Prosecco and sparkling rosé may be the best-selling bubbles at restaurants but, when sommeliers pour for themselves, odds are they’re popping Champagne. Whether it’s a shift drink or a Tuesday night dinner party, OG Champs and, increasingly, grower bottles are sommeliers’ after-hours drink of choice. They sip it from plastic cups, Chambongs, or Zalto stemware with equal fervor, and pair it with everything from pizza to hot dogs to popcorn at industry hangouts.
Their obsession is increasingly extending to those outside the industry, too. At restaurants like Marta in New York and Ambonnay in Portland, Oregon, sommelier-driven wine programs compete to offer lower and lower Champagne prices. Dedicated Champagne bars are popping up across the country as well, in hopes of bringing bubbly to the masses.
There are thousands of wine professionals in the United States. How did they all start obsessing over the same rarified beverage?
Champagne, like babka and other recently revived food-world obsessions, is nothing new. The first documentation of using the Champagne method to make sparkling wine appeared in the 1600s, and many of today’s most well-known Champagne houses, including Taittinger, Moët & Chandon, and Ruinart, were founded in the 1700s.
Although the Champagne appellation was formally created in 1936, most Americans didn’t get hip to the stuff until after the Second World War. Major houses launched U.S. marketing campaigns that portrayed Champagne as the ultimate luxury beverage for celebrations and aperitif-style sipping. The momentum arguably worked —arguably too well. Today, many American consumers mistakenly use the word “Champagne” as a blanket term for any kind of sparkling wine.
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Many modern sommeliers have made it their mission to shake up this Champagne stereotype, pushing it beyond special occasions and recommending it as a pairing throughout the meal. That said, Champagne’s perception as a festive, fun, and above all, tasty beverage is what hooks wine professionals.
“Champagne is like a laser beam into the pleasure center of your brain,” Phil Johnson, sommelier and managing partner of Gloria in Manhattan, says. “If I were stranded on a tropical island for the rest of my days, and I stumbled into a cool cave with cases and cases of just one beverage, Champagne would probably be my first choice.”
It takes more than gustatory appeal to create a true somm obsession. A wine must be not only delicious, but intellectually satisfying as well. “Because of a combination of place, soils, grapes, and the Champagne process, you get one of the most unique beverages in the world,” says Master Sommelier Brahm Callahan, beverage director at Himmel Hospitality Group and brand ambassador for Ribera del Duero and Rueda.
Champagne offers a plethora of nuances for sommeliers to pore over and analyze. Vintages vary dramatically due to the region’s marginal climate, and the differences between Champagne’s 61 Grand and Premier Cru villages are vast. Specific vineyards within those villages have unique terroirs, some of which are teeny-tiny parcels with completely different soils and aspects than those just next door. And while Champagne has just three key grape varieties (seven permitted in total), decisions about viticulture, vinification, aging, and blending create a huge variety of finished wines to study and dissect.
“Champagne offers incredible range, aligning styles like blanc de blancs, blanc de noirs, rosé, or traditional cuvées, with varying levels of dosage and varying approaches to vintage or multi-vintage blending,” says Ksandek Podbielski, co-owner, beverage director and general manager of Coquine in Portland, Oregon. “Even within a single style, from producer to producer, the finished wines are tremendously different.”
This diversity is also one of the reasons why sommeliers increasingly push Champagne-only pairing menus and emphasize the wine’s overall food-friendliness. A combination of refreshing acidity and palate-cleansing bubbles allows Champagne to pair with foods from raw oysters to fried chicken.
“It can get geeky, but when it really comes down to it, the wines are delicious, satisfying, and well suited to food,” Podbielski adds.
On a practical level, too, Champagne’s bubbles make it lively and drinkable, important factors for those seeking refreshment after hours of service. “Because of the high acidity and relatively low alcohol content, you can drink Champagne all night long without getting tired of it,” says Jen Pelka, owner of The Riddler in San Francisco.
“Although Champagne is an historic wine, there has been so much development and movement lately,” says Joe Campanale, owner and beverage director of Fausto in Brooklyn, which opens in early December. “There is a lot for sommeliers to get excited about.”
Arguably the most appealing development for modern American sommeliers is the influx of grower Champagnes available in the U.S. market. Largely driven by importer Terry Theise, grower Champagne imports have soared over the past 20 years, from just 33 producers in 1997 to over 280 in 2016. While “farmer fizz” accounts for just 4.9 percent of U.S. Champagne imports, according to the Comité Champagne, grower bottles loom large for most sommeliers.
“Growers are focusing on more terroir-driven styles by emphasizing small parcels of land, rather than an entire village,” Ryan Arnold, wine director of Lettuce Entertain You’s restaurants in Chicago and Los Angeles, says. Site-specific juice gives somms the opportunity to become intimately familiar with the varying terroirs and individual producers within Champagne, allowing somms to really geek out over the region.
While the Champagne house Philipponnat first produced a single-vineyard Champagne in the 1930s, the concept remained an oddity until the 21st century. At that point, grower-producers like Anselme Selosse and Cédric Bouchard placed real emphasis on terroir-specific, single-vintage, single-variety Champagnes.
Much in the way that Deadheads can listen to back-to-back, 17-minute jam sessions, delighting in the nuances of each new digression, sommeliers are excited to uncover the variations within small-production wines. Additionally, this small production appeals to the sommeliers’ tendencies to gravitate toward artisanal wines made by farmers.
“Sommeliers love to learn and love the transparency associated with a small producer who can talk more about their particular vines and vineyards,” Campanale says. “Somms love an opportunity to tell the story of the wines they sell in their restaurants.”
All Day, Everyday?
It would be easy to dismiss somms’ Champagne obsession as evidence of the wine industry’s notorious snobbery. What could be more restrictive than claiming that some of the most expensive wines on the market should be drunk everyday?
But sommeliers believe that the rise of grower Champagne could democratize the category’s reputation because, ultimately, grower-producers are farmers. “Grower Champagne humanized what many considered an exclusive, elitist product,” Caitlin Corcoran, owner and general manager of Ça Va in Kansas City, Missouri, says.
On the flip side, though, grower Champagnes are not widely distributed. If the producers most revered by sommeliers attempted to produce enough Champagne to satisfy the masses, their Champagnes would lose the quirky character that somms so cherish. As Theise himself stated in the introduction to his 2017 grower Champagne portfolio, 5 percent is a healthy, sustainable U.S. market share. Anything more would risk lowering grower Champagne’s overall quality.
In this way, all Champagne will always be somewhat exclusive. That doesn’t mean that sommeliers should stop pairing it with potato chips or heralding the virtues of its small producers. By demonstrating how special Champagne is, rather than simply guzzling baller bottles with abandon, sommeliers increase appreciation for the category within and beyond the industry. And that’s something we all can celebrate. (Every day.)