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Why is Champagne so expensive?

Why is Champagne so expensive?

It’s a question that’s on many people’s lips but seldom asked for fear of being judged. Who really knows the answer to this anyway?

In a bid to try and shed some light on Champagne’s lofty status, we need to go back to school. Not literally, just figuratively speaking.

We need to look at a little business studies, economics, geography, history and science. I promise it won’t be dull and as an added incentive, I’ve got three cracking examples on an irresistible offer for you.

 

The Champagne industry structure (the business studies bit)

Unlike Bordeaux, which is mostly made up of single estates that own their own vineyards and make their own wines, Champagne has a very different and more complex structure. In simple terms, it primarily comprises of the houses/Grande Marques and the vignerons (growers).

The Champagne Houses are businesses that buy the majority of their grapes from vignerons under long-term contracts, topping up with their own fruit in order to make their own brand or marque. There are around 320 of these across the champagne region and they include all the famous names like Bollinger and Möet & Chandon.

The vignerons, around 16,000 of them, collectively own around 90% of Champagne’s vineyards. Many supply the houses, some supply their local co-op’s and a growing number (around 3,200) are making their own small-scale artisan champagnes.

Furthermore, the best vineyards have all been classified either as Grand Cru or Premier Cru according to the quality of fruit that they can yield, which ultimately affects the price that the fruit can achieve. 

With the houses controlling so much of the region’s production and accounting for the lion’s share of exports, they have the power to determine the market price as well as set the standards for quality.

 

Demand for Champagne (the economics bit)

Champagne is a delimited region so you can’t simply keep the tap running. For as long as global demand for champagne continues to grow, the price will maintain its lofty level. It’s a simple case of supply and demand.

Of course, there has to be some degree of justification in terms of the intrinsic quality of the liquid. Can houses justify charging up to 6 times the price of their regular cuvée for a ‘limited’ luxury cuvée that probably doesn’t cost 6 times as much to produce? As long as there are consumers who are willing to pay for it, the answer will always be ‘oui’.

 

Champagne’s flavour profile (the geography bit)

The grapes themselves, the way they’re grown, where they’re grown and the climate they’re subjected to all shape Champagne’s distinctive flavour profile. Of course, human intervention plays a role too but the raw ingredients are fundamental in determining the final quality of the product.

Due to the region’s northerly location, the weather here is marginal and therefore imposes a greater risk in terms of affecting the quality and size of the yield. Recent years have shown just how cruel the weather can be with record low crop levels.

This unpredictability puts pressure on the price of fruit and has to be built into the grower’s costs which then passes down the line to the houses and brand owners.

 

Champagne’s origins (the history bit)

It’s exactly 325 years ago that the accidental discovery of champagne was made in the Hautvillers Abbey by a certain monk named Dom Pérignon. His still wines had somehow re-fermented in the bottle leaving carbon dioxide trapped inside.

It didn’t take long for the new style to take a foothold and an industry formed quickly thanks to the inter-relationship between three crucial parties. The vignerons (grape growers), the engineers who invented and manufactured the machinery to assist the growers and the banks who provided the finance to both parties.

This collaborative approach enabled Champagne to quickly rise in fame and the houses enjoyed strong demand both domestically and from overseas.

They were the first major sparkling wine region and have since managed to retain the number one position in terms of aspiration, quality and luxury ahead of all other major sparkling wine producing regions.

 

The Champagne process (the science bit)

To strip this back to basics, let’s compare how white still wines are made versus champagnes. Both undergo a standard fermentation process inside some sort of vessel. White wines will then spend a period of ageing/refining, possibly in oak possibly not, for anything from a few months to around a year. The wine is then bottled and released for sale.

Champagnes will be bottled, once the first fermentation has been completed, and then a second fermentation will be induced by adding a little sugar and yeast solution. It will then spend anything from 15 months to 10+ years ageing/refining before being disgorged (the process of removing the lees or sediment remaining inside the bottle).

Also, during that period of ageing the bottles have to be riddled daily, a gentle turning process that gets the sediment from the side of the bottle into the neck prior to disgorgement. Traditionally done by hand but nowadays increasingly done by machine.

Then there’s the painstaking blending process which most champagnes undergo. For many, but not all, Vintage champagnes, those from one specific year, it’s a process of blending different grape varieties and different vineyards to get the best expression.

For multi-vintage blends (formerly known as Non-Vintage champagnes) it requires holding stocks of older champagnes in reserve and blending a proportion of these along with the current year’s harvest of the different grape varieties and different vineyards.

All this takes time and money, which adds to the production cost.

 

Here are three of our favourite Champagne’s, each made by smaller houses, all outstanding in quality and all available on an incredible offer.

Champagne Pierre Mignon, Grande Reserve Brut Premier Cru (Now only £21.45 - was £26.85)

A crisp, well balanced champagne with citrus hints on the nose overlaid with touches of brioche and yeastiness. The palate is fresh, clean and lively together with a creamy mousse and long finish.

 

Champagne Bernard Rémy Brut Rosé NV (Now only £24.10 - was £30.15)

The seductive raspberry nuances of the colour are enticing and lead to fine, fruity aromatics with a round, delicious palate which flourishes with intense notes of red fruits.

 

Champagne A R Lenoble Brut Intense 'Mag 17' NV (Now only £31.95 - was £39.95)

This is an elegant Champagne with a dominance of Grand Cru Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs providing soft nutty flavour with fine bubbles and a fruity nose.

Fresh acidity complements the brioche and baked apple pie notes which can be tasted long into the finish. Some of the reserve wine was aged in magnums which is considered to be the best format for ageing Champagne as it slows oxidation and results in more complexity.

 

What a perfect way to celebrate World Champagne Day today. Salut!

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