Has there been a shift in the perceptions of sparkling wine?
Picture the scene. It’s 1920, the elite of society have grabbed life by both hands after the war, enjoying revelry and freedom which was quite new for those who had grown up in the Victorian age. Ladies with their cigarette holders and loose yet expensive dresses, men in their tails and smoking cigars, perhaps listening to jazz and doing the Charleston. And what are they drinking? Why coupe after coupe of the finest Champagne of course. Until fairly recently, fizz was without doubt seen as the reserve of the upper classes, those who had the money – and the time – to enjoy the finer things in life. The image of sparkling wine has long been associated with decadence and excess, the brands sponsoring the most glittering and high society of events, from the Oscars to the Henley Regatta. When the Titanic set off on her maiden voyage, she held thousands of bottles of the very best fizz the world had to offer, (although ominously, the bottle which was cracked against the ship to launch her didn’t break) to cater for the great and the good who were lucky enough to sail in first class.
Yet there seems to be a change in the air. Whereas sparkling wine used to very much be the reserve of the elite, drinking the bubbly stuff is becoming more and more widespread and popular. However, this isn’t simply because of increasing demand for Prosecco and Cava – it appears people are actually ‘trading up’ and swapping the cheaper fizzes for more expensive and luxury sparkling wines.
It is also interesting to note the change in attitudes to drinking fizz. Opening a bottle of bubbly was for many years a sign of celebration – Christmas, birthdays, anniversaries were all fair game for a glass of fizz. More recently, however, people are far more likely to drink a bottle over dinner or just to add a little ‘sparkle’ to an evening. On a summer’s day it is clear to see that supermarket Champagne is swiftly marked down to attract those who are in the euphoric state that only a warm weekend in England can produce and the stocks of Prosecco are swiftly demolished.
Moreover, Champagne and sparkling wines are beginning to move into a more gastronomic arena. Traditionally, fizz has been the precursor to a dinner; an apéritif to get through the awkward conversation with great Aunt Mildred. Not so anymore. The beauty of sparkling wine is its versatility; it can pair so beautifully with so many dishes, from scallops and lobster to heavier, gamey dishes such as pheasant or truffles, or even comfort foods such as fish and chips (Really, try it – it’s a revelation). Never has this more clear than when I was lucky enough to have dinner with the inimitable cellar master of Dom Perignon, Richard Geoffroy. His always passionate demeanour on the subject of his beloved wine became even more excitable when speaking of his wish to convince the world that Champagne should be treated like any other fine wine, enjoyed in wide-rimmed wine glasses as a complement to perfectly matched cuisine.
I’m glad that the way in which Champagne and sparkling wine is perceived is changing. A bottle of fizz can bring such delight to proceedings, regardless of whether it is a wedding or a grey and uneventful Tuesday evening as an accompaniment to a spag bol. The increase of small family growers whose wines are often of a very high quality has been exciting, especially in Champagne where some of the bigger brands have for a long time held almost a monopoly on fizz production and export. The boom in English wine has, of course, fostered an increased interest and consumption in sparkling wine, as people are often thrilled to see the fine wines which are produced in this country, and are willing to perhaps pay a little extra for something about which one can feel a little patriotic pride. I’ll drink to that.
Written by Jennifer Heyes