Before I started working for Sip I could never understand why anyone would pay £40+ for a bottle of Champagne when you can buy a bottle of Prosecco or Cava for less than a quarter of the price.
Over the past 18 months, however, I've had the privilege of sampling some of the best grower Champagnes on the market and, as such, I find myself well and truly won-over.
Aside from the fact it's night and day in terms of quality, numerous visits to the region and discussions with both the winemakers and Peter, have really made me appreciate what a labour of love it is to create Champagne and that £40 is actually great value for money.
Here's why Champagne is costly but why it's worth the money...
Restricted Region & Small-Scale Farming
Champagne can only be made in the 34,400 hectares that constitute the Champagne AOC. That means there is only as much Champagne ever available as can be produced from an area a little smaller than the Isle of Wight. As a result, vineyard prices in Champagne are astronomical and the majority of the growers we work with rely on a handful of small, often inherited, plots of land. Naturally this limits their production – sometimes to just a few thousand or even hundreds of bottles per annum – so you know you're getting something special.
Champagne is the most northerly region of France to produce wine and, whilst the very specific balance of sunshine, rainfall, cold and warm help to nurture grapes that are perfect for sparkling wine, it comes at the price of challenging weather conditions; frost, hail, heavy rainfall and associated mildew and blight that can decimate crops. Furthermore, as many growers move towards more sustainable practices, including organic and biodynamic certification, this limits the ability to fight back against nature. 2021 offered up some of the most challenging weather conditions on record, with many of our producers losing 80-100% of their harvest for the year. When this happens there is little that can be done but rely on past reserve wines to bolster anything that is harvested and hope for a better year to come.
Vines & Terroir
The terroir of Champagne is particularly prized – largely a combination of chalk, clay and sand (in different proportions) – it's what lends Champagne its distinctive minerality, salinity and nuanced traits that are the envy of winemakers across the world.
Many of the growers we support have been working the same parcels of land for generations and have not only inherited a deep understanding of their own very specific soil conditions, but they have vines that are many decades old, that reach deep into the soil and produce low grape yields with exceptional concentration.
All grapes in Champagne must be hand harvested and the very best winemakers will employ skilled pickers who are able to assess the grapes as they harvest and omit any bunches that may have fallen prey to pests or rot to ensure only the finest grapes are preserved.
When you combine these factors you have the potential to create truly amazing, ageworthy wines.
Champagne's Italian rival, Prosecco, has seen its market share skyrocket in the past decade or so and, one factor that has helped that is the low price point and speed to market; both of which are a result of its relatively simple production process.
Champagne on the other hand must be made using method Champenoise or ‘traditional method’. After initial fermentation in tank or barrels, the wines undergo secondary fermentation in bottle, during which time they are 'riddled' or turned daily to gradually accumulate the 'lees' or dead yeast cells in the bottle neck before being disgorged and bottled for sale. All Champagne must, by law, spend at least 12 months on lees before being sold, but many winemakers choose to keep their wines on lees for far longer. All the wines in our collection are kept on lees for at least 24 months and, in one case, more than a decade!
This lees ageing brings depth and complexity to the wine and the autolytic notes of bread and brioche which Champagne is so prized for. However, whilst the Champagnes become richer for the experience it has the opposite effect on the vigneron, who may make no money for many years as these bottles sit in the cellar.
Heritage & Prestige
Champagne was first planted out with grapevine by the Romans in the 3rd Century and by the 17th Century it had developed a reputation that saw it served at king's banquets. As such, the name Champagne has become synonymous with high quality, prestige wines that are crafted to exacting standards and worthy of their price tag.
The Extra Mile
In addition to all these elements, many of our producers go further still in the commitment to their cause, be it planting flowers among their vines to boost biodiversity, massaging grapes by hand to create a unique rosé 'infusion' or, in the case of Marine Zabarino (Domaine Vincey), hand-picking caterpillars off vines at night by torchlight... while pregnant.
So, the next time someone grabs a bottle of Prosecco stating that 'Champagne is too expensive', show them this article and put the Prosecco back on the shelf.