We’ve become accustomed to the sound of champagne bottles being uncorked to celebrate a milestone. But outside of birthdays, weddings and launch parties, champagne can indulge its quiet alter ego, the one that prefers rainy days, low-key meals and board games.
Champagne’s relevance in Australia's drinking culture has grown more in stature in the past five years than it has in the past 50. Increasingly, people are realising that champagne isn’t just for special occasions, and it can (and should) be for everyday drinking. There’s also never before been a time in history when really good champagne has been offered at such a low price point.
As a global export market for champagne, Australia has moved from seventh to sixth on the world scale, indicating that all of us (at least at some point) like to indulge in a glass or two of proper fizz.
First, let’s get the basics straight: champagne can only come from the Champagne region in north-eastern France. Any other wine with bubbles in it is sparkling wine (for example Italian prosecco or Australian sparkling). Although there are some wonderfully produced sparkling wines, none ever seem to match the quality and supremacy of champagne from Champagne.
So why exactly are these sparklers from France better? The region has a completely unique climate, which sits at the northern-most limits of appropriate for vine cultivation. Here, the majority of the grape- growing season happens in conditions we would consider to be practically freezing. This weather supplies the grapes with the lean, acidic backbone that give the finished wines their balance and finesse.
Another factor affecting the quality of these wines is the region’s distinctive chalk soil, found in very few other wine regions. This white gold creates minerality, character and gorgeous aromatics in the glass. Add to this the centuries of skill and knowledge inside the bottles and you have your reasons why the Champagne region is at the pinnacle of sparkling-wine production worldwide.
Traditionally, Australia’s champagne market has been dominated by a handful of major champagne houses such as Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and Pommery. These producers source their grapes from hundreds of small grape growers from across the region to produce their wine. Often (but not always) this means these producers don’t have control over the growing of the all-important raw material (the grapes) they’re buying. Big brands aren’t bad – they produce incredibly good champagne, and given the quality at the quantity they make, it’s still seriously impressive.
In the last decade or so, our preferences have changed. In Australia, there is now what could almost be called a small movement that seeks out what is known as “grower champagne”. This term refers to the small, quality-conscious producers who grow grapes in their own vineyards and make the finished wine themselves, without buying other grapes in. For consumers searching for more character in their champagne, these growers offer a chance to taste something different. The quality of these wines often matches (or sometimes surpasses) that of the major brands, and they are usually found at a cheaper price.
One of the benefits of grower champagne to the everyday drinker is diversity. It means our domestic market is no longer dominated by just a few major players.
Another benefit is that the affordability of grower champagne encourages versatility, especially when it comes to ordering champagne with a casual meal. Of course the classic champagne food matches remain, such as oysters and shellfish. But how about pairing a robust style of champagne (e.g. Bollinger) with roast duck? The champagne’s body, weight and structure match up well to the gaminess and textural quality of the meat.
Travis Howe is one of Melbourne’s most forward-thinking sommeliers, and currently oversees the lists at Coda and Tonka in the CBD. When it comes to the changing role and style of champagne in Melbourne’s dining scene, he agrees there is a shift happening – if a slow one. “Although some people look at me like I’m crazy, I keep preaching the good word about pairing champagne with all parts of a meal,” says Howe. “I’m finding that when people are exposed to the concept of champagne being served in proper wine glasses (not flutes), and even some bottles getting decanted and treated like great table wine, the clearer the concept of champagne with food becomes.”
Rob Walters, a leading importer of smaller champagne producers, says the Australian wine market is very different to what it was even a decade ago. “When we started, so many wine buyers told us it was impossible to sell grower wines because the public only bought champagne with a famous brand on the label,” he says. “We persisted because the quality of the best grower wines was so damn exciting. Today, the situation has changed completely: switched-on sommeliers and wine buyers in the trade judge a champagne like any other wine, on quality and price.”
The same is true of retail. Prominent small wine shops are going against the trend followed by supermarket liquor chains such as Dan Murphys and Vintage Cellars, who offer the larger champagne houses at discounted prices. The Blackhearts and Sparrows group of wine stores was an early crusader for the grower champagne movement.
Adam Fisher, one of the group’s main buyers, says this is driven by people’s interest in the new or unknown, but also their interest in smaller, accountable producers. “As a trend, we’re noticing that people have an increased desire for organic, biodynamic or sustainable wines. Many of the growers tick one or more of these boxes, so the growth in these wines has meant an increase in grower champagne popularity, too.”
The possibilities of enjoying champagne can transcend wealth or occasion. With summer on our doorstep, this is the best time to pop the cork and try something new.
CHAMPAGNES TO TRY
There are so many fantastic examples we could have chosen to recommend for your next bottle, but here are a few solid options to start you off discovering the wider world of champagne.
Vilmart & Co Grande Reserve NV
A underrated, superstar producer that anyone discovering grower champagnes needs to try. The balanced use of controlled oak (a rarity in the champagne world) brings texture and body, while its bright fruit profile rounds out a completely satisfying (and delicious) glass of champagne.
Egly-Ouriet Brut Tradition NV
Pronounced “egg-le-or-ree-ay”, this is another of the leading small-grower producers in the champagne world. Its Brut Tradition (its standard non-vintage bottling) gives a huge amount of depth, richness and fruit density – a great choice for those not yet familiar with high-quality, non-vintage champagne.
Louis Roederer Brut Premier NV
Make no mistake: this is indeed one of the larger champagne houses, but the quantity it produces at this quality level is simply remarkable. When you consider the high consistency of this wine, year after year, it certainly remains one the very best examples of why larger champagne producers have, over time, created such a great name for themselves.
Gosset Grand Millesime 2004
One of the smaller champagne houses, this stands as one of the region’s benchmark non- vintage releases for any champagne fan to try. Almost needless to say, its current vintage release is spectacular, too. Still as fresh as a daisy for something now a decade old, it retains a great deal of fruit weight, flavour and complexity.