Bubble bursts

Most people enjoy a glass of fizz, but are the super-premium Champagnes worth their often stratospheric prices?

Sat, Jul 27, 2013, 01:00

There was a time when the smarter hotels and restaurants in Dublin could not get enough Champagne. All of the big brands vied to be “pouring Champagne” at the best addresses, knowing that we would buy it by the bucketload. Once the bubble burst, this market collapsed. Sales of some brands were reported to have dropped by 80 per cent. Instead we started drinking Prosecco, Cava and less expensive Champagne. This sub-€30 category grew exponentially, helped by massive discounting on Taittinger by retailers.

Now that we are beginning to celebrate a little more, sales of more expensive Champagnes have steadied slightly. But they still aren’t performing well here or in other markets around the world. Champagne has a strong association with good times and consumption dries up whenever we hit recession. Global sales are down five per cent so far this year following a similar decrease last year.

At the very top of the Champagne tree are the so-called super-premiums. The three best-known names are Dom Perignon, Roederer Cristal and Krug. Some might prefer La Grande Dame (Veuve Cliquot) R.D. (Bollinger), Comtes de Champagne (Taittinger), or a number of other special cuvées from small bespoke houses. Accounting for less than a half of one percent of the total Champagne market, these wines are made in limited quantities, usually calibrated to ensure demand remains high.

Surprisingly, throughout the downturn sales of these, the most expensive wines, have not been as severely affected. One trade source suggested to me that even in the tiger years conspicuous consumption never quite reached the super-premium level in Ireland, and that most of these wines are drunk at home by connoisseurs. This is partly true although there were plenty of developers drinking Cristal and Dom Perignon in Michelin-starred restaurants.

Demand for super premium Champagne worldwide remains strong but not always for drinking. They are now seen as tradable wines and, in the same way as the top châteaux of Bordeaux, are bought and sold by investors. If Europe isn’t buying, new markets such as China or India will be.

A few months back I travelled to Champagne to taste the latest 2004 vintage of Dom Perignon. Chef de Cave Richard Geoffroy described it as having “aromas of almond and powdered cocoa (which) develop gradually into white fruit with hints of dried flowers. Classic toasted notes give a rounded finish and denote a fully realised maturity. On the palate, the wine instantly traces an astoundingly fine line between density and weightlessness. Its precision is extreme, tactile, dark and chiselled. The full taste lingers with the utmost elegance on a sappy, spicy note.” Quite. See my own note below.

On its release in the UK the fine wine traders could not get enough of the Dom Perignon 2004. One company boasted that it had sold three thousand six-bottle cases in one day, netting over a million pounds in the process. It may have been that investors, who shunned the Bordeaux 2012 en primeur campaign, had decided to invest in Champagne instead.

Bollinger is one of the better-known brands here in Ireland. Having spent large sums supporting various events in Ireland over the past few years, it claims double-digit growth. I haven’t tasted the super-premium Bollinger R.D. (recently disgorged) recently, but in the past it was always a superb individual wine. This year Bollinger has turned its attention to its rosé Champagnes. It produces two, a non-vintage and the single vintage Grande Année Rosé. The former is lighter with delicate rose petal aromas, elegant redcurrant fruits, slightly toasty and a crisp finish. The Grande Année Rosé is a different beast, more full-bodied and structured and one to drink with you meal – “a food wine, a serious wine”, says Commercial Director of Bollinger Guy de Rivoire, who suggests drinking it “with pigeon or guinea fowl”, although he prefers it after dinner, with a cigar.

Super-premium Champagnes are by their nature very expensive. Do not expect to find anything under €150 a bottle. Mature bottles can go for as much as €1,500 a bottle. They are often released at five to 10 years old, yet this is still too young. All will continue to develop for a further decade or more.

Are they worth the money? Probably not, but they are the finest money can buy, and plenty of wealthy people want to drink and be seen drinking them. Thankfully, there are less expensive Champagnes the rest of us can enjoy.

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