On Friday, 18 October 2019 is International Champagne Day, this happens to coincide with the Absa Champagne Festival which takes place over three nights this week at The Inanda Club. The first two nights are exclusively for trade and industry but the Friday night is open to the public.
I interviewed Shaun Anderson, Chairperson of the Champagne Importers Association and the founder of the Absa Champagne Festival, about what makes Champagne Champagne and the difference between French and South African sparkling wines.
We met at The Inanda Club where we were joined by Paul-Edouard Bertin, Area Director of Sales at Champagne Billecart-Salmon, who had just flown into South Africa to showcase the Champagne Billecart-Salmon range. What was meant to be a quick interview soon turned into a Champagne tasting and eventually lunch!
What a pleasure to meet both gentlemen who were very generous with their time and sharing their passion for Champagne.
Is Champagne making a comeback after years of losing sales to Prosecco, Cava, and other cheaper sparkling wines?
According to Drinks Business research, traditional European demand may be static or seeing small percentage declines but demand is dynamic beyond the European Union.
Other countries are emerging stronger for Champagne, including Canada which increased its imports by 4.8% to 2.3 million bottles, Mexico by 4.3% to 1.7m bottles, and South Africa, where sales topped the million-bottle mark for the very first time, recording growth of 38.4% by volume and by 43.4% by value – the highest increase of any market on both counts.
There seems to have been a knee-jerk reaction to mass-produce cheaper Champagnes. Do you think this cheapens the perception?
The brand champagne is synonymous with quality, and the controlling body in Champagne, the Interprofessional Committee of Champagne Wine, ensures all Champagne producers adhere to strict quality criteria. Price points can be reduced by sourcing from lesser classified or ranked villages in the Champagne AOC and shorter time on the lees, but the quality is never compromised and the quality rules apply to all. Hence the perception of Champagne remains that of uncompromising quality and a lifestyle statement.
The retail price of Champagne has remained relatively static over the past few years. Do you foresee it increasing?
Non-vintage brut Champagne is the mainstay of most houses and style and price is carefully managed to avoid any dramatic variations, wherever possible. Exchange rates are the usual contributors to price increases.
Admittedly, some of the luxury Champagne brands refused to get involved in a price-war.
Champagne generically adheres to strict quality regulation, but, four to ten years of cellaring on the lees and fruit from grand cru villages is what dictates the price point. Anything worthwhile is worth waiting for.
How do South African MCCs compare to traditional French Champagne?
By duplicating the French method, and altering the acidity of the grapes by early picking, new world wine producing regions are getting good at copying the Champagne profiles, but the deep chalky soil minerality is not so easy to copy.
South Africans are encouraged to support local, why is Absa sponsoring an exclusively French Champagne Festival?
Champagne is the universally accepted icon for success, style, superiority, aspiration and quality… and the synergies between a world-class banking partner Absa, and the world-class brand Champagne makes this a statement of both brands’ commitment to excellence.
It goes without saying that Champagne can be enjoyed on its own or paired with anything from canapes to cake. What are your personal favourite things to eat while drinking Champagne?
Oysters, sushi, line fish, hummus, foie gras, creamy brie, pork and lamb.
Champagne used to be limited to welcome drinks and celebratory toasts, but now people are learning to pair it with every course. Any rules when pairing a Champagne with a specific dish?
Blanc de blanc, a 100% steely Chardonnay handles oily seafood, prawns and langoustines perfectly, while a fruity rose loves lamb, balanced blends of Pinot noir, aromatic Pinot Meunier and steely austere Chardonnay love white pork and poultry, and the higher sweetness of demi-sec is the perfect partner of a chocolate fondant or tart tartin.
It makes my toes curl when I see people adding ice to their Champagne – although it is considered acceptable in some parts of the world. Your thoughts?
The ideal temperature to serve Champagne should be 8-10 degrees Celsius – colder and it numbs your taste buds and foils the aromas…never chilled in a freezer, never in a chilled glass and no ice, as this kills the bubbles.
What is the ideal glass for enjoying Champagne? The traditional coupe lends itself to spillage; the contemporary flute suppresses the bouquet, and the thought of drinking Champagne from a stemless glass is my idea of hell!
More people are suggesting a wine type glass has taken over, with Reidel making a specific champagne wine glass now, but for me a fine flute still displays the bubbles magically.
You have curated over 50 Champagne houses for the Absa Champagne Festival. What is the selection process?
The Absa Champagne Festival is designed to showcase every available brand in South Africa on an absolutely level playing field. Too often the big brands have disproportionate budgets for promotions, so smaller growers cannot really compete. But their Champagne is delicious, and through this Festival we offer guests the chance to taste and decide for themselves. So all houses are encouraged and even incentivised to participate. We also have a Salon Prive area where any house can host a private tutorial on their Champagne to educate consumers.
The luxury event will be held at the Polo Room at the Inanda Club from 16 – 18 October.
Tickets for the public night on 18 October are available at R1,250. (UPDATE: Tickets have sold out.)
Connect with Shaun at The Wine Tasting Room.