Fine Wine Writing by Jonathon Alsop

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The Great Champagne Shortage Shortage of 1999
by Jonathon Alsop
December 1999

Decades from now, we'll be regaling the grandkids with stories of the Great Champagne Shortage of 1999: "Planes were falling from the sky, the lights were going out all over America, and your grandmother and I didn't have a damn thing to drink!" Or will we?

First, let's make a distinction between Champagne, sparkling wine, and fizzy wine in glass bottles. Champagne is made only in the Champagne region in France, it accounts for one of every 12 bottles of sparkling wine worldwide, and the French are immensely protective of the name. Champagne is the top twelfth of the market in price, quality, and desirability every New Year's Eve, not just this year.

The only difference this year is that the price is way up, and you can't necessarily get as much of any one Champagne as you might want. With last year's $30 bottle at $40 and more, it makes me want less anyway, so it all kind of works out. Most people buy in ones and twos in the middle to bottom of the price range, so any shortage would impacts case sales to shops, restaurants, and customers who want a whole case of one wine for some reason.

Sparkling wine is made everywhere, from Australia and California to Italy and Germany, and even in some of the less-famous regions of France. Except for the very top brands, many fine sparkling wines are awfully unknown and can be extremely under-valued. If you're willing to forget about Champagne for a minute but still spend $20 to $25, you can get the yummy Cremant from the Loire valley in France or two bottles of a top semi-sweet Italian Prosecco. Prices are up slightly but still way below Champagne, and the novelty factor is a big plus.

Finally, people stick hoses filled with CO2 into great vats of white wine all over the world, and out comes fizzy wine. If it gets a cork and one of those tricky wire closures, that makes it sparkling wine, and naturally subject to getting slurped down any New Year's Eve. No one should pay more than $6.99 for something like this, and the last inventory revealed a backlog of approximately a zillion cases. And they can always make more.

We could make another distinction between a real shortage of something, a typical run on New Year's Eve supplies, and the way all the Champagne in the world runs out every year anyway, but the millennium is coming up too quickly, and there's no time.

"The shortage is there. We're out -- we're finished!" says Kathleen Cornelia, sales representative from Seagram Chateau and Estate, the huge international importer and distributor of Mumm and Perrier-Jouet. "Sparkling wine is an entirely different thing. There shouldn't be a problem with that."

Highest demand is for the 1990 vintage "tete de cuvee," which means the stuff on the top shelf. There's also a run on large-format bottles -- magnums, 3-liter bottles, and bigger.

As we close in on 2000, we experience something like the sensation you got when the odometer on your dad's car rolled over to 100,000 miles. Yes, it's a once-in-a-lifetime event, but like so many once-in-a-lifetime events, the reality doesn't live up to the hype. Wine prices are up, access to the top Champagnes and sparkling wines in the world are limited (aren't they always?), but you're going to be able to buy wine the day before the party without being disappointed.

It's time that's running out on the 20th century, not Champagne. Ask not for whom the cork pops. It pops for thee.

Champagne with fly fishing?
Sure, markets overlap, but this is something of a long cast (sorry!): a bottle of '88 Dom Perignon in a "fine English-made" fly box with a set of six "superfine" flies, about $250. I always thought Scotch was the classic match with fly fishing. Available at Table & Vine in Northampton, and very few other specialty wine shops.

Don't forget the chocolate
There are two classic wine matches for fine chocolate: believe it or not, a big, minty red wine like Beringer cabernet sauvignon and Champagne. I know it's not Valentine's Day, but you could do worse than a bottle of Veuve, a half-pound of Caillebaut Belgian chocolate, a big piece of Tete de Moine cheese, a loaf of French bread, and the one you love.

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