Champagne is undoubtably the drink of the elite, and the very word conjures images of wealth, luxury and glamour. This prestigious drink is not for everyday consumption by the masses – the hefty price tag ensures it maintains its exclusivity. What makes it so expensive, and what’s so special about champagne anyway?
The famous experiment
When uberchef Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck set up a stall in the banking district of London, he offered his sophisticated passers-by a taste of 2 ‘champagnes’, and asked them to say which they preferred. One was a champagne, and the other was a supermarket wine called Blue Nun which he had fizzed up with a Soda Stream machine. You can watch the video of this astonishing experiment at the end of this post. Guess which beverage won? Did Heston turn a pig’s ear into a silk purse?
You can hear the French shrieking ‘sauvages‘ from all the way over the Channel: more 50% of participants gave the crudely carbonated Blue Nun the thumbs up. It must have confirmed all Gallic suspicions about the English and their questionable taste. (As an aside, let me mention that the English icon of style, Victoria Beckham, is said to prefer Blue Nun to champagne!!)
Experts could rip Heston’s experiment apart – who is to say that his subjects had expert palates? He doesn’t specifically mention which champagne he used (seems like Jacquard), and he could easily have picked one of the poorer relations in the champagne family (there are some decidedly average champagnes on the market – all that glitters is not gold). But in the wake of this experiment, you can hear hordes of people asking ‘well, if you can make it in a Soda Stream, why is champagne so bloody expensive?’.
Why can’t you make champagne in Soda Stream?
Lots of reasons, actually. The first being that the French Appellation laws mean that only grapes grown in the designated region of Champagne in France may be used to produce champagne. Try calling your finest sparkling wine from say, California, ‘champagne’, and the wrath of the French will descend upon you in the form of pitch-forks and massive law-suits. It doesn’t stop with ‘terroir’. These laws make the production of champagne one of the most regulated industries in the world.
In order for a French wine-maker from Champagne to produce a sparkling wine he can legally call ‘champagne’ he has to conform to endless regulations to see that he is not taking short cuts. These include such exhausting requirements as having to harvest the grapes by hand, limits on the maximum weight of grapes that may be harvested from any one vineyard, more rules about the production of the must from pressing the grapes, minimum and maximum alcohol content….and on and on.
What is the difference between cheap sparkling wine, and good sparkling wine and champagne?
There are two ways of getting ze sparkle into ze bottle. The first is the crude carbonisation that makes your soft-drink fizzy (you can follow in Michelin star Chef Blumenthal’s illustrious footsteps, and do it yourself with Soda Stream). This screams ‘tacky’, and ‘cheap’ – you don’t need to be a wine critic to know that. The second is the prestigious ‘Methode Champenoise‘. It is an expensive, time-consuming process which results in the bubbles being produced in the bottle during a ‘second fermentation’, and nothing legally called ‘champagne’ is made in any other way.
Is there any way to tell proper champagne from cheap stuff?
The ‘Methode Champenoise’ creates a finer, long-lasting bubble than you get from simply carbonating the wine. Remember this if you ever get pulled over to participate in a Blue Nun type experiment. Look at the bubbles in the bubblies, and compare them. The Soda Stream version will produce larger, coarser bubbles, and the champagne will have tiny little shooting stars. This could be something fun to try on unsuspecting friends – it would be interesting to see what the results were. Let me know if you do!
If you have any comments or questions, I’d love to hear them.