Slow Train to Champagne
Friday, 01 August 2008

ÉPERNAY, France

Uniformity of style is one of the depressing aspects of globalization, and nowhere more so than in the wine business. The global craving for big, fruity, caramel-laced reds, heavy on berry-filled taste but short on structure, has caused winemakers the world over to jump on the easy-drinking bandwagon.

I drink Chiantis these days that have nothing to do with the wonderful, rough, tannic wine I consumed by the fiasco when a student in Florence in the 1970s. They’ve gone all soft and facile, their distinguishing tannins and acidity smoothed away for the global palate. A peasant wine has been smartened up and undermined. Many Spanish Riojas have undergone similar taming.

The result is wines well-adapted to our instant-gratification world, offering a blast of flavor followed by a great void. Because the new wines yield so easily, they have nothing left to give.

The years cannot soften nonexistent tannins; fruit cannot be offset by nonexistent acidity. Aging is pointless. The Californization of Chianti is globalization at its banalizing worst.

France has not been immune to this rush for a global taste; some wine-growing areas have had trouble competing with aggressively marketed New World wines. But this is a conservative country that knows that ease and good wine are rarely bedfellows, and a visit to Champagne remains a comforting experience.

Here, all the talk is of a redefinition — read modest expansion — of the wine-growing area that has had the right to produce Champagne since a 1927 law set boundaries defined by soil, sun, moisture and the ineffable ingredients forming what the French call “terroir.”

Champagne is a name and trademark that have been vigorously defended over the years against everything from Spanish manufacturers of sparkling wine to French perfume makers who thought they could exploit the name’s effervescent associations. Any change in what defines it is controversial.

It is especially so when demand for the celebratory drink from high-rolling new consumers in Russia, China, India and other wealth-accumulating economies has sent the value of land certified to make Champagne spiraling. At the high end, rather than imposing uniformity, globalization accentuates the quest for premium distinctiveness.

The question therefore arises of whether Champagne, in revising its 1927 law, is merely trying to cash in. That would be as depressing, in its way, as the rush to red-wine sameness.

But a conversation with Ghislain de Montgolfier, the co-president of the Champagne producers’ committee overseeing the revision, was reassuring.

De Montgolfier’s work has been painstaking. Five years have already passed since the decision was taken to look again at whether 81-year-old criteria for the land that can produce Champagne needed updating.

It resulted last March, after extensive review, in 40 communes being added, and two being removed, from the list of almost 320 entitled to Champagne’s Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (A.O.C.), France’s coveted certification of quality and origin.

That decision, taken by the national institute overseeing A.O.C.’s, is, however, only the beginning. “Now we will have to go field by field in these communes to determine those able to produce Champagne,” de Montgolfier said. “The first drop of new Champagne will not be made until about 2020.”

Once each field has been analyzed — a process that will take at least four years — vines will be planted, a time-consuming process that also involves getting approval from the European Union. After planting, a minimum of three years is needed before vines produce grapes apt for Champagne.

“In the end,” de Montgolfier, “we will have better overall quality because the new criteria are more precise than the old.”
That’s change I can believe in, at least where wine is concerned, one that takes 17 years or so from onset to completion. No rush to accommodate the global palate is at work here.

The fact is, of course, Champagne has no need to hurry change. It’s a recession-free zone.

Indeed, some people allude to the current economic slowdown as a “Prosecco recession” — an allusion to the cheaper Italian sparking wine Germans in particular love to serve as a Champagne-substitute. That’s to say, a recession that affects ordinary mortals but not the global elite.

Despite some slowing in the U.S. market, Champagne sales remain strong, spurred by the new markets of an upside-down world.

“Champagne has been brilliantly positioned as the wine of celebration, of special moments, the high-quality aperitif,” said Jérôme Philipon, the managing director of Bollinger, one of the finest Champagne houses. “This branding, along with consistent quality, explains our growing global appeal.”

Bollinger has just started selling a superb Rosé Champagne, its first new product since 1976. The wine’s development took a mere eight years from idea to the market: more snail-paced change you can believe in.

It’s holiday season. My wine curmudgeon’s advice: shun instant-gratification uniformity for the slow, more difficult pleasures born of stubborn tradition.

Roger Cohen joined The New York Times in 1990. He was a foreign correspondent for more than a decade before becoming Foreign Editor in 2001.

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