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Like Money in a Glass, but With Bubbles

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By Dave McIntyre
Wednesday, December 17, 2008; Page F05

What do we pay for when we buy a bottle of expensive champagne? In "The Wine Trials," published this year by Fearless Critic Media, author Robin Goldstein describes a series of tastings in which about 60 people were asked to rate two unidentified glasses of sparkling wine. Two out of three preferred a $12 Domaine Ste. Michelle from Washington state over Dom Perignon, the famous luxury champagne that sells for $150.

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So if more people prefer the cheaper wine, why buy the expensive one? Goldstein concluded that when we purchase Dom (or a cult Napa cabernet or first-growth Bordeaux), we're not buying just wine but also the experience of drinking something exclusive and expensive. We enjoy the taste of money.

Money seems to taste sour these days. The champagne trade association CIVC recently announced that global shipments of champagne plummeted 20 percent in October compared with the same period last year. The British wine magazine Decanter reported on its Web site that 2008 shipments -- two-thirds of which come at the end of the year -- could drop by 34 million bottles, or about 10 percent, from last year's boom.

Given champagne's elite status, we would expect sales to slump during a global economic downturn as consumers turn to cheaper sparkling wines from Spain, Italy, California and elsewhere. But if champagne is what you want, there are larger houses that offer fine value at relatively low prices, especially as competition heats up with sales this time of year. And excitement in champagne is not really much more expensive, if you know where to look.

Here are some tips for maximizing your champagne experience this holiday season.

Ask your retailer. Specialty wine stores will carry the familiar labels (Veuve Clicquot, Moet, Mumm, Taittinger) because those are the names customers ask for. And many of them might be competitively discounted at this time of year. But your retailer might have one or two unfamiliar labels tucked to the side that represent good value for the money, so don't be afraid to ask.

Look for local importers. By U.S. law, the importer must be identified on the label. Local importers specialize in finding unknown producers of high-quality wines -- from any region.

Look for small growers. Champagne boasts more than 15,000 independent grape growers, many with exceedingly small parcels. Together they own 90 percent of the vineyards. However, only about 5,000 growers produce wine from their own grapes. The power (political and economic) lies with the 300 or so champagne houses that own 10 percent of the vineyards but account for two-thirds of Champagne's production and a whopping 90 percent of its exports.

The large houses offer some fine products, but the small "grower champagnes" have become quite the fashion among the value-hunting set in the past decade or so. By making their own wines instead of selling to the large houses, growers can produce distinctive champagnes that taste of their own vineyards instead of seeing their grapes disappear into a larger blend that reflects a "house style" of a major brand. Consumers pay less (in theory, at least) because they aren't supporting the prestige and advertising budgets of the parent corporations.

Small grower wines from highly rated vineyards -- those designated grands crus -- offer even greater value, because the quality of the fruit produces a finer expression of terroir and the winemaker's style.

Those expressions can be as different as they are exciting. Pascal Doquet produces a blockbuster, in-your-face champagne that dares you not to like it. The wine from Pierre Peters is more reticent. It waits for you to notice how good it is before revealing all its secrets, like a mentor who teaches the true craft only after the student has proven worthy.

Both wines cost about $50 -- not much more than the basic champagnes of the major houses -- but they taste like they cost more. They taste like money.

Dave McIntyre can be reached through his Web site, http://www.dmwineline.com, or at food@washpost.com.


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