Champagne is the daddy of sparkling wines, lording it over rival wines from Spain, Italy, Germany and The New World. Ever seen a rap video where they ostentatiously drink cava in a club? Me neither. And what’s not to love about a bubbly blonde that makes you feel giggly and heady the moment it touches your lips?
But there’s one big drawback when it comes to enjoying champagne – and I’m not talking about hangovers or one-too-many-based indiscretions at the Christmas party. The big problem with champagne is its price. Yes, champagne is expensive. Wince-inducingly expensive. At the cheaper end of the scale it’s around €15 a bottle – double that at least if you want a basic bottle by a well know brand like Veuve Clicquot, Bollinger or Moët & Chandon – and I’m not even going to go into the cost of a fancy bottle because we’re talking silly money.
For some people – notably rappers and big city bankers – the price is the draw. The ‘look at me, I’m so rich’ factor – repellant though it may be – comes hand-in-hand with champagne drinking. But, let’s be honest, it’s the same for most of us. We mark special occasions with champagne precisely because it is a luxury good. There’s something decadent about cracking open a pricey bottle of frothy fun juice. It signals good times, like the slaughtering of a fatted calf in days of yore.
So where does that leave the drinker (me) who loves the lightness and bubbles of champagne but hasn’t the resources of Mark Zuckerberg – or Edina and Patsy – to indulge all the time? What about the drinker (again, me) who rather than waiting for their birthday wants to celebrate it being Friday? This, in Britain at least, is where cava and prosecco step in: Spanish and Italian challengers to champagne’s crown but at a smidgen of the cost. Sales of prosecco in particular are booming in Britain and taste tests show that we Brits can’t tell the difference between champagne, cava and prosecco.
And expats in France, surely we must be guzzling cava and prosecco like our compatriots back in the UK? Well, non, as this highly scientific pic chart showing the wines available in French supermarkets shows.
You can buy cava and prosecco over here but shop shelves don’t heave with bottle of the stuff the way they do back home. So we expats, living in the promised land of sparkling wine, are missing out on the foam party that the rest of Britain is enjoying.
This was the dismal position in which I found myself for several years before a chance encounter on a hot air balloon ride in the Loire Valley, a ride which introduced me to a fizzing French miracle. We had just touched down after an equal parts terrifying and exhilarating adventure in the air, and I gladly accepted a flute of bubbling something from our balloon pilot. Someone in our group remarked they were happy to be given champagne. They were quickly correctly: it wasn’t champagne, it was crémant.
Crémant? What the hell is crémant?
Crémant is a sparkling white wine from France that is far, far cheaper than champagne. And it’s cheaper not because it’s an inferior product but because the grapes are not from the Champagne region. Champagne (the wine) is probably the most famous example of Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), the certificate that authenticates that a produce associated with a place, does indeed come from that place. It prevents Melton Mowbray pork pies (drooool) from being manufactured anywhere other than that particular town in Leicestershire. So champagne can’t be called champagne if the grapes are grown in, say, New Zealand, or indeed anywhere else in France. All those other French sparkling wines made using the same Traditional Method as champagne? They’re called crémant.
There are other non-geographical differences. Champagne can only be made from Pinot Noir, Meunier, and Chardonnay grapes, whereas crémant can be made from a wider variety depending on where it’s produced (most crémant comes from the Loire, Bourgogne and Alsace regions). Champagne has to be aged for a minimum of 15 months and crémant only 9.
But the biggest difference is in price. A bottle of crémant costs around €6-10 – significantly cheaper than champagne. The culprit here would seem to be the price of the grapes used in manufacturing: a kilo of crémant grapes costs about €1.50 compared with €5-6 for a kilo of champagne grapes. Presumably there’s a large amount of marketing at play too, inflating prices to ensure champagne keeps its reputation as a luxury product.
You could look at the difference between champagne and crémant as being a parallel to Kellog’s corn flakes versus a supermarket own brand corn flakes. (Champagne producers wouldn’t thank me for that comparison.) Just how much of it is a difference in quality and how much of it is marketing?
Final question: are the French any better at telling the difference between the champagne and imposters than the Brits? According to a report by FranceTV Info:
Plusieurs dégustations comparatives, à l’aveugle, ont déjà été organisées et les résultats dans les classements sont plutôt mitigés. Chacun décidera donc selon son goût et peut-être aussi selon son budget.
(Several blind taste-tests were organised and the results were rather mixed. Participants chose according to their own tastes and perhaps also their budget.)
Seems that the French are no better than us.
So if you’re planning on bringing in the New Year with a bottle of fizz, why waste money on champagne when you could have an equally delicious chilled bottle of crémant instead? Let’s be honest: the best bit is when the cork pops and you get to shout, “Whehay!” Keep champagne for really special occasions, if you must, and start celebrating those less significant but still important moments: pets’ birthdays, buying a particularly nice new cardigan, that sort of thing. Cheers!
Grape prices and quote taken from: blog.francetvinfo.fr/le-tire-bouchon/2016/01/09/cremant-ou-champagne.html