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The Great Champagne Drought is Upon Us, and That’s Perfectly Fine
All signs point toward a looming Champagne shortage, and yet we’re still awash in excellent bubbly.
Anyone paying even passive attention to the lifestyle or business sections of any major global media company over the past few months couldn’t have escaped the headlines. Some are more alarmist than others, but the gist is the same: A perfect storm of soaring demand, supply chain bottlenecks, extreme weather, bad harvests, and poor market forecasting is crimping the global supply of Champagne.
And it’s true. A confluence of the aforementioned factors will likely see demand for the iconic French sparkler outpace supply for at least the next couple of years. As 2021 comes to a close, it’s already showing up in the retail data. As of December 15, year-over-year Champagne offers have declined by 6.4 percent (an “offer” refers to a single retailer having a single vintage of a single bottle of a wine for sale). Compared with the years between 2017 and 2020, during which the number of Champagne offers grew by 40 percent, that’s something of a regression.
Demand is soaring too. Champagne sales in 2021 will surpass $6.2 billion, topping the previous record of $5.6 billion set in the pre-pandemic heyday of 2019. And therein lies one of the big problems. When demand for Champagne swooned in 2020 during the early days of the pandemic, the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) — which sets production limits for Champagne’s producers each year — reduced the region’s output by roughly 25% compared with 2019. The Champagne region, in other words, electively reduced supply (significantly) just before demand rebounded to record levels.
Then: The ship got stuck in the Suez Canal and the Champagne region suffered late frost and torrential summer rains (causing some growers to lose more than half their vines) and even more ships got stuck at the Port of Los Angeles, and — yada yada yada — there’s not as much Champagne around as we might normally expect. It’s truly a bummer.
But is it an emergency? Let’s examine this alarmist Washington Post headline (dated October 2) for just a moment: A champagne shortage is looming. Shop early to keep the sparkle in your holidays. Or this much more recent one from TODAY: Will a Champagne shortage take the fizz out of New Year's Eve?
As someone who, among other things, writes headlines for a living, I understand why these headlines are written as they are. But I take umbrage at the premise of these and dozens of other breathless hot takes out there suggesting that a lack of Champagne means you can’t “keep the sparkle in your holidays” or “the fizz” in your New Years Eve. We are living in the golden age of sparkling wine, and much of that wine — indeed, some of the most interesting — does not hail from the cool limestone slopes of northeastern France.
Champagne is the world’s most iconic sparkling wine for a reason. It’s expensive for a reason. It has captivated wine drinkers for centuries for a very good reason. And other wine regions make wine in the méthode champenoise — the traditional method that sees bottles of base wine injected with a solution of sugar and yeast to create a second, bubble-inducing and flavor-imparting fermentation in the bottle — for a reason. Well-made Champagne, put simply, is delicious (not to mention one of the world’s greatest and most versatile food-pairing wines).
But from the moment the first rumblings of a looming Champagne shortage began circulating this summer I began mentally planning for this post, the one in which I would demystify the vast and nuanced universe of sparkling wine of which Champagne is only a part. I would — in thorough, rigorous detail — describe how crémant differs from Italy’s alpine sparklers and why Prosecco IS NOT simply “Italian Champagne” and what the hell a Corpinnat is.
Turns out, someone beat me to it. I picked up a copy of Zachary Sussman’s “Sparkling Wine for Modern Times” when it debuted last month because I personally love sparking wine of all stripes, and Sussman — a celebrated wine writer and regular contributor to PUNCH and several other publications — is an authority. I had intended to use the book as a helpful reference while writing this piece, but quickly found myself lost in its chapters while the post itself turned into something more like a book review.
And the book does in fact merit review. Packed into a mere 185 pages is a wealth of information as Sussman strips away the many misconceptions surrounding sparkling wine while succinctly indexing and explaining the many, many styles of bubbly produced all across the globe. Needles to say, Sussman makes all the arguments as to why you don’t an occasion to drink sparkling wine — and why you don’t necessarily need Champagne to celebrate an occasion — far better than I could in a few hundred words. I’ve linked to the book via Indiebound above because I’m a man of the people, but for those looking for a last-minute holiday gift there’s a certain mainstream online retailer that can have it on your doorstep as soon as tomorrow.
Given recent developments on the COVID-19 front, this holiday season is shaping up to be a somewhat less celebratory than we might like. But my larger point — and while I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth, I think Sussman would agree — is that sparkling wine can pair with any day of the week and any time of the year. So if you find yourself impacted by this season’s (or 2022’s) Champagne scarcity, consider the below primer a solid year-round guide on how to best enjoy sparkling wine in these very strange modern times.
You Want: Champagne taste on a beer budget
You’re Looking For: Crémant
Think of crémant as French sparkling wine that doesn’t come from the region of Champagne. There are in fact eight legally defined appellations in France, stretching from Alsace in the North down through Burgundy (just to Champagne’s south), Jura, and Savoie, across the south of the country and through the length of the the Loire Valley in the West. Each region puts its own imprint on its crémant wines via differing climate, soils, and grapes allowed into the blend. And each is worthy of exploration in its own right. What’s important to know is that quality can vary, and none of these wines comes from Champagne (read: they’re generally far less expensive). The nearest analogs to Champagne typically come from nearby Burgundy, where Chardonnay and Pinot Noir often rule the blend as they do in Champagne. For my money — and we’re talking like $35 here — I lean hard into the Crémant d’Alsace from Albert Boxler.
You Want: Something that’s pure party
You’re Looking For: Prosecco (but a good one)
Just to correct an oft-repeated falsehood: Prosecco is NOT Italian Champagne. It’s not made from the same grapes, nor via the same method. While the second fermentation that gives Champagne its sparkle happens in the bottle, Prosecco producers put their wines through a collective second fermentation in large tanks prior to bottling. The method (known as “Charmat”) produces wines that are less cost-intensive to make and notably less complex than méthode champenoise wines, and that’s very much on purpose. A lack of bready, yeasty complexity preserves the glera grape’s fruit flavors and freshness. But there’s also a lot of lackluster, mass market Prosecco out there. Save that for your hangover mimosa, and instead look for something with “Conegliano” or “Valdobbiadene” on the label, denoting the two villages that anchor what is now the Prosecco Superiore zone. Better yet, seek out something from “Cartizze,” a sub zone (a specific hillside, really) within the Superiore zone widely considered to produce the best Prosecco wines. Bisol’s Prosecco Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze DOCG comes in around $35, with its other perfectly lovely Valdobbiadene (but not Cartizze) wines clocking in at points south of $25.
You Want: Something mountainous
You’re Looking For: Trentodoc
Most wine consumers are at least peripherally aware of Franciacorta, the northern Italian sparkling wine made in the foothills of the Alps northeast of Milan. Keep going further up into the Dolomites from there and you’ll reach the Italian city of Trento and the surrounding “Trentodoc” region cradled in the lower span of the Adige valley (you may recall we wrote about Alto Adige wines, made just a little further north, a few months back). Here winemakers have long made fresh, sparklers in the Champagne style, typically utilizing the very same grapes (namely Chardonnay and Pinot Noir). The biggest player in the region was also the first; Ferrari — no relation to the Italian sportscar of the same name — began making wine there in 1902 and its non-vintage brut is by far the easiest Trentodoc to find in the U.S.
You Want: Something outside the box
You’re Looking For: Something from Iberia
Spanish Cava has a reputation for being cheap and of varying quality, and Portugal doesn’t really have a reputation for bubbly bubbly at all beyond the lovely, slightly fizzy wines of Vinho Verde. Do the legwork, however, and you can find some very excellent sparkling wines from these countries at very reasonable price points. Try: Recaredo Gran Reserva Brut Nature Cava; Quinta do Regueiro Alvarinho Espumante Metodo Classico Bruto.
You Want: Champagne!
You’re Looking For: Louis Roederer Champagne Brut Collection 242
Okay, so you just want Champagne. It’s understandable. And dollar-for-dollar, you can do a lot worse than Louis Roederer’s recently reformulated non-vintage offering (formerly known as “Brut Premier”). To make the wine, Louis Roederer created what it calls a perpetual reserve — essentially a reserve batch of wine to which new wine is added every year from each new vintage (kind of like a sherry wine solera). For each bottling, a bit of the perpetual reserve is added to that year’s base wine along with some other reserve wines from LR’s vast library. The perpetual reserve essentially acts as a common thread tying all future bottlings together. Anyhow, it’s very good and at $65 not too far out of step with what you’ll pay for other decent non-vintage Champagnes this year.
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