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Bottles made of sand

[mustang & vines]The current state of the wine business is enough to drive anyone to drink. Consider, for instance, this report from France:

French wine and spirits exports fell by almost a quarter in the first half of 2009…Champagne sales plummeted by 45% in value with Bordeaux declining 24%…Burgundy exports fell 30%

That last number might also be slightly elevated by the ongoing, and as yet not convincingly solved, premature oxidation issue affecting some of the region’s whites, but I suspect the majority of it is a simple matter of (over)supply vs. (under)demand.

In Champagne, however, they have a plan:

With sales falling, producers may be ordered to leave up to half their grapes to wither on the vine in an attempt to squeeze the market. Merchants are pushing for an historic reduction in yield as they seek to ensure that champagne remains an expensive luxury. “Everyone agrees that production has to be cut because no one here wants to see prices fall,” an industry insider said.

I suppose some might be moved to a fair bit of offense at the naked avarice of the folks who make Champagne, but I’m afraid I’m too cynical to be upset at this sort of thing anymore. And it is a good business/marketing decision, given what they sell is no longer wine (more on that in a moment).

But the news isn’t all bad. Referring once more to French wine:

The vin de pays category was less badly affected, while vin de table grew by 1.2%.

This matches what I’ve heard from retailers and restaurateurs: people are still buying alcohol, they’re just spending less when they do. But still, those drops in Champagne, Bordeaux, and Burgundy are dramatic. Aren’t these in-demand luxury products, with a worldwide audience and a steady stream of new buyers?

Yes. Therein lies the problem. Champagne, and to a slightly lesser extent Bordeaux, are not – in the market’s imagination – wines any longer. They’re luxury goods. They’re sold on their names and admired for the same reason, probably more than they’re admired for the contents of the bottles. Don’t believe me? Heed the source:

“Champagne is the drink of dreams and of parties,” [Patrick] Le Brun [chairman of the Syndicat Général des Vignerons de la Champagne] wrote in La Champagne Viticole, the trade magazine. “Its image, its universe are endangered when the term ‘crisis’ is associated too often with it.”

Note the absence of any talk of Champagne’s gustatory qualities. It’s all about the image, the prestige, the “event.”

This is a situation certain regions have engineered themselves. In boom times, it helps their sales, and – especially in Champagne – it neatly separates desirability from quality, making the former rather than the latter the driver of popularity (were that not so, people wouldn’t buy so much mediocre Veuve Clicquot). But as we’re now seeing, there’s a downside. People might remain true to a beloved beverage during hard times. But a status symbol? Those can be replaced, or abandoned, with ease.

On the other hand, not everyone suffers in a downturn:

The South African wine industry could face wine shortages within five years if sales continue to rise at the current rate, a leading South African producer has warned. In 2008, total exports increased 12% to a record 405 million liters but vineyard planting has not kept pace with increasing demand. Merwe Botha, financial director at Distell told, “We need to look at the demand and supply situation. There are signs that in the next five years the industry could face shortages in supply. Producers have been under severe pressure because of margin and cash flow problems so they have not planted as much as they should have,” he added.

This was a topic of much angst last year when I visited South Africa. The ten-rand-to-the-dollar exchange rate that made the trip a ridiculous bargain has, for a while now, helped the wines make significant inroads into territory that once belonged to Australia, New Zealand, and California. But the too-cheap prices received by the producers have a significant downside, one that’s been plaguing South American countries as well: the money to plant (or replant, a significant issue facing a good number of South African growers), the money to upgrade facilities, and the money to work the market simply doesn’t materialize, even though the bottles themselves might be flying out the cellar door.

The needs of the Mesnil outweigh than the needs of the few, or the Oger

[tasting room]Pierre Peters 1998 Champagne Le Mesnil-sur-Oger “Grand Cru” Brut Blanc de Blancs (Champagne) – Vibrant, in the prime of its young adulthood, with a throbbing core of life and energy. Ultra-ripe (but not sweet) heirloom apple, lemony yeast, and the last lingering crusts of a flaky pain levain – there’s something more fundamental here than the standard brioche – with firm acidity, fine-grained electric bubbles, and a long, precise finish. Yowzers. (7/09)

Held back

[press]Pierre Peters Champagne Le Mesnil-sur-Oger “Grand Cru” Brut Blanc de Blancs “Cuvée de Réserve” (Champagne) – This is the NV bottling that would have been in stores in 1998, so it’s getting long in the tooth for an NV, even one that was as good as this has long been. Alas, it appears to have reached the end of its useful life, and is now on the downslope…though it should be said that this bottle tastes considerably older than one tasted last year, more than would be accounted for by the time that’s passed. There’s that antiqued bread character, bronze-ish and autumnal, common to older Champagnes, and the way this facet it tiring – paired with a new, elbowy sharpness to the acidity – is the clearest sign of the fade. Still plenty characterful,, but drink up. (7/09)

Great years think alike

[bottle]J. Lassalle Champagne 1er Cru Brut Rosé “Réserve des Grandes Années” (Champagne) – Bubbles aside, this could be a somewhat mature red Burgundy from a “lesser” appellation – Givry, perhaps – for all the earthy, mushroomy softness to its red fruit. There’s a fullness that combats against this sensation of age, and a hint of orange rind for focus, but this is compelling as much for its otherness as for its characteristics. A lovely wine, perhaps more so than a Champagne. (7/09)

Who wants to be?

Charles Heidsieck 1990 Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs “Blanc des Millénaires” (Champagne) – Reggiano rinds, stale lemon, green olive, and slightly sweaty socks. As bad as the previous sounds, I actually kind of like the result. Later, a little zing of black cherry skin appears; unusually so, considering that this is a chardonnay-based sparkler. Very good, but I wouldn’t hold it much longer. (3/05)

Qu’est-ce Cuis?

Gimonnet Champagne Cuis “1er Cru” Brut Blanc de Blancs (Champagne) – Metal-jacketed apple, makrut lime, and rhubarb. Interesting, to say the least. I’m not sure how to describe the texture here, as it’s something a little out of the ordinary. Rhomboid? Sure, why not? Incisive, long, and strong-willed. Insistent stuff. Almost certainly needs age. (3/09)

R. Lady of the bubbles

Paul Goerg 2000 Champagne Brut “Cuvée Millésimée” “R. Lady” (Champagne) – Mandarin and strawberry hull. Can that be right? I find it difficult to embrace this wine – or maybe it’s the other way ‘round – and I’m not sure it ever achieves cohesion. The bubbles are a little clumsy, as well. Even middling Champagne tends to be appealing enough, but this is something I’m not particularly eager to retry. (12/08)

Hannibal Nectar

Moët & Chandon Champagne “Nectar Impérial” (Champagne) – Fruit-sweet, with only the barest suggestion of Champagne-ness. I suppose this appeals to label drinkers, but why not just choose moscato d’Asti, which is more flavorful, more fun, and much cheaper? (12/08)

The first Noël

[label]Jean Milan 2002 Champagne Oger “Grand Cru” Brut Blanc de Blanc “Sélection Terres de Noël” (Champagne) – Beautiful. Soft golden complexity, with a hint of curry dusting exotic flowers and heirloom apples. Very pure and gentle. Extremely long, eventually getting around to showing apples in every possible form, from flower to juice. Gorgeous. (12/08)

C’est Cuis

[label]Pierre Gimonnet Champagne Cuis “1er Cru” Brut Blanc de Blancs (Champagne) – Striking nose of rainforest rocks and humidity. Huge lemon brioche (sprinkled with grapefruit shavings) on the palate. There’s excellent balance between bitterness and acidity. Massively long and frankly gorgeous, with skins dominating right now, and a very trebly midpalate that I expect to mellow with a little age. (12/08)