A few weeks ago, I was at a friend’s milestone birthday being celebrated at one of the city’s top hotels. The massive bar was loaded with every premium spirit imaginable, and right in front was a bottle of GH Mumm NV. Okay, this was an evening that called for champagne, I thought, and asked for a glass.
A while later, a senior member of the staff came up to me and asked if I wanted a refill. Yes please, I said, I’m drinking champagne. He was back in a jiffy, presently me with another tall flute, beaming. I took a sip. “This isn’t champagne,” I told him. “It is, ma’am,” he insisted. “No, it is not,” I was firm. “Maybe Prosecco?” His face froze into a rictus of embarrassment, but he wasn’t about to give in. Just then, a regular waiter who knew me well passed by. He assessed the situation and re-appeared in a flash with another tall flute. I sipped. This one was champagne. Investigating further, I saw the bartenders pouring many guests glasses of what clearly was Prosecco, while the GH Mumm remained firmly in its ice bucket on the bar.
Don’t get me wrong, I love many of the gorgeous sparkling wines produced around the world, and Proseccos and Cavas among them. But the habit of labeling everything with bubbles in it ‘champagne’ is irritating. What are people trying to prove? That customer can’t tell the difference? Or is this a general/ generic name being given for every wine with a bit of a sparkle to it? To my mind, considering that many of those doing this deliberate mis-labeling are often trained senior wait staff from premium hotels and restaurants who well know the difference, it is quite unforgiveable.
About a week ago, I happened to be at a lunch party at another big brand hotel in town. The food was excellent. It was also the hostess’ birthday, and a cake was cut, a bottle popped. A senior steward came up to me with a tall flute. “Champagne, madame?” he asked politely. Sure, I replied, and had a sip. Then I asked to see the bottle. It was a crément de Loire, one of my favourites, in fact. But it was not champagne. Why did he call it so, then? I’m guessing it was possibly to pump up the value of the bottle he had in his hand. To many of those present, a glass of pleasant sparkling was suffice to set the mood, a crément de Loire would do very well. But that didn’t mean that the steward had the license to call it something it was not. To me, that is being condescending to your customers.
Champagne has, over centuries, developed its own niche as one of the top premium luxury products of the world. It is associated with celebration, with good times and deep pockets. In India, even a non- vintage champagne costs a fair amount – at least $60 in retail. Also, serving or drinking a sparkling wine – of any type – has become fairly accessible what with many restaurants using wine storage systems like PresorVac, Perlage and Le Verre de Vin among others. So serving champagne has become quite the dernier cri. But many non-wine drinkers or newbies still can’t tell the difference between champagne and the zillions of sparkling wines being made around the world. While some of these sparkling wines are as good if not better than some champagnes, others fall into the ‘cheap and cheerful’ category.
I’m a firm believer that every form of wine has its place, from simple, fresh wines made for picnic quaffing to deep complex wines which call for the right time and the right occasion to open and enjoy. But do give every wine its rightful place, without adding to the view that many still hold – that wine is a high- falutin’ subject, only suitable for those who have big bucks and the ability to recite Jancis’ tome on grapes backwards. If those who know are honest about what they are serving, and help to spread a little information about it along the way, it will help the industry in so many ways.
By referring to everything in a flute ‘champagne’, one is doing a disservice, not just to champagne, but to every wine at every price point and taste profile around the world.