• Richard Murff

Fight for Champagne



“Remember gentlemen, it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne!” A young Winston Churchill so described the mission of his men in the First World War. Noël Coward drank it for breakfast, or what the rest of employed humanity calls ‘lunch.’ Big Papa Hemingway drank it at bullfights. We mortals generally toss it back the night we get saddled our in-laws and leave it at that. For a drink with such a flouncy reputation, champagne and sparkling wines can be useful these days when properly applied. And applied regularly.


The proper application, by the way, is with oysters at a random Saturday lunch. Don’t worry about if the month has an “R” in it or not. That was a useful rule of thumb when oysters were harvested into unrefrigerated carts and covered in burlap. The extreme heat of the R-lessmonths causes wet oysters to steam themselves slightly open in the cart, whereupon the brine drains away and they get funky. Now they go from bed to refrigerated truck so it doesn’t much matter how you spell the month. You might argue that there is more to do on a nice afternoon than a dozen or so oysters, a crisp bottle champagne and the inevitable nap – and you may be right for all I know. Whatever it is, it can wait. Trust me.


In a world awash with Instagram thousandaires pretending to be millionaires, you might be wondering about the price tag. Never fear, your correspondent is the cheapest man currently living. The first time I splashed out on a good bottle of Champagne was a bottle of Veuve Cliquot. I didn’t get there via a sommelier or because the Queen of England favors it, but because that’s what the literary James Bond drank, as often as not with scrambled eggs. I reasoned that Ian Fleming – being something of a well-heeled soak, would know the good stuff. He did. A bottle of VC Brut is going to set you back $65 or so. If you are neither Her Majesty, nor in Her Secret Service, that might be more than you are looking to spend, but it’s a great champagne for the price.


In the same range is Pol Roger, a favorite of Winston Churchill – another cash-strapped aristocrat willing to suffer the best of everything. He drank it at lunch everyday and saved Western Civilization from itself. Who knows if the connection is causal or casual, but there we are. The company even named a commemorative wine after the man, which is a hell of a loyalty program. He was hell of a customer.

The point of this exercise, though, is rescue this great wine from the clutches of engagement parties and New Year’s Eve. Back when Earnest Hemingway was an ex-pat living on the confines of his first wife’s trust fund, he drank gallons of Spanish sparkling wine while he was on hunting and fishing trips, sleeping with married women, and hectoring poor Scott Fitzgerald with all that fizzy “hard business of being a man” foolishness. And I suppose that it is tricky to find a second wife with a trust fund.


A bottle of Freixent, from the Penedès region of Spain, will cost you closer to $14. This is important because now this cavalier oyster and champagne afternoon for two you’ve got planned is costing you about the same as lunch at any semi-trendy gastro-pub in the city. If this is somehow beneath you then you don’t need me to tell you how to spend your Saturdays.


The Spanish sparkling wines are going to be cheaper than those made in the Champagne region of France because you can’t legally call them Champagne. The French are very French about this. Remember, though, that’s marketing, not necessarily quality. Freixent is a good value, and has an extra dry that doesn’t have that sickeningly sweetness of those New Years Eve with 2,500 of Your Closest Friends bubblies. So, channel your inner “Papa” Hemingway, but don’t go pestering farm animals. Not without a good reason at any rate.


In short, don’t worry too much about price. The truth is I can’t even recall the name of the “finest” bottle of Champagne I ever had, although I remember the night we drank it very well. A friend in the wine business had just gotten engaged, so he opened a special bottle for the occasion. I remember him explaining that the heavy, sour “breadiness” was a sign of really good champagne. Someone said it tasted like play-doh, and she wasn’t far off, either. That, he said, was a sign of quality and quickly pointed out the proper circumference of the bubbles.


I’ll admit he is certainly more educated on the subject than myself, but it seems me that the sign of truly great champagne was wanting to drink it again. On a Saturday. With oysters.