Why is Champagne expensive?

A chunk of what we spend on branded Champagne is going on marketing: all those yellow umbrellas and glitzy ice buckets have got to be paid for by someone – and that someone is you. But it’s marketing that works. Champagne the ‘brand’ is enormously successful to the point that demand now outstrips supply. There simply isn’t enough space left in Champagne to grow all the grapes needed to satisfy our thirst. So prices go up – Adam Smith would be proud of me.

But it’s not all about economics and advertising. Geography plays a huge part. The Champagne region is one of the most northerly of all wine-producing areas, the climate can be difficult varying hugely from one year to the next – it’s like the English climate (enough said!) Whilst the challenges provided by these harsh conditions do contribute to the quality and finesse which is found in Champagne, they also add to the expensive cost – particularly if the vintage is small.

Beyond the difficult climate, lies a very rigorous quality control. The grapes are hand-picked and after picking, a lot of care is taken in the selection of grapes for Champagne. The grapes of all the vineyards are graded in quality from 80% to 100%. Those scoring 90-99% are Premier Cru (first quality) whilst only a 100% rating is Grand Cru (great quality). The Grand Marques, with which you’ll be familiar from their branding, all use expensive grapes with a Cru-weighted average of 96-98%. 

Three grapes are allowed in the production of Champagne: Chardonnay; Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir. Chardonnay gives elegance and finesse to the wine and tends to produce the fresh ‘green apple’ acidity. The other two grapes are both red the rustic Pinot Meunier and the ‘difficult’ (therefore pricy) Pinot Noir.

In order to keep the wine white, these red grapes must be handled with extreme care. Red wines take their colour from the skins, not the juice or flesh of the grape. If the skins are damaged or the juice is allowed too much contact with the wine then the skins ‘bleed’ and the juice will turn red – enormous care has to be taken to make sure that this doesn’t happen. 

Once picked, the grapes are delicately pressed and after pressing, the first fermentation takes place. The winemaker will then work with wines from the current vintage and from previous vintages (which have been stored for a number of years) and create a wine that is in keeping with the style of the particular house.

Only then is the wine bottled along with a mixture of yeast and sugar. The yeast and sugar react to create Carbon Dioxide which cannot escape the bottle and forces itself back into the wine. After suitable ageing, the wine is occasionally turned and tilted to allow the sediment to fall near the cap. This process is called Remuage.

Next comes the Dégorgement. The neck of the bottle is submerged in salt-ice water to freeze the wine near the cap. The cap is removed and the pressure built up in the bottle from the carbon dioxide forces the frozen sediment, and a little wine, out of the bottle. Finally Remplissage, the bottle is topped up with the dosage (a reserve wine and sugar mixture.) At this point, the winemaker can alter the wine’s sweetness. The bottle is then recorked with its permanent cork.

In short, there are so many additional steps involved in the making of Champagne which aren’t present in the making of still wines, additionally the wine has to be stored and cared for over a period of years ( a minimum of three and this has to be paid for.)

Finally, in addition to all of the above, Champagne is synonymous with glamour and that always comes at an expensive price.

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