Champagne has come a long way since the days of Dom Perignon’s oft misquoted exclamation, “Come quickly, I am tasting the stars” – made while noticing the effervescence within a bottle of white wine that had gone somewhat awry. Back then, Champagne was known as the “devil’s wine,” as it was not uncommon for the weak, poorly made glass bottles of the day to spontaneously burst, wounding – at times fatally – those within the blast range.
These days, the quintessential, most luxurious of wines from the most salubrious of wine regions has won the hearts and palates of many and become a symbol of celebration the world over. In fact, its popularity has soared in recent decades, mostly thanks to new money from Russia and China, coupled with continued loyalty from its most abundant markets, the US and UK.
In Asia, trendy new Champagne bars are beginning to emerge in first-tier cities such as Shanghai, where hotspots like Monkey Champagne (houseofmonkey.com) are pitching high-quality, high-priced Champagnes to Millennials with to Millennials who have the money to spend.
Champagne consumption in China is currently less than 1 percent of total wine consumption, but many believe there is plenty of room for expansion. Vinexpo and the IWSR (International Wine and Spirits Report) have already seen sales to China more than double in the last eight years and expect to see at least a 10 percent increase in Chinese consumption of sparkling wine by 2018.
China, however, is not the leader in the Asian Champagne market, nor does it feature in the top ten in the world. This honor goes to Japan, ranked the fourth largest export market for Champagne in 2015, at 11.8 million bottles annually. China by comparison imports just over two million bottles annually, while Hong Kong – the self-proclaimed “Wine Hub of Asia” – imports just over 1.5 million.
“The overall Champagne market in Japan oscillates between the fourth and fifth biggest in volume terms and is the largest prestige cuvée market in the world, together with the US,” says Master of Wine Ned Goodwin, former Tokyo resident and currently brand ambassador for Charles Heidsieck Champagne. “There’s a high degree of appreciation of the synergy of Champagne’s yeast-driven textures and flavors, with the similarly fermentative nature of many Japanese foodstuffs. Champagne is acknowledged by Japanese wine professionals and regular consumers alike as very agreeable with Japanese fare.”
“There is no shortage of great places to drink fine Champagne in Japan,” says renowned wine critic and oenophile Hajime Yamaguchi, who recommends Champagne bars such as Vionys (vionys.com) – “the most famous in Tokyo and one that most of our sommeliers recommend” – as well as Flute Flute by Romi’s in Osaka (anjou.co.jp/shop/fluteflute), which “serves not only Champagne but also cuisine seasoned with soy sauce collected from all over Japan, for example strawberry flavored soy sauce.”
A Taste of Something Special
In Hong Kong there are specific Champagne bars and establishments that do not hide their association with brand. In the illustrious Mandarin Oriental Hotel, lovers of Champagne Krug can find a plethora of the finer vintages in the Krug Room (mandarinoriental.com) over a luxurious meal, whilst those on a somewhat smaller budget can visit the Bollinger Room at the newly opened Maison Eight (maisoneight.com). Those with the cash to flash can head to the Grand Hyatt’s Champagne Bar (hongkong.grand.hyatt.com), a stalwart on the Hong Kong Champagne scene and, more significantly, one of the places to be seen in the city.
Hong Kong is the auction capital of the world these days, with more and more Champagne under the hammer. In recent years tastes have swung increasingly towards vintage Champagne for its value for money in the tax-free city. “The real bargain is vintage Champagne via auction. Its condition can be hit or miss, but the pricing is right and you’ll always have a talking point for a party,” according to Hong Kong-based Debra Meiburg, Asia’s first Master of Wine.
One wine that has seen a tremendous following over the last decade has been Champagne Salon. Famed for releasing its vintages more than ten years after the wine’s actual production, this Champagne seems perfectly at home in a city as thirsty for a prestigious label as it is for the product inside the bottle. “Salon has a special place in Hong Kong because it’s a luxury product. The perception of Champagne in Hong Kong is very high. The Champagne brand in Hong Kong is very strong and this certainly helps us,” says Didier Depond, the current president of Champagne Salon.
Around Asia, import duties on alcohol can often restrict high-priced wines to the more wealthy population. Cities such as Seoul, Singapore, Manila and Bangkok have huge tax levies on imports, thus making the wines even more expensive when they hit the upper echelon of wine lists. This does not deter those from indulging though, says Christopher Lowder of the new, uber-trendy Charles H bar in Seoul’s Four Seasons hotel (fourseasons.com/seoul).
“Many more restaurants do now have the option and opportunity to offer Champagne to guests. Whether Champagne picks up in Korean culture moving forward will have a lot to do with whether or not restaurants can ditch the pretentiousness and make it less of a splurge and more of a staple.”
In order to make Champagne more accessible and appealing to the wider market, Lowder serves a volley of Champagne cocktails that incorporate a little of everyone’s favorite tastes. “Champagne lovers are in heaven, because they get all of the pleasure of enjoying, for example, a bottle of Billecart Salmon or Louis Roederer,” he says. “But they also get to see their favorite Champagne flavors paired with fresh citrus and house-made cordials. It’s a very popular serve for wine and cocktail lovers alike.”
Champagne cocktails are also a prominent part of Champagne consumption in Singapore, notes Brandwatch vice president Christel Quek. Australian reds dominate Singapore’s wine consumption, but there are a few places to get a good Champagne cocktail: “Cut, owned by Wolfgang Puck (wolfgangpuck com) does an amazing Champagne cocktail called Rough Love,” she says, while also recommending Gibson (gibsonbar.sg) and Jigger & Pony (jiggerandpony.com) for top-quality Champagne cocktails in the Lion City.
The ostentatious Flute – A Perrier-Jouet Bar is the pinnacle of the Champagne lifestyle in Bangkok (lebua.com). Located in the prestigious Dome at Lebua, State Tower in the city center, the world’s highest open-air Champagne bar is the hangout of Bangkok’s rich and famous and, while only serving Champagne from the House of Perrier-Jouet, if there is one place in Bangkok to be seen sipping from a flute, this is most certainly it.
Taiwan, in particular Taipei, has always had a rich culture of wine consumption and this is reflected in their love of Champagne too. Cale Jackson, chef, food and beverage consultant and resident of Taipei for over 20 years, notes there are some fantastic places to enjoy both great Champagnes by the glass and great Champagne cocktails in the city. Bars such as the Mandarin Oriental’s MO Bar (mandarinoriental.com) and Woobar in the W Hotel (woobartaipei.com) are at the top of Jackson’s recommended hangouts, where fine Champagne is almost always the order of the evening.
However, with few places outside of hotels specializing in Champagne itself, Taiwan would seem to have unfulfilled potential. “For the majority of Taiwanese, wine is still supposed to be red, but there is no doubt that consumers’ desire to drink Champagne is on the march, as highlighted by the continued year-on-year growth in the category,” says Mark Pygott, Master of Wine student, wine writer and educator in Taipei.
Work Hard, Play Hard
Increasingly, it seems the future of Champagne in Asia lies with the Millennial generation. As the “work hard, play hard” ethic further permeates Asian culture, so too is the lifestyle that accompanies it, and Champagne plays a large part.
“More and more, Korea’s young professionals are spending their evenings at Charles H with a bottle of Champagne. When guests come into the bar, they are greeted with a complimentary welcome glass of Billecart Salmon Extra Brut. For a lot of them, this gesture is an enticing sip that often turns into a full bottle,” says Lowder. “Most of our guests at Charles H are young professionals in their late 20s or early 30s, and this group is definitely falling in love with Champagne.”
So there is reason to be optimistic, with more and more venues opening up Asia-wide and further interest in Champagne from the younger generation. “There was a brief surge of interest in ‘grower Champagnes’ in the past few years, but the city is primarily dominated by large Champagne houses,” says Meiburg. “And while I love the Grand Marques as well, I do think we need to find space for the boutique producers, just as we do in the world of fashion.”
And that’s what it is really: Fashion. As with most everything, it’s all about trends and the perception of fashion of the time. As more and more people in Asia look to affirm their success in life, one product seems to represent the pinnacle: Champagne. As long as Champagne is held up high on that pedestal, it will be a product desired as much for aspiration as it is for enjoyment.