Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: Champagne socialism (up to a point)

A few days ago the first expansion of the Champagne region – that magic circle inside which grape growers and vinters may give the name of the area to their sparkling wines – in decades was announced. For the winners, the announcement spells glory and riches:

Marchais-en-Brie has struck liquid gold by becoming the only village in its county to be added to the list.

Local farmers have won a remarkable agricultural jackpot, with the price of their land expected to increase from less than 8,000 euros per hectare to more than a million.

The village didn't even grow grapes; that's going to change pretty quickly now. Predictably, the losers are none too happy.

[Frans] Labilloy tends a few vineyards outside the village of Serval, enough to produce around 600 bottles per year. "We carry on the tradition, but we have absolutely no right to call it champagne or sell it. It's just for the family," he said.

As ever, if you want lessons from life, you should look to the bottom of a glass. In this case the Champagne expansion tells us plenty. (Not least, the influence of China and India on the modern-day economy).

1. The power of branding. There are other, excellent, sparkling wines (even English ones) but nothing has quite the hold over us that champagne does. In one sense, more fool us for paying over the odds for the label. On the other hand, in contrast to the trite, over-simplistic Naomi Klein school of thought, branding appeals to something deep in the human soul. We want the ease, the reassurance of knowing that the label acts as a certain guarantee. There is also the undeniable snob appeal attached to the cost and the exclusive cachet the champagne has over the likes of cava.

2. Never mind trite, over-simplistic free marketeers. By giving legal protection to the name champagne, the chances of utter cowboys trying to exploit the brand are limited. Producers are guaranteed certain protections, which in turn gives them, collectively, a powerful incentive not to rip off the public and damage the image of the product.

3. Life's not fair, though. Though consumers and producers win, there are still losers (eg the villagers who make sparkling wine they can't sell). You can ameliorate the utter arbitary, capricious and cruel nature of existence in various ways (by swallowing a small fridge, if needs be), but you can't change this. Sorry.

4. All art aspires the condition of booze. You can grow the grapes, turn them into fizz, slap a label on them and sell them. But there is still the alchemy of making a champagne worthy of the name, which truly commands awe, respect (and high prices) which can't be easily explained.

BONUS (TANGENTIALLY RELEVANT) FACT: Winston Churchill had two drinks made in his honour. Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill and Carlsberg Special Brew.



Blogger Quink said...

I wished I belonged to a family that produced 600 bottles per year for its own consumption - whether I could call it champagne or not.

9:54 am  
Blogger Glamourpuss said...

Fizzy wine is fine, but as you say, Champagne appeals to our love of luxury, for it's brand identity has been so well protected. I drank some lovely stuff in Russia, where they don't give a fig for proprietorial names, and the wine list offers 'Russian Champagne'. But I'll always have a soft spot for Bollinger.


12:32 pm  
Blogger dominic said...

Ah, do they really call it "Russian Champagne" now? It was still going as "Sovyetskoye Champanskoye" last time I was in the ex-Soyuz*, a couple of years ago.

*although, admittedly, in Ukraine rather than Russia, on that occasion

I think fondly of drinking the stuff under extraordinarily exuberant chandeliers, while eating caviar (of a sort) sandwiches in the gold-and-velvet bedecked and gorgeous and glorious Odessa Opera & Ballet Theatre, and imagining as though I were a character in a Tolstoy novel.

Riga Black Balsam - that's what I call a drink

1:21 pm  
Blogger bill said...

Dominic, rest assured I always think of you as a character in a Dostoevsky novel.

Surely Russian champagne is the sort of thing you should drink out of a ballerina's slipper backstage at the Bolshoi? (Preferably to avoid the tedium of actually having to watch the ballet).

Lurgan Champagne. Now there's a drink.

1:28 pm  
Blogger Quink said...

You've been blog tagged - visit this link for the rules: http://www.benlocker.com/blog/2008/04/23/blog-tag/

6:17 pm  
OpenID rivergirlie said...

how reassuring to learn that, as the global grain supply diminishes still further, we'll still be able to get our mitts on some proper bubbly

7:59 pm  
Blogger Political Umpire said...

Fine work sir. There is one other point, more of a question: does the artificial value attached to the brand champagne mean that other forms of sparkling wine are, as it were, precluded from charging what they otherwise might? I have always thought Cloudy Bay's sparkling offering a treat and, at about £17 at Sainsbury, far better value than champers twice the price.

12:36 pm  
Blogger bill said...

A good question, P-Ump. I think the answer is 'yes'.

Certainly the relative lack of cachet means that the makers of other fizzes have to keep their prices 'competitive' at the very least. Note, however, they are still profitable (I assume, why would they bother otherwise?). Though, of course, the better the reputation of the sparkling wines, the more people will pay for them.

Though if you aren't after snob appeal, Tesco champagne is very good value.

9:16 pm  

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