21 January, alongside provenance-announcing dishes such as steamed lobster with New England clam chowder sauce and Hudson Valley apple pie, is a sparkling wine listed as “Korbel Natural, Special Inaugural Cuvée Champagne (California)”. The champagne lobby is “popping mad” while the American press want the French to “put a cork in it”.
It all bubbles up from punctuation. The champagne lobby wants the drink to be labelled California champagne instead of champagne (California). Champagne, they argue and rightly so, must come from Champagne, France.
This then is the great champagne paradox. People love it and yet, sometimes, they don’t know what to do with it. It is festive, bubbly, tingly and nothing signals a celebration like the popping of a cork. Warm day, alfresco lunch, jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery and a perfectly chilled brut champagne. What’s not to love? But here’s the thing: In blind tastings, the average consumer cannot differentiate between flutes of, say, Cristal, Ruinart or Dom Pérignon. Forget prestige cuvées.
Social scientists go to great lengths to prove that the average consumer cannot differentiate between, say, a Spanish Cava, a Lamberti Prosecco, and real champagne. Just google “champagne versus sparkling wine”, and you’ll see videos in which wine store owners prove—with much glee—that their consumers prefer a $10 (around Rs.550) sparkling wine to a $50 bottle of champagne. Seen in this light, the Obama transition team’s choice of an American bubbly can be rationalized. After all, they must have thought, bubbles are bubbles. Might as well pick an American one.
The trick for champagne brands is to distinguish themselves in this crowded field of 10,000-odd producers. So far, the top brands have done it through association and storytelling. They cash in on events such as Formula One and cultivate artists such as David Lynch and Jitish Kallat. The purist in me baulks at spraying sweaty drivers with champagne, but it must be a successful marketing strategy for GH Mumm.
Cristal chose to go the other way by refusing to associate with the rap star Jay-Z and his drawing power—something which requires spine or stupidity or both. Dom Pérignon throws amazing, over-the-top parties such as the one I would have loved to attend. A couple of years ago, Dom Pérignon took over Ferran Adrià’s restaurant, El Bulli, just before it closed for a private dinner with paired exquisite vintages. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and editors in New York still talk about it.
Other brands that don’t have the clout—or marketing budget—of Dom Pérignon associate themselves with events that further their story. Piper-Heidsieck, supposedly Marilyn Monroe’s favourite champagne, used to sponsor marine events. Krug sponsors high-end restaurant events, mostly in the US. Pommery—owned by the art-loving Vranken family—sponsors the Frieze Art Fair. Taittinger, a favourite of James Bond, sponsors—naturally—literary festivals connected to author Ian Fleming. Ruinart, the oldest champagne house, sponsors the cocktails at Pavilion of Art & Design (PAD) as well as antique fairs. And then there are the objects: designer accessories such as Marc Newson’s champagne cooler for Dom Pérignon; Nendo Studio’s Kotoli picnic basket for Ruinart; and Porsche Design’s stunning champagne cooler for Veuve Clicquot that stores 12 magnums in one sleek case.
India is a small market for champagne producers, but it is one that some are cultivating. Rajiv Singhal, the Indian ambassador for champagne, says India consumes the highest percentage of the high-value prestige cuvées in the world—10-15%; relative to champagne-crazy Japan, where it hovers around 8%. That said, only 40 brands have entered India; and of those, five brands drive 85% of the market. Moët & Chandon and Dom Pérignon lead the pack, followed by Veuve Clicquot, Krug, and Ruinart. Indians have—and only a wine person can say this without irony—“good drinking habits”, according to Singhal. “We drink a lot and we are regular, consistent and deep drinkers,” says Singhal. Add to that the desire for ostentation and the focus on conspicuous consumption, and you have a market that could, well, bubble over.
Played right, the Indian desire to splurge on weddings and birthdays could be a godsend for champagne brands. People in Delhi are still talking about a big-ticket birthday party in Udaipur given by a real estate mogul and about how bad the wine was.
Among the Bric countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China, India consumes the least amount of champagne (about 300,000 bottles a year), while the other three have all hit one million bottles. In comparison, champagne’s largest export market, the UK, consumes 34 million bottles a year. That’s a steep curve. India is, to use marketing jargon, a nascent market.
How to play it is something that occupies the minds and budgets of the top brands. “Indians are a cynical bunch of people in many ways,” says Gaurav Bhatia, marketing director, Moët Hennessy India, which markets Dom Pérignon through small but over-the-top events. “Let’s face it. Only a few can afford a bottle that costs Rs.17,000. So our target audience is a few hundred Indian families.”
In a weird way, India’s high import taxes have made champagne one of the best deals in the fine wine category. You can get a decent champagne for around Rs.5,000 from a retail shop. And while whisky drinkers will not switch to champagne, wine aficionados can choose between the second wines of a Bordeaux first growth which will cost about Rs.9,000 and a basic champagne. If all else fails, you can try the Korbel and call it champagne; although the French will hate you for it.
Although Shoba Narayan likes Cristal and Ruinart because they are maverick and underdog, she’ll drink any vintage champagne with pleasure.