Burst Bubbles

champagne drinkers

illustration by Jason Stout

I used to make fun of fools who tried to impress their friends by wasting their money on laughably expensive vintage Champagnes. Clicquot Orange Label (or Yellow Label as the colorblind French insist on calling it) was my brand. I held it up as shining example of money well spent. It was very close in quality to vintage Champagne at around half the price. It was, I thought, a triumph of quality over hype.

That was then. This is now.

Clicquot Orange Label has now become exceedingly popular all over the world. In fact, Clicquot has published a book chronicling the rise of their brand as an international status symbol. The coffee table tome is titled Le Clique Clicquot. In lavish color photography, it introduces us to people who have painted their vintage automobiles and swimming pools with the Clicquot Orange Label, people who wear Clicquot Orange Label clothing, and people who worship the Clicquot Orange Label in other strange and frightening ways. Clicquot has further whipped up the faddish frenzy by sponsoring Clicquot Orange Balls during the Halloween season in cities all over the world.

The result of this very astute marketing campaign is both impressive and predictable. Clicquot's Orange Label has leapt over the competition and become the world's best-known non-vintage Champagne, the one by which all others are judged -- the orange standard. But it's not my standard anymore. I am not drinking good old Clicquot Orange Label much anymore.

For the last two years, I have served as a judge for Clicquot's Wine Book of the Year Competition. Clicquot thanks each member of the judging panel with a nice bottle of Champagne. This year, I received a magnum of Clicquot's 1989 Vintage Réserve. After all the grief I have given fools who wasted their money on expensive Champagnes over the years, I felt a little silly bringing it to my birthday party last week. But I felt much, much sillier after I drank some. It was extraordinary.

In one golden-colored, toasty, nutty-flavored moment, the bubble of my supposed Champagne expertise was burst. I have been telling people for years that non-vintage Champagnes were a better value than vintage ones. But in the case of Clicquot at least, I am afraid that that once seemingly immutable fact has become fiction.

In 1994, my Champagne round-up for TheAustin Chronicle was titled: "The Orange Widow and Other Bubbly Bargains." In that year, the Austin Wine Merchant had Clicquot Orange Label on sale for $24.95 and Clicquot's Vintage Réserve 1985 (a very good year) on sale for $42.50. In 1995, my Champagne round-up was titled "Champagne Wars." Wiggy's won the Orange Label battle that year with their sale price of $26.99, and the Austin Wine Merchant had Clicquot's Vintage Réserve 1988 (a so-so vintage) on sale for $42.50. This year, Clicquot's Orange Label is on sale at the Austin Wine Merchant for $32.50. And Clicquot's Vintage Réserve 1989 (a stupendous vintage) is on sale for $42.50. The rapid change in the relationship between price and quality has taught me something I should have known all along: There is no lasting truth in generalizations about Champagne bargains, but the guiding principle of capitalism, the Law of Supply and Demand, is immutable.

The insatiable demand of that international fun club, the Clique Clicquot, has sent the price of Orange Label skyrocketing to the $40 level. And how do other non-vintage Champagnes compare in quality? The December issue of Wine Spectator gave Feuillatte's non-vintage, which is available from Wiggy's on sale for $22.50, a score of 88 out of 100; Deutz Brut Classic, on sale at Austin Wine Merchant for $21.25, got a 90. Even on sale at $32.50, Clicquot Orange Label costs $10 more than either one of these. And Wine Spectator gave it an 87.

Obviously, good old Orange Label ain't the bargain it used to be. Five years ago, this would have brought me to the conclusion that it was time to find a new non-vintage Champagne. But in my old age, my tastes seems to have changed. I have tried to develop a taste for Deutz and Feuillatte, but now I'm spoiled; I have started to compare everything to the champagne that popped out of my birthday: the astonishing Clicquot Vintage Réserve 1989. When Orange Label was $25 and Vintage Réserve was $42.50, the jump in price never seemed worth it. But while Orange Label has increased $7 in five years, the price of Clicquot's Vintage Réserve hasn't risen a nickel, despite the fact that this vintage is far superior to the others. And the truth is, I've had a chance to taste a lot more vintage Champagnes in the last five years, and I'm beginning to develop a taste for them.

Non-vintage Champagnes are blended; they include wines from several different years. The idea is to achieve a house style that never varies. Vintage Champagnes are like single malt scotches: They are wildly different. Some are fruity, some are toasty; some smell like flowers, some smell like wet dogs.

Last week, I invited a bunch of Chronicle food writers over for a tasting to see what other people thought about vintage and non-vintage Champagnes. In a blind tasting, my favorite turned out to be the complex and full-bodied 1990 Feuillatte Palme d'Or, a premium vintage Champagne that sells for $95. But the majority of tasters preferred the lighter and more refreshing flavors of the non-vintage Champagnes.

Non-vintage Champagnes are safe and sane. Vintage Champagnes are a crapshoot. I never used to be much of a gambler. Then I hit my first jackpot. If you want a safe bet for New Year's, put your money on a non-vintage Champagne like Deutz Brut Classic. But me, I'll be rolling the dice down at the liquor store. Trying to hit it big with another '89.

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