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The economy may be in a funk and consumer spending in a slump, but there's one glass that seems to be more than half full — flutes of Champagne to be precise.
After seeing sales tumble as the recession hit, Champagne shipments were up nearly 22 percent comparing the first six months of this year to the same period in 2010, with a total of 7.5 million bottles shipped to the U.S. as of June, according to the Washington-based Champagne Bureau.
From July 2010 to June 2011, 18.3 million bottles were shipped, about a 20 percent increase over the July 2009-June 2010 period.
The trend may be due to people spending more, between $30 and $50 on a bottle of wine, says Gwendolyn Osborn, wine expert for online retailer Wine.com. Since there are some good Champagnes to be found in that range, "people are buying them, since it is viewed as a luxury," she says.
Veuve Clicquot Brut Yellow Label, which sells for about $45 on the site, was No. 6 on Wine.com's Top 10 sellers for 2011.
Bargain-priced bubbles were popular too, of course. The No. 2 wine on the list was a cava from Spain, Jaume Serra Cristalino Brut Cava, which goes for $7.99. Still, there was definite interest in Champagne. Dom Perignon 2002, which has a price tag of around $160, jumped from 67th place last year to No. 27 on the list this year.
No need to sell author and wine expert Leslie Sbrocco on the joys of Champagne. She's such a fan she had a glass of pink bubbly tattooed on her calf.
Sbrocco, author of "Wine for Women" and founder of the website ThirstyGirl.com, likes all kinds of sparkling wine, including cava from Spain and prosecco from Italy. "But Champagne is the icon, it is the mother ship, if you will, of bubbles," she points out. "So when I think of bubbles I immediately am drawn to Champagne."
To be called Champagne, the wines have to be made with grapes from the Champagne region of France. Sparkling wines are believed to have originated as a happy accident: Grapes were fermented and barreled during a cool harvest, which made the yeasts that turn sugar into alcohol go dormant. A warm spring then woke up the yeasts, restarted fermentation and, in the process, created bubbles.
Just where and when that happened is unclear, but records show that sparkling wines were produced in the Languedoc region of southern France decades before the Champagne region became renowned for its sparkling wine.
At first, winemakers saw bubbles as a flaw, and a dangerous one at that since the re-fermentation could cause the weak glass bottles of the era to explode. The advent of better corks and stronger bottles helped turn Champagne into a reliable product, one that was taken up by the French royal court.
These days, sparkling wines are available from all over the world, including many that are made the same way as Champagne. Still, Champagne has maintained its cachet, not least because of a robust name protection campaign waged by French producers who have reached agreements with wine regions and governments around the world to stop referring to sparkling wines from elsewhere as Champagne. U.S. officials signed an agreement in 2006 to stop new producers from using the name. However, existing brands were grandfathered in, though they are required to put the origin on the label, i.e., "California" or "American."
French Champagne tends to be expensive, with some bottles commanding hundreds of dollars. But there are values to be found. Sbrocco advises looking at non-vintage blends offered by some of the big houses, including the Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label and Louis Roederer Brut Premier.
Another emerging trend is "grower Champagnes," made by smaller producers who mostly grow their own grapes, as opposed to the big Champagne houses that buy grapes from all over the region. One way to identify a grower Champagne is if it has the initials RM on the label, which stands for Recoltant-Manipulant, literally, harvester-handler.
Sarah Elliott, certified sommelier and wine director at Commonwealth restaurant in San Francisco, sees grower Champagnes as producing more unique styles tied to smaller parcels, something that seems to be contributing to a trend of more people viewing Champagne as a good food wine, not just something you pop in celebration.
At Commonwealth, chef Jason Fox is known for experimental dishes with unexpected flavor combinations or textures, like vinegar foam served with nori-flecked potato chips, and Elliott finds that "bubbles are a lot of fun with his food."
Another change on the Champagne front is renewed interest in drier style wines that have had very little or no sugar added after the in-bottle fermentation. Some examples are Laurent-Perrier Ultra Brut and Pol Roger Pure, which Sbrocco would pair with "oysters or goat cheese or anything salty."
About that tattoo: It's based on a glass of Billecart-Salmon rose (ro-ZAY), and was documented on the reality TV show LA Ink.
Like Sbrocco, Osborn, the Wine.com expert, likes to drink pink, citing a Canard-Duchene Brut Rose on the website that sells for about $45 she says is "really fantastic."
True Champagne "has a taste unlike any other," says Osborn. "It brings all of these wonderful assets together, beautiful packaging, beautiful to look at. I would rather have one beautiful glass of Champagne that a few glasses of just about anything else."