Champagne is all a matter of taste – but the taste doesn’t really matter


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Champagne is all a matter of taste – but the taste doesn’t really matter” was written by David Mitchell, for The Observer on Saturday 25th October 2014 23.05 UTC

There’s been a major breakthrough in the quest to improve the taste of champagne. You probably think that’s one of those “first world problems” that everyone in the first world is so obsessed with not being obsessed with. Or rather a first world solution to a problem, like invading a country and taking all its oil. But I’m not sure it’s even that.

After all, who really gives a damn what champagne tastes like? Even in the first world. I mean, you’d complain if you were served some and it tasted of peppermint or Fanta or cheese, but only because you’d think that meant the glass hadn’t been washed or it wasn’t really champagne. If champagne had always tasted like Fanta you’d sit back and enjoy that fizzy, sugary, orangey hit which you associate with luxury and celebration. Champagne just needs to taste like whatever champagne tastes like. The specifics of that flavour are as irrelevant as a banknote’s appearance.

The supposed breakthrough comes from Federico Lleonart, who is a “global wine ambassador for the drinks company Pernod Ricard”. That’s the phrase in all the papers and I’m sticking to it. To be fair, it varies a bit across the media. Jilly Goolden in the Daily Mail kept it vague and article-free, calling him just “global wine ambassador…”; The Times grandly asserted that he was “the global wine ambassador…”; while the Sunday Telegraph dismissed him as merely “a global wine ambassador”.

None of which gives us much insight into the structure of Pernod Ricard’s wine diplomatic service and how many ambassadors and embassies there are. One for each country? One for each wine? One from each country to each wine? Are there ones for other drinks – Pernod, for example? Or is that what Lleonart is: Pernod’s ambassador to wine? In which case, does every drink have an ambassador to every other drink – the big jobs being tea’s ambassador to coffee and his opposite number?

On the scale of indispensability to human society, global wine ambassador may rank somewhere below party planner and above web-designer’s mood-board chakra realigner – about the same level as topical columnist, in fact – but it seems safe to assume that he’d know a bit about wine. And not just because he’s got a lot of time on his hands.

And what he, and other experts, are now saying about champagne is that, if it’s a posh one (as opposed to a normal champagne of the sort people actually ever buy – you know, the cheapest one that’s still allowed to have the word “champagne” printed on it, even if it’s accompanied by “Morrison’s”), it tastes better drunk from a normal wine glass than from one of those tall flutes. Even if it’s a new flute which hasn’t yet developed a stubborn clod of unreachable matter in the bottom that fizzes insanely when the glass is full, giving the disconcerting impression that it’s dissolving.

Lleonart says: “When the sparkling wine or champagne has complexity, depth and autolytic notes, such as the best cavas or champagnes, then the best option is actually to use a white wine glass in order to let the aromas express themselves better.” This statement confused me, and not primarily because I don’t understand what ‘autolytic’ means even though I’ve looked it up. I think I know what complexity is, but depth must mean something else in this context because otherwise it stands to reason that a fixed volume of champagne would have greater depth in a narrower receptacle. But what confused me most was the reference to “the best cavas”.

Imagine, if you will, the announcement of the engagement of a beloved child to an upstanding and appropriate partner. It is a joyous family occasion. What do you do? Do you, for example, open a bottle of one of the best cavas? You know the sort. Not one of those crappy garage cavas, but one of the ones that wine experts say taste better than many champagnes – so much so, in fact, that they warrant the use of normal wine glasses rather than those awful, dated flutes, the efficacy of which science has rejected as firmly as the way up you were taught to put your now affianced child to sleep decades ago. Do you? Do you produce the receipt for this fine cava, proving that it cost more than many champagnes, and that therefore it’s only your insistence on the best possible fizzy taste, not penny-pinching, that denies the apple of your eye a more famous C-word for the congratulatory toast? Or do you buy a bottle of champagne?

I’d do the latter, I think. It doesn’t really matter what it tastes like because you can show them the bottle and most people can read. So they know what it is, and what that signifies. That’s the point of champagne: it shows a celebratory intention. As well as being extravagant, it symbolises extravagance. Its symbolic role is why we drink it out of funny-shaped glasses and is much more important than its actual cost or taste. Lleonart’s reference to cava suggests that he either doesn’t really understand that or is resistant to it.

Normal champagnes, by the way – the simpler, shallower, less autolytic sort – should still be guzzled from flutes or that saucer-on-a-stalk type of glass. “Both the flute and the saucer help the aromas diffuse in different ways,” explained the ambassador. “The flute concentrates carbon dioxide at the top of the glass, whereas the saucer’s wide mouth means the bubbles evaporate more quickly.” So, if you’re drinking an inferior wine, you might as well persist with your wacky glassware.

And this, of course, is the key to the experts’ new champagne-drinking advice – it’s not really about what anything tastes like. They’re not fools. They’re selling a luxury item, so this is all about snobbery. This supposedly taste-maximising advice creates a whole new level of posh above normal champagne-drinking, and gives it a visual hook.

Like calling an eminent surgeon “Mister” because he has been elevated above a mere doctor, drinking fizzy wine in a normal glass is a way of defining a new cut above – a way of making expensive champagne distinguishable from normal, without the need of an expert’s palate. It’s like anglicising your pronunciation of Don Quixote – to those not in the know, champagne from a normal glass will look wrong. But, to the alpha-snobs, the sensation of the bourgeoisie wrongly looking down on them will add a frisson to their feeling of superiority that’s more effervescent than any drink.

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