Champagne. It is the most exquisite one-word sentence. And by it, of course, we mean champagne from Champagne. There are substitutes, but they don’t have the illusive cachet. No wonder then that this drink has been the darling of the on-premise set for so long—and particularly over these last couple of years. The fact Australians are now the sixth biggest consumers of champagne in the world helps. We’re fluting back just over six million bottles per annum, up over 11 per cent on last year. The high Australian dollar has certainly helped with increased imports, and an ever-growing profession of professional and passionate sommeliers have been keen to do some of the importing, distribution and very hands-on selling themselves. Yet are there consequences?
This flood of champagne has both helped and hindered licensed operators, and in a number of strange ways.
• Lower prices. This one factor has created a keener demand. Champagne is now not automatically off the customer’s radar. Oddly enough, the heavily discounted offerings off-premise have helped the on-premise champagne sales realisation. Here’s the reasoning: if your customers are becoming used to more affordable champagne at home, then there’s an overflow effect when these same people dare to go out. If champagne is something we can drink at home, then—ipso facto—it is something we can drink when being out, and fabulously so.
•A new confusion of labels. Whereas once an Australian fine diner could confidently order champagne by brand name, as there were only a handful of labels to rote-learn, now the choice is myriad. Add to this the rise of the growers’ champagne labels, and it can be tricky. But all of this is to your advantage. Start with the bottle label. It indicates whether the champagne is manufactured by a big champagne house, or whether it is made by an actual vine and grape grower. The houses’ labels carry a prefix NM (négociant-manipulant); growers’ labels are prefixed RM (récoltant-manipulant).
The NMs are the big houses and big brands that we and all of our customers are so familiar with. They make very reliable and consistent wines that are arguably the Big Macs of the sparkling wine world. It doesn’t matter what time zone or country you are in, the wine is the same. Such brands account for about 80 per cent of the champagne sold.
The grower champagnes however—or RMs—are the more hand-made and individual wines, that reflect vintage and vine more than corporate brand strategies. It is no wonder they appeal so magnetically to sommeliers and to wine lovers who want to find a sense of truth and beauty in every wine they sip. I mean ‘look at’. From a licensed liquor operator’s point of view, this is all fascinatingly irrelevant but the take-home message is easy: RM champagnes have a very low retail presence. Larmandier-Bernier, Pierre Gimonnet and Egly-Ouriet are labels your restaurant could call their own. And you might have to. If the big-name champagne houses continued to be discounted in retail land then on-premise champagne will have to find new ammunition. And RM champagnes are growing in sales stature. Their sales have nearly tripled over the past seven years and now account for about 200,000 bottles a year. To be a part of that specialist action would be a feather in the cap of any serious wine-focused operator.
•Niche offerings. These are sparkling wines from places besides Champagne. Quality can be extraordinarily high and LUCs reasonable, which makes them lucrative, but perhaps not as much as they have been recently. Spanish cava rode the wave of tapas menus, as did Spanish table wine, and these Spanish sparkling wines can still serve a purpose on your list, particularly if you happen to be a tapas bar this week, or month … The trickiest bit with not-champagne is the customer’s perception: the cava or Loire or Australian sparkler you offer may indeed be every inch—or perhaps centimetre—the same quality as the champagne you list, but champagne is, well, champagne …
Another niche offering that can slot alongside your current angle of cuisine attack is prosecco, both imported and Australian made. The attraction here is and has been the dolce vita. Much like Spanish cava and tapas, Italian prosecco—whether it be imported from its home in the Veneto or made by Venetian Australians like the Dal Zotto family in the King Valley of Victoria —is a natural fit with antipasti platters or bar snacks translated into Italian. Oysters Kilpatrick become Ostriche Chilopatrico; hot dogs are listed as cane caldo. I take it you get the drift; it’s not rocket surgery. Or razzo chirurgia.
But the enduring $64 question revolves around Australian méthode champenoise. Critics and commentators alike talk about the supreme quality of Australian made sparkler, particularly those wines coming from Tasmania and the cooler and higher bits of south-eastern Australia, such as the Adelaide Hills, Mount Macedon and the Yarra Valley. The glowing reviews and unquestionably pure and true flavours don’t seem to convert into on-premise sales, however.
House of Arras Blanc de Blancs 2004—arguably Australia’s finest sparkling méthode champenoise wine—lands at about $50. Its manufacturer/distributor, Accolade, claims it sells the wine both domestically and internationally. Deviation Road Beltana Blanc de Blancs 2008—another absolute cracker —is around $40ish LUC, and made in a very hands-on method in the Adelaide Hills. These are stunning drinks, and ought be supported.
And a final observation: by-the-glass. This is the absolute way to go with champagne sales over the bar, and to table. At $20-ish a flute (and such proprietary flutes often provided by the distributor gratis) you lend to your venue, yourself, your staff and your never-wrong customer all the allure, suavity, and true internationalism that only champagne can bring.