Champagne

By Bunmi Sofola

Champagne’ used to be  really seductive word a few decades back. You didn’t have to say it in a sultry French accent for it to convey a word of sophistication, glamour and wealth.  As a champagne enthusiast puts it, “It sashays off the tongue like a yacht gliding into Monte Carlo harbour.”

At least it used to.  But something has gone seriously wrong.  Nowadays, you’re more likely to hear the word yelled across various nightclubs, demanded by casually dressed ‘celebs’, and celebs-wanabes looking more like recalcitrant youths.  Sadly to say, champagne “ain’t post any more”.

In certain circles, the doubt has been creeping in for some time.  For old school snobs, the sophistication began to wane when supermarkets and ‘Oke-arin’ and Apongbon stalls began stock-piling crates of the stuff next to locally brewed spirits and cut-price fizz drinks. 

Years back, pictures emerged in most British tabloids of race-goers at the Cheltenham Festival swigging it straight from the bottle. 

This wasn’t just a few over-excited punters celebrating their winnings.  It was the distinguished Moet & Chandon encouraging drinkers not to bother with a glass by providing mini-bottles pre-fitted with a plastic spout!

“Forget sniffing at an elegant crystal flute, savouring the tart aroma,” grumbled Jerry. 

“Now, the producers of this upmarket sparkling wine are urging us to guzzle it straight from the bottle.  Get it down your throat!  How’s that for sophistication?  I’m sure the game is up for brands such as Moet.  They can’t trade on an air of exclusivity while encouraging people to behave like hooligans.  When something magical and just-out-of-reach becomes mainstream, the bubble busts.  Suddenly, we realise it is ludicrous to splurge £30 (God knows how much that is now in the spiralling Naira!) or more on a bottle.

“Once, when buying a bottle of champagne, we were not only investing in the drink itself, we were paying to belong to another world, one more sophisticated and refined than our own.  The fact is that champagne is expensive to make.  The process is slow and complicated.

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“There are special tours of the French champagne houses, a particular feature is the riddling, which involves someone rotating the bottles a little in their racks every other day to stop the build-up of sediments.  But what really makes it expensive is the fact that true champagne can be made only in small areas of France.  But such is the demand for champagne that grower have been lobbying the French authorities to extend the designated area.  But if they do that, it would devalue the brand even more.

“In the face of serious competition from alternative, cheaper sparkling wines, the big champagne brands such as Moet, need to stop trying to be all things to all people.“If champagne is no longer seen as exclusive, few will want to pay such high prices when they can buy a bottle of fizz for under a third of the price of champagne.  Wine connoisseurs have known this for a long time, and have been abandoning champagne in favour of Spanish, Italian, American, South African and even English equivalents.  And the word has spread-sales of non-champagne sparkling wine have increased tremendously in the last ten years.

“And the profiles of these alternative sparkling wines is growing.  Whereas they were seen as champagne’s cheap cousins, now people are happy to pay top whacks for respected brands.  In reality, the idea of champagne as an exclusive product is something of a 20th-century, almost all champagne was sweet.  Only when Perrier-Jonet came up with the dry type of champagne that we drink today did it become sophisticated, critics hated it at first, calling it ‘brute!’, or ugly, which is why it’s now known as brute champagne.  The jazz age of the Twenties and Thirties helped catapult champagne’s reputation into something chic.  “As post-war generations become wealthier,” commented Mat Bell, a wine critique, “more families aspired to drink champagne on special occasions.  It was reassuringly expensive, and every mouthful would be savoured. The sound of corks popping was synonymous with celebrating, but also discretion and class.

“Today, champagne has lost its fizz.  It is being downed in gargantuan quantities with no dignity or grace.” 

Frankly, I don’t know what these critics expect with millionaires and billionaires springing up all over the world and needing their own status symbols!  A quick visit to Nigeria will show the depth to which champagne has sunk with street parties serving the stuff as if it were ‘pure water’!  The writer F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that “too much of anything is bad but too much champagne is just right!”

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