Champagne: The Sigh of Relief

© shutterstock

© shutterstock

Old rituals

A jeroboam of Champagne swings through the air, bugles parp away. A ship-launching ceremony seems like a benign sort of celebration at first, but the crash of glass on steel has its roots in the days of ritualistic sacrifice, of Celts and Vikings making offerings in return for safe passage. The Ancient Greeks had the sense to actually drink the wine they selected, but true hedonism comes less naturally to us Anglo-Saxons. We like not only to count the cost of our rituals, but to keep the receipts to show to the gods.

The sound and the setting

The trouble is that rituals are never very good places to taste wine. The bottles are too cold, the flutes too narrow, the blue cheese vol-au-vents and sweet chilli peanuts torpedo our palates. No wonder the comments that follow any article on Champagne are full of huff and puff: it’s all overpriced; this €8 bottle of Prosecco is just as good; big houses spend all their money on marketing, etc, etc.

Sadly, many sparkling wines transition seamlessly from the symbolic – the wedding, the anniversary, the podium – to the functional: the bloodstream. The content itself is secondary, just as a string quartet busking in Times Square might play Beethoven, or the theme from The Simpsons, or Rage Against the Machine. Put that quartet in Carnegie Hall, though, and the setlist might be different.

Proper time and space

How often do we really give fine sparkling wine such time and space? The idea of it as proper wine unnerves us. The settings we drink it in are often so rigidly formalised that we fear its removal from ceremonial schedules in case it flounders in the ebb and flow of the everyday.

For the most part, this is a fear that can be put aside. Yes, there are plenty of charmless Champagnes and sparkling wines, but there are a great many that deserve the honour of being opened at unceremonious, unconventional moments: a shimmering, stony Blanc de Blancs around the fireside after a heavy meal, a chewy, intense rosé de macération with a Sunday lunch, a golden-toned Blanc de Noirs after finishing the hoovering on a Sunday afternoon.

The right priorities

If you’re interested in drinking less, surely one of the best ways is to find just the right thing to drink: to head for satisfaction straight away. Does this seem like unforgivable indulgence? Perhaps. There are people out there, though, who would consider an impulsive bottle of Champagne with a Wednesday night takeaway an unconscionable act of decadence, haunted by the ghostly frowns of village elders and miserly uncles. These same people may well buy all-valve hi-fi amps, or carbon-fibre knives, or wi-fi-enabled fridges, all consumed with just as much pointlessness, but slower – in rot, rust, and disintegration, suspended in the mirage of utility.

Champagne on its own terms

If the Queen chose to throw a portion of fish and chips at her new Royal Yacht, there would be outrage over the food wastage. The steel, the leather, the polished hardwoods, the fuel? Fair game, ma’am. We allow ourselves Champagne in service of something, but it is a thinly-veiled conceit. Champagne is not useful.

We may as well unpeg it from our pagan-puritan hang-ups and enjoy it on its own terms, even when there is precious little to celebrate, commiserate or ward off. In a quiet room, with time and space, relieved of duty, that small sigh we hear as a cork gently eases itself out might just be one of relief. Now, the wine speaks. Can you hear me at the back?