Great, Grand and Famous Champagnes...behind the bubbles
'Champagne Jayne' Powell, Danielle Viera and Fritz Gubler
By Robyn Lewis
Australians now rank among the top five per capita consumers of Champagne in the world, according to Tyson Stelzer in The Champagne Guide 2012-2013. We’re also home to more Champagne experts than our size and relative isolation would predict, including the awesome Bernadette O’Shea, Steltzer with his growing reputation, and now Jayne Powell, universally known as ‘Champagne Jayne’, or CJ for short.
CJ fell in love with Champagne at fifteen, on a student visit to France from her homeland Wales. Described as a natural born bon vivant and raconteur, her early food and wine career followed ‘a trail of bubbles through Club Mediterrannée, The French Chamber of Commerce and the Commission of the European Communities.
When Jayne moved into the world of media in London, she looked for a way to add some fizz. She discovered that the need to stage networking events was the perfect excuse to run her first Champagne Club for senior executives and media colleagues.’
Immigrating to Australia and launching her ‘sparkling edu-tainment’ consultancy in 2003, CJ has become ‘one of the media’s go-to experts for authoritative and engaging opinions on the complex yet divine subject that is Champagne’.
Blonde and bubbly like her favourite wine, Champagne Jayne is fluent in both French and English, holds the globally recognised WSET Intermediate and Advanced Certificates in wines and spirits and has studied champagne in France.
Great, Grand and Famous Champagnes … behind the bubbles is her first book, and in March 2012 it won the prestigious Gourmand Award for ‘Best French Wine Book (Australia)’. The book was also named number four in the lineup for ‘Best French Wine Book in The World’.
2012 has been good to Champagne Jayne; she also won the Champagne Educator of the Year Award at The Champagne Summit in London. The two runners-up were previous winner Richard Bampfield MW and Laura Clay (CIVC European Ambassador 2010).
Befitting the wine, the book is a luxury production presented by Fritz Gubler, as part of his ‘Great, Grand and Famous’ series by his company Arbon Publishing, which includes Great, Grand and Famous Hotels (2008) and Great, Grand and Famous Chefs and their Signature Dishes (2009). Gubler is a Swiss-born chef, certified sommelier and hotelier who in 1991 established the famous Blue Mountains International Hotel School in Australia.
With a pedigree and subject like this, Great, Grand and Famous Champagnes … behind the bubbles spells luxury. Opening the gold cover does not disappoint, and although with its copious, art-inspired illustrations, the first browse might suggest a coffee (or wine) table book, it is far more.
Firstly, there is the history of this ‘nectar of the gods’, from its almost accidental invention, through to Champagne becoming the drink of choice of European royalty, with many a twist and turn in between.
We have all heard of Dom Pierre Pérignon and his winemaking skills, meticulous viticulture and his bottling innovations. Great, Grand and Famous Champagnes … behind the bubbles takes us deeper; through the birth of the first Champagne houses, Champagne’s role in the Napoleonic wars (Moët was the Emperor’s preferred supplier), the Industrial Revolution – when Champagne became no longer the preserve of royalty, senior statesmen and church figures – the fall of Russia’s Czars, La Belle Epoque…
Indeed, the cementing of Champagne as the world’s premium wine of choice was early marketing genius.
Not all was rosy along the way, of course; there were the scourges of phylloxera, poor harvests, regional boundary disputes, World War I, the Great Depression and of course the American Prohibition. Indeed, Jayne writes that on the eve of World War II, ‘many people in Champagne viewed the future with pessimism’.
But that was changed in the 1940s, firstly by Sir Winston Churchill, and after the war ended by the silver screen, which brought glamour to the wider public, hungry for relief from rationing and suffering. The notion of Champagne being the only beverage suited to any time of day – even breakfast – was born, and widely cultivated by its astute marketers.
The rest, as they say, is history, and the book skilfully weaves through the evolution of some of the Champagne region’s major houses: Gosset, Ruinart, Taittinger, Moët & Chandon, Lanson, Veuve Cliquot, Billecart-Salmon … the list goes on, and reads like a Who’s Who of the Champagne region.
These fascinating sections were written by Dianielle Viera, who explains the style of each house, including insights into the practices of the owners and their winemakers that combine to make each house’s style unique.
Master of Wine Serena Sutcliffe states that ‘the evolution of the house of Moët & Chandon should be made required reading for every student of business’. Every three seconds someone in the world pops a cork on one of their bottles. Not one of them is a necessity. Others houses such as Billecart-Salmon are models of innovation.
There are also the visionary ‘heretics’ like Selosse, who makes biodynamic Champagne; celebrity magnates like Nicholas Feuillatte; and Bruno Paillard the ‘Champagne aesthete’.
Each of these sections gives an in-depth expose of the philosophy and practices; I defy anyone to read them without coveting at least a sip of each maker’s wines! Indeed, it’s a great book to enjoy with a bottle of Champagne’s finest, especially the chapter on ‘The Women Behind the Bubbles’.
Again, the story of ‘Veuve’ (widow) Cliquot is well known, and her house’s rich golden yellow label is so famous a signature that even the colour is trademarked. But as well as La Grande Dame there were Mesdames Louise Pommery, Olry-Roederer, Bollinger, the widows of Laurent-Perrier … a common theme was the salvation of a number of Champagne houses by wives after the death of their husbands.
‘Modern market builder’ Carol Duval-Leroy is another, considered by many to be ‘the 21st century reincarnation of Veuve Cliquot’. She is a former Belgian economist whose husband Jean-Charles – son of a Champagne-growing family – died of cancer in 1989.
Before his death he made it clear to his business partners that control of the house would pass to his wife; she has taken the mantle and then some, innovating new products (including an organic range under the Authentis label, single-grape Champagnes expressing their village terroir), sponsoring gastronomic awards, writing a cookbook containing 200 recipes to match her Champagnes…. Much of the rest of the wine world is only now catching up.
As Champagne Jayne says, little wonder that Carol Duval-Leroy was elected the first-ever female resident of the Association Viticole Champenoise (AVC), the body that oversees yields and the vexed question of regional boundary enlargement. 43% of her workforce are female; theirs is the only female cellarmaster (the highest winemaking position in the region) and their financial director is also a woman. Ladies, ab-fab days are over; it’s time to seek out Champagne Duval-Leroy!
I especially like the chapter on Champagne Culture and especially the section on Champagne and art. Artists quickly followed the tastes of royalty and clerics, and through the centuries Champagne has appeared in still life paintings, depictions of court festivities, posters of the art nouveau movement, photography, and nowadays in sport, rap culture, fashion, film and television. And of course a Grand Prix winner cannot be celebrated nor a ship launched without a bottle of Champagne’s finest.
The technical aspects follow. However far from being dull they give real insights into the growing and making of Champagne. Did you know that there are over 21 million bubbles in a glass, and the finer the bead, the better the quality? The book explains the how and the why, from viticulture and harvest, through manufacture and bottling, all well illustrated with photos and a dose of chemistry.
For the aspiring visitor to Champagne, there are some basic maps and evocative photos, although not enough to plan a pilgrimage.
But on tasting, the book excels – how to select a vintage; to serve (not too cold); ‘attack’ and the other phases of tasting; selection of glassware… and (to me) a disappointingly short section on matching Champagne with food. There are so many styles and nuances of flavour, this deserves more than a page or two. (Perhaps the author has another book in the wings?)
A comprehensive glossary and aide-memoire bring up the rear, for Champagne is undoubtedly complex, and it takes time to absorb all its nuances.
If I have a criticism of Great, Grand and Famous Champagnes … behind the bubbles is that there is a degree of repetition, particularly of the historical key points, which might become tedious were you to read the entire book in one sitting.
But perhaps that is unlikely; it’s a book for dipping into, savouring – preferably with a filled Champagne flute in hand – and enhancing your knowledge and appreciation of the world’s most famous and exalted wine.
Fellow Australian Tyson Stelzer’s book is essentially a tasting and buying guide; Bernadette O’Shea’s is a journey into the world of royalty, celebrity dining and grand occasions; but anyone who loves Champagne and the associated glamour and sophistication will savour Jayne Powell’s book time and time again.
For a Champagne lover, what better gift than a copy of Great, Grand and Famous Champagnes … behind the bubbles, to enjoy with a bottle of this famous region’s finest?
Great, Grand and Famous Champagnes … behind the bubbles by Jayne Powell, Daniella Viera and Fritz Gubler is published by Arbon Publishing (Sydney, NSW, 2011; hc, 240 pp) and retails in Australia for RRP A$79.99.
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