Champagne & Sake: a contract between the label and the consumer?

“Champagne is a contract between the label and the consumer.” The documentary “A Year in Champagne” highlighted the concept that many Champagne producers feel that it is their responsibility to give their customers the same, reliable, consistent bottle that they have become accustomed to. Especially for a non-vintage product, a bottle must taste the same each time, so the consumer isn’t surprised or even worse, disappointed. As Jon Bonne said in his article about the changing tides of Champagne, “the old philosophy that blending, and branding, matter most” has reigned supreme in this region for generations. http://punchdrink.com/articles/champagnes-next-revolution-is-now/

The house style is akin to the producer’s signature and a lot of energy is spent making sure that it is consistent. Those of us in the beverage world like to romanticize about the wine makers, the brew masters, the artisans who make the beverage. However, the role of the blender if often glazed over. These are the (often) uncelebrated individuals in the background who the brands rely on to keep their products consistent.

This has also been the way in the world of sake. For most it’s history, sake breweries expended a tremendous amount of energy on making their products taste the same year after year. A brewer was said to be skilled if they could produce consistent sake regardless of the harvest, the weather and other conditions that could contribute to changes in the final sake. This means that at most breweries, there is a blender whose job it is to taste each of the tanks and the batches, then blend them to achieve the desired taste. As much as the world of sake is fetishized as a boutique, small lot artisan craft, there is actually a tremendous amount of effort spent on making the products in line with what they think is their house style. And in no way should this be considered bad.

Changing tides – in the last 10 years however, some sake brewers (usually younger) have made philosophical shifts. Rather than making dependable, homogeneous sake the ultimate goal, some who belong to this new camp of thinking have embraced variation. This can be between vintages, tanks or taste differences (ie. concentration, purity, etc.) depending on the stages of the pressing cycle. In this situation, each bottle can be slightly or very different from the next bottle that is opened. This can be interesting as you never know exactly what to expect and it also makes it easier for product differentiation. It can be a way of distinguishing yourself from the rest or a particular product from the rest of the portfolio. Examples of brands who think in this way are Kuheiji, Yamagata Masamune and Taka.

In the world of Champagne, we see this shift usually and mostly with grower producers, who want to express more of the terroir of their wines, as well as differentiation through vintages, cuvees and winemaking. As Jean-Baptiste of Rene Geoffroy explained, he is trying to make “wines of Champagne”, rather than Champagne. True to this goal, his still wines are beautiful, regardless of the absence of bubbles. The effervescence adds lift and prettiness to the wines, rather than being the star of the show.

Managing Expectations – A huge challenge in showing variation whether it is in Champagne or sake comes is managing the expectations of your audience. If the consumer is expecting to open a bottle and taste the same product time after time, it is difficult for a producer to try to convince them that variation is a good thing. The bigger brands have more to lose whereas the smaller producers can experiment and play more. Whatever might be the producer’s philosophy, there is room for variation and I think more the merrier, especially when it comes to Champagne and Sake.