lifetime celebratory moments.
That idea that Champagne is not an everyday drink has existed for hundreds of years and was reinforced in modern times by the big French Champagne houses and their early marketing campaigns that encouraged people to celebrate with Champagne.
"In many ways the industry did it to itself," said David White when I spoke with him on the phone about his new book, "But First, Champagne." "They made Champagne the drink for New Year's Eve, Valentine's Day and christening ships and therefore told people it's not the right thing to open on a Tuesday night with Chinese food."
The thing is, Champagne is awesome with Chinese food and many other foods so relegating it to special occasions means wine drinkers miss out on exceptional food and wine experiences, especially wine drinkers who are serious about their food.
Champagne as an everyday wine
"It's always boggled my mind that people shop at Whole Foods and then buy Two Buck Chuck," said White, referring to the Trader Joe's Charles Shaw wines that got that nickname when they were priced at $1.99. "You would think Whole Foods shoppers would care about what wine or beer they were drinking."
More of them are beginning to care, according to White, along with others who are increasingly paying attention to the wines they drink daily and adding Champagnes to those wines.
"More people than ever before are realizing that every day has moments worth celebrating and that Champagne works for all sorts of occasions with all sorts of foods," said White.
Here in the U.S., it took us a while to come to this realization — although White doesn't believe everyone is there yet — and he credits a couple of recent developments with bringing us along. The first is the sommelier revolution.
"In cities, every restaurant has one or more dedicated wine professionals on the floor, and they love Champagne and they love talking about why it works well with food," said White. "Champagne is very food-friendly. It's an acid-driven wine that cuts through foods. It has a little richness that can handle slightly spicy foods that still wine can't. It's more versatile on the dinner table than most wines."
Social media also is helping Champagne gain a reputation as a wine for all occasions. "As more people look to photograph every moment of their lives, it's fun to photograph when the cork comes out of the bottle," said White. As people scroll through their social media feeds and see their friends not just drinking Champagne on special occasions but also pairing it with all kinds of foods on all kinds of occasions, they're deciding to do the same.
The emergence of grower Champagnes
The big, famous Champagne houses like Moet & Chandon or Taittinger make wines that have consistent quality. Year after year, the wines are good, and year after year, they deliver the same taste. To achieve this consistency, they source grapes from growers all over the Champagne region, combining them to create their well-known sparkling wines. Grower Champagnes come from wineries that both grow the grapes and make the Champagne, creating terroir-driven sparkling wines.
"The current conversation is very much about the growers and what directions they are taking Champagne in right now," said White. Within that conversation, those in the wine world are talking about how to translate the vineyard into the bottle so they can have a fantastic expression of terroir in wine, focusing on individuality over consistency.
That means that from one vintage to the next, the Champagnes will not have a consistent taste, but the current generation of growers who bottle their own Champagnes get to see what they can translate from the soil, creating what could be considered truly artisan wines. The grower Champagne movement is similar to farm-to-table movement. People are interested in not just eating or drinking something they enjoy, they're also interested in knowing where their food and drink came from and who produced it, often choosing to purchase from small producers who they believe are intimately involved with what they've created.
Grower Champagne is nothing new in the Champagne region; it has always existed. Here in the U.S., we're just learning and getting excited about it, and the market for grower Champagnes has been increasing over the last couple of decades.
"You can identify a grower Champagne by locating the letters RM, as opposed to NM, on the bottle," said White. These letters aren't obvious because they are part of a larger code, so White advises anyone just beginning to try grower Champagnes to ask for advice if they need it. Find someone at the wine store, preferably a boutique wine shop where the workers are really familiar with the wines, to help you identify and choose a grower Champagne.
The RM stands for récoltant-manipulant, or grower producer, and is on bottles from makers who rely on 95 percent or more estate-grown grapes for the Champagne. The NM stands for négocian-maniulant, or merchant producer, and is on bottles from makers who buy more than six percent of their fruit from other growers.
Is grower Champagne a better value than some the big Champagne house bubbly? Not necessarily.
"Broadly speaking," said White, "I wouldn't say that growers represent a better value, but if you know how to shop I think they do — sometimes."
"Champagnes from the big Champagne houses are hard to find for under $50," said White. Some of his favorite grower Champagnes can be found for under $35. The large Champagne houses have economy of scale working for them, though, so there are plenty of grower Champagnes that are comparable in price to the big house Champagnes.
'But First, Champagne'
Champagne has a history of being a celebratory beverage, but it pairs so well with many types of food that it warrants a spot at the table with everyday meals, too. (Photo: Elizaveta Galitckaia/Shutterstock.com)
Much more detail about the region of Champagne, the history of the wine, the big houses and the growers is in White's new book, "But First, Champagne." It's an excellent source for those who know little about Champagne and those who know quite a bit.
The first half is a history book that ties together winemaking in the region of Champagne with the political history of the region — way back to 1496 that White identifies as the year the "region's wine was singled out as a celebratory beverage." Early Champagne was still, not sparkling. Whether bubbly or not, the wines from the region played their part in France's good times and bad, through the Huguenot Wars, the reign of King Louis XIV who drank almost nothing but Champagne, Napoleon Bonaparte's wars, the 20th century's big wars (Champagne is on the border of Germany so it was heavily involved in both world wars), and right up to modern times and the popularity of the growers. The story of how the politics coincide with wine's growth is well written and fascinating.
Along the way there are call-out boxes that answer common questions about Champagne, like why we christen ships with it and why winning athletes spray each other with it, along with interesting stories about people like Champagne Charlie, the man credited with bringing Champagne to the U.S. in the mid-1800s.
The second half of the book digs deep into the large Champagne houses and the individual growers of today. The growers are divided by region, and White tells many of their stories. It's in these stories where you'll read a little about the individual environmental sustainability efforts happening with the modern producers.
The region as a whole has an interesting, not so-eco-friendly history.
"As Paris grew as a city, it needed a place for its trash," said White. "Champagne needed compost so Paris used it as a dumping ground." That was all fine and well when the trash from Paris was material like food scraps, wood or hemp. They made fantastic organic compost.
"Then we had the petrochemical revolution and the dumping of trash continued long after that revolution began," said White. "It was outlawed until the late 20th century. When you walk around Champagne today, you sometimes see old plastic bags and toys sticking out of the soil."
But now, plenty of producers are farming organically and biodynamically. Most wine growers in Champagne choose not to get their efforts officially certified either because they don't want to do the paperwork and pay the trade association, or because they want to keep the option of using the chemicals (which many have never actually had to do) just in case a bad growing season makes it necessary for them to save their crop.
The book ends with a helpful glossary of terms that are used in the Champagne world. I imagine I'll be turning to this glossary for quite some time, even though I've finished reading it.
After speaking with White, it's clear he really knows his history of the region of Champagne and the sparkling wine named for the region. He'll be sharing that knowledge on Saturday, Nov. 12, in a specially designed lecture for New York City's upcoming Champagne Week.
"Every consequential historical event that happened in Champagne helped make the most delicious wine in the world. We can learn about them both through drinking," said White. At his lecture titled "Getting Grower with It," he'll lead attendees through five flights of wine while they learn all about the history of champagne with an emphasis on the growers. A full schedule of White's other events can be found at DavidWhite.wine.