A Scent of Champagne: 8,000 Champagnes Tasted and Rated
by richard juhlin
skyhorse publishing, 400 pages, $95
Lord Keynes regretted very little, but he once confided to Noel Annan that he wished he had drunk more champagne. As with most of his pronouncements that did not touch directly upon questions of faith or morals, it is difficult to disagree with him here, or with Dickens, who, on days when he gave public readings, liked to have a pint of it at teatime. Champagne is one of the great achievements of European civilization, that name some use for epiphenomena of the Catholic Church: more portable than Salisbury Cathedral or St. Mark’s; giving more pleasure, if one is being honest, than vast swathes of Bach and Mozart; and far less likely to be a near occasion of sin than the Canterbury Tales or Madame Bovary.
My insistence on “European,” as opposed to merely French, is purposeful. While it is certainly the best thing ever to have come out of Rheims—does anyone doubt that we will be drinking Taittinger and Veuve Clicquot centuries after everyone has stopped reading the Bible translation of Fr. Gregory Martin and his fellow exiles?—it would be a mistake to think of champagne as an entirely Gallic affair. Its history is more various and fascinating.
Some students of monachism will be disappointed to learn that early champagnes produced under the guidance of a certain Benedictine monk of the Abbey of St. Peter of Hautvillers, though doubtless of a very high quality, were, in fact, delicate Pinot Noirs. They did not, except inadvertently, undergo secondary fermentation, nor does it seem likely that Dom Pierre Pérignon ever declared to his brothers, “Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!” It was not until enterprising British glassmakers in the seventeenth century began to produce stronger bottles that the release of carbon dioxide in the re-fermentation process was regarded as anything other than a nuisance.
With the encouragement of a dissolute man of letters called Charles de Saint-Évremond—not, as the editors of The Oxford Companion to Wine suggest, the Marquis St. Evrémonde from A Tale of Two Cities—champagne was eventually taken up in something like its present form by the coffeehouse-goers of Pepys’s London. Dean Swift stoically advised his fellow Anglo-Irishmen to “Bravely despise champagne at court / And choose to dine at home with port,” but was happy enough to enjoy it with snuff in the agreeable company of George Grenville and other Whig grandees, as the rest of us surely would have been. It was slurped up enthusiastically at Versailles from the lotus-eating years of the Régence until the Revolution, when merchants began to falsify their receipts in order to disguise the number of bottles purchased by titled customers, doubtless saving many lives.
Triumphing over seven hundred years of schism, it soon established itself in Russia, and when Bonaparte invaded, Charles-Henri Heidsieck—whose son, also named Charles, later made a fortune from bubbly in the Wild West as “Champagne Charlie”—rode ahead of his countrymen with a vast stockpile. The widowed Madame Clicquot pushed her wares upon Prussian, Englishman, and Muscovite alike, even running the British blockade of France to get a corner on the foreign markets in 1811. Resenting the greed of occupying Russian forces after Waterloo, she is said to have grumbled, “Today they drink. Tomorrow they will pay.”
Today, of course, we all pay. Champagne is drunk with pleasure, and at considerable expense, from China to Peru. (One of the fastest-growing markets is in Nigeria, where most people live on less than a dollar per day.) It is impossible to write at any length about champagne without touching on political economy, and the consensus has generally been that unless we are poor—and so cannot afford it anyway—we should feel guilty with each sip. Belloc certainly thought so more than a century ago. “Every time you and I drink champagne,” he wrote to Maurice Baring in 1911, “we are ultimately depriving some poor man of beer, and don’t you forget it.”
It has even lent its name to a special pejorative applied to wealthy proponents of community ownership of the means of production. I have a hard time making sense of “champagne socialist,” at least as an insult. It is, for one thing, a pleonasm. There is virtually no important figure in the history of socialism who did not enjoy champagne. Engels, who could afford it, and Marx, who could not, both drank it in massive quantities. Wilde, the great prophet of a world in which “poverty will be impossible,” drank his from ruby tumblers. Even Clement Attlee, the jolly but abstemious Labour prime minister who once ordered toast and jam at the Savoy, celebrated the Armistice in 1918 with a bottle while he was in a London hospital suffering from boils.
I think we should be kinder to champagne socialism, which, literally understood, seems to me among the most ennobling and well-intentioned of all political creeds. When John Mortimer, who began every morning at six with a glass, said that he was a champagne socialist because he wanted everyone to have it, he was articulating a view of human flourishing of which only Gradgrinds could disapprove. There are, simply put, moments in life that demand champagne. I would not trade the bottle of Veuve Clicquot my wife and I drank the night of our second daughter’s baptism after both girls had gone to bed or the Taittinger I enjoyed—criminally—last spring on the shore in Clearwater Beach while smoking and watching the blue-gray waves roll into the gulf for anything. Champagne—not André or Barefoot Bubbly or even halfway decent cava—really should belong to everyone, and it drives me almost to despair to think that people, especially in a country as wealthy as ours, should go without it. That this should not be so was the dream of that most amiable of levelers William Morris, who in News From Nowhere despaired of a world run by “a Whig committee dealing out champagne to the rich and margarine to the poor.” It is also, for the foreseeable future, a fantasy.
It is at the level of fantasy that most readers will appreciate the present volume. Many years ago, Richard Juhlin gave up his position teaching gym in the suburbs of Stockholm to devote his life to drinking and writing about champagne, the most enviable career change I have ever heard of. By his count, he has now drunk some eight thousand champagnes, from 1928 Pol Roger Grauves Vinothèque to the latest non-vintages of houses both famous and obscure. For those of us who are lucky to take in a $50 Moët & Chandon rosé once a month and enjoy a yearly glass of Dom with our social and economic superiors, nothing short of a tipple-enabling windfall could be more enchanting than spending an evening with Juhlin nursing our supermarket prosecco and dreaming of 1955 De Castellane and 1990 Henri Abelé.
Like any good critic, Juhlin is readable because he is enthusiastic. These pages are full of unfashionable exclamation points, whimsical asides, and prescriptions delivered with an almost fideistic confidence. The memoir-ish first chapter in which Juhlin recounts his childhood discovery of what he calls his “photographic scent memory” reminds me of the early passages about synesthesia in Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. He is equally engrossing on bad champagne. When an ordinary scribbler performs a hatchet job, he costs the publisher $20 or so for a review copy plus postage; A Scent of Champagne is full of rude reviews of $500 bottles, a heartening testament to critical independence. It also serves perfectly well as a primer on producers, terminology, and history, and it is full of winsome facts. I had no idea that Perrier Jouet’s Belle Epoque, with its beautiful white anemone designs, was launched in 1969 for Duke Ellington’s seventieth birthday or that champagne corks were the leading cause of eye injuries in France.
Juhlin’s work deserves to be regarded as a classic of champagne literature alongside Princess Jacqueline de Chimay’s absorbing and all too brief Life and Times of Madame Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin (the English translation of which was partially ghosted by Evelyn Waugh) and Champagne: The History and Character of the World’s Most Celebrated Wine, Serena Sutcliffe’s enchanting overview. A Scent of Champagne is a wonderful book, as effervescent as its subject.
Matthew Walther is associate editor of the Washington Free Beacon and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.