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Is Champagne expensive?

No. Well, that is my short answer, but without any explanation that answer might seem preposterous. It's worth noting, however, that, as with anything related to wine, the value of a particular bottle is very much a subjective opinion. There is, of course, a very real financial dynamic at play: the more disposable income you have, the more you may be willing to spend on a bottle of wine. But, this is not a hard and fast rule. How much money I am ready to spend on any particular bottle starts off with how much money I have to spend, of course, but it also depends on how much I value what is in the bottle.

It's been said that wine professionals and wine drinkers have different palates. Just because some wine critic gives a bottle a score of 100 doesn't guarantee you are going to like it. I love complex reds and whites with barrel and bottle age--a complex mixture of primary, secondary, and tertiary aromas and flavors. These are wines that make me think, reflect, and chew over (quite literally) what I'm discovering in the glass. These bottles tend to be more expensive and for good reason. Wines with these characteristics have to spend a long time aging, sometimes before even being released to market. That's a lot of capital just sitting there.

Not everybody likes these vini da meditazione. For some, the tertiary flavors and aromas that come with aging are just plain off-putting: animal fur, earth, wet leaves, blood, manure! What!? (Full disclosure, I love these wines). However, some, if not most, wine drinkers are often just looking for something simple. Fruit-forward, balanced, with intense flavors. For this reason, some don't actually like champagne, and can't understand why people pay big bucks for it. Americans tend to have palates that favor the sweeter side of things. (You ever tried McDonald's sweet tea? It's simple syrup, btw). The majority of champagne produced today is dry (Brut). This wasn't always the case though. Cristal, Louis Roederer's prestige cuvée, was originally produced exclusively for Russian royalty and was a sweet wine. Tastes have shifted to drier wines, to the point where extra brut and brut nature styles of champagne are gaining in popularity. These wines don't have any added dosage (sugar) after dégorgement (process by which sediment is expulsed from the champagne bottle). Climate change has aided this trend, since with warming temperatures, the grapes in Champagne ripen more (and more reliably), mitigating the need for dosage to balance the wine. Health trends have also boosted the popularity of extra brut and brut nature-, i.e. lower sugar=lower calories.

But, I digress. If you don't like very dry, complex wines, you probably won't be willing to spend money on champagne, even if you have it to spare. But because champagne has luxury status, however, some people may just buy it on special occasions (or to show off). Champagne, like any wine or alcohol really, is an acquired taste. So, I have hope for those who say they don't like champagne that their palates will mature and they will also fall in love with this wine. Now, let's say you like dry wines, even dry sparkling wines, but just don't understand why champagne costs what it does.

Champagne is a grand vin. It is wine, after all, not just for special occasions, made to be enjoyed with food, friends, and family. Champagne is an age-worthy wine and no cellar can be complete without it. What are some other age-worthy wines, and how much do they cost? Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino. Let's just take the first two regions for an example--Bordeaux and Burgundy. Top examples of these wines that collectors and wine aficionados seek can run in the hundreds and (particularly for Burgundy) thousands of dollars per bottle! The 2017 Haut-Brion, a first-growth Bordeaux, can be had for $600 at Total Wine. Louis Jadot's Grand Cru Le Musigny 2015 goes for $750. (Leroy's Le Musigny goes for $39,000 a bottle according to wine-searcher, fyi). Top bottles of champagne can be had for a fraction of these prices. Prestige Cuvées like Dom Pérignon and La Grande Dame run from $150-200 a bottle for the latest releases depending on what market you are in. Even Cristal 2013 is around $300.

So what, you might say. We're still talking about hundreds of dollars a bottle. True, but this is where that subjective piece comes in. If you love wine, and you love champagne in particular, champagne is great bang for your buck. Even non-vintage champagnes ($35-80 depending on the market) are highly regulated by French law: they have to come from Champagne (of course), they have to be made using the méthode champenoise (traditional method where secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle you purchase), and they have to be aged sur lie (on its sediment) for a minimum 15 months (although in practice many houses age them longer). All this bureaucracy, the cost of aging, and the expenses incurred by the traditional method add to the final price of that bottle. Not to mention the art of blending a non-vintage cuvée. The chef de cave (cellar master) is responsible for creating a consistent house style year after year, something with which consumers are familiar and which will keep them coming back for more. Depending on the size of the champagne house there could be hundreds of base wines from which to blend a champagne--all from different villages, grapes, and years. Sounds like a hard job, right? An expensive one too to be sure. Is that $50 bottle of Moët or Clicquot sounding like a lot better deal now?

Okay, maybe I haven't fully convinced you yet. If your definition of an expensive bottle of wine is anything over $15, $30, I probably never will. But I still think champagne offers incredible value to wine lovers around the world. When you take into account all the costs of growing, harvesting, storing, aging, and blending the grapes, it's a shock that champagne can be sold for as little as $50. Let's hope it stays that way for years to come.

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