Book review — Great, grand and famous Champagnes

Great, grand and famous Champagnes
Jane Powell, Fritz Gubler and Dannielle Viera
Arbon Publishing, Sydney, 2011

We can’t all be like Marilyn Monroe and fill our bathtubs with 150 bottle bottles of Champagne”, declares the accompanying press release. But neither the press release, nor Great, grand and famous Champagnes, reveal the sequel to this intriguing romance: did the winemakers really fill 151 bottles from Miss Monroe’s tub? We’ll never know.

The Monroe story sets the tone for a colourful, if uncritical, portrayal of the romance, glamour, mystique, history, hard-nosed commerce and science underpinning the wine world’s greatest luxury brand. If, like me, you rate the best Champagnes among the world’s greatest wines – and feel that even Gruen Planet couldn’t improve the marketing proposition – then the book’s as easy to swallow as its topic.

The third in Fritz Gubler’s series of ‘great, grand and famous’ books (after hotels and chefs), Champagne appears, like its topic, to be a clever, even sparkling, blend (or assemblage) of information from a wide range of sources.

After being drawn by the press release to the Marilyn Monroe snippet (page 168), we return to the cover. Here, Scott Cameron’s evocative close up of a crystal flute – teeming with the famous, tiny bubbles – reinforces brand Champagne and prepares us for the richly illustrated 240 pages that follow.

We all look at the pictures first. And in Great, grand and famous Champagnes, it’s eye candy from cover to cover – starting with Champagne sipping Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca, 1942) and finishing with a couple of art nouveau postcards of women drinking Champagne (circa 1900).

Every spread in between illustrates Champagne across the ages, capturing its history, commerce, followers and strong brand marketing. The latter includes several reproductions of unique art deco posters, including a classic for Champagne Joseph Perrier, created by Jean d’Ylen in about 1920.

The early part of the book, tracing Champagne’s intimate connections with French royalty and power brokers, portrays some of its great patrons, including luxuriously robed Pope Urban II, the Sun King, Louis XIV, and his mistress Madame de Pompadour.

In the book Jane Powell writes that de Pompadour, “had strong family links to the Champagne region and already understood the difference between sparkling and ordinary champagne. She loved Moet’s wine and soon became one of his most valuable customers, ensuring that Moet’s champagne was served at every important function at Versailles”.

A full-page image of Champagne’s famous wine priest, Dom Pierre Perignon (1638–1715), from a relief at Hautvilliers Abbey, depicts the cellarmaster holding a bottle of the then new-fangled sparkling wine.

Other famous Champagne tipplers portrayed in the book include Sir Winston Churchill (with Odette Pol Roger), Salvador Dali, Robert Redfern with Mia Farrow, Elizabeth Taylor with Montgomery Clift, Sean Connery, and Ingrid Bergman with Cary Grant.

Numerous vineyard and cellar photos give a feeling for Champagne’s landscape and production techniques. But I wonder why we still see shots of blokes hand-riddling bottles in wooden racks. Surely we’re grown up enough to see the less romantic gyro pallets that took over from hand-riddling thirty years ago (the book actually describes the modern technique).

The book lists three authors – Jane Powell, Fritz Gubler and Dannielle Viera. Gubler appears to be the driving force behind the book, pulling together its many components. Powell wrote much of the content, including the early chapters on Champagne’s history and commercial success. And Viera contributed to profiles on various Champagne houses and personalities.

Powell begins her chapter, “Growing the market”, with this quote from British writer, Nicholas Faith, “Champagne is a luxury brand made and sold by a hard-headed, hard-working, rather cold-blooded bunch of people, fully aware that no one needs to drink Champagne”.

Powell summarises the long winemaking history of Champagne, the region’s at-first tentative move away from table wine production to sparkling wines, the emergence of the first great Champagne houses in the early eighteenth century, their consolidation and growth in the nineteenth century and the emergence of dry Champagne in the late nineteenth century.

She covers the at-times bitter tensions between growers and Champagne houses early in the twentieth century, culminating in the statute of champagne in 1927 and the formation of a central body (the Comite Interprofessionel du vin de Champagne) representing the interests of the industry and regional as a whole.

The region now produces over 300 million bottles of Champagne annually and vigorously defends its brand at all levels – from the ground breaking Perelada case that stopped “Spanish Champagne” in its tracks fifty years ago, to the more recent action by Veuve Clicquot to stop tiny Tasmanian producer Stefano Lubiana using an orange label. This is the hard-nosed phenomenon Nicholas Faith referred to.

The book also has a terrific section on Champagne’s famous women, including Louise Pommery, Nicole-Barbe Ponsardin Clicquot and Lily Bollinger.

It’s a good introduction to Champagne, blended from many sources, including the classic Champagne: The wine, the land the people, Patrick Forbes, 1967 and Christie’s world encyclopedia of Champagne and sparkling wine, Tom Stevenson, 2003.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2011
First published 23 November 2011 in The Canberra Times