How French Vintners Got Over Themselves and Invented ‘Ice Champagne’
(Bloomberg) -- The relentless conquest of Champagne continues: Entrepreneurs now open bars and restaurants configured solely to sell it, and if you have an emergency shortage, one express service will deliver a bottle to your home (or office) in 20 minutes. No wonder sales continue to hit records and Champagne houses are right there meeting demand with such new, unexpected offshoots as LVMH’s Moët Ice Imperial.
Ice Imperial’s first trial came in 2011 with the promise that it would offer a ‘unique and thirst quenching taste’ that blended three distinctive flavors—fruit intensity, richness, and freshness—and should be served in an unexpected way: a large wine glass, over ice. Champagne snobs scoffed at such heretical drinking, somewhere Bill Murray smiled, and everyone else guzzled it up. In fact, this new kind of fizz, expressly designed to be drunk on the rocks, has become a new category of Champagne.
Moët Ice Imperial proved so successful that it hasn’t just spawned its own offshoot—a rosé version, released in 2016—but also a slew of me-toos from other marques. Pommery claimed that drinkers of its new, ice-friendly Royal Blue Sky would be “quickly hypnotized by this wine, that you want to discover as soon as possible.” Veuve Clicquot, a sister brand to Moët under the LVMH umbrella, went even farther, suggesting its “rich” offshoot be served over ice, in cocktails, or swirled with a chunk of pineapple, some cucumber, or even a squirt of tea.
It wasn’t just the Champagne houses eyeing a share of this sparkling market, either. There are now around a dozen ice-friendly, new blends from French winemakers, such as Bordeaux-based JP Chenet and Jura-based Francois Montand, which has been using méthode champenoise since its namesake winemaker fled there during World War II. There’s a similar aesthetic—foil-wrapped or frosted bottles with snazzy, busy graphics—and a marketing program that’s more Kendall ’n’ Gigi than Catherine Deneuve. Moët Ice free-flowing at Coachella this year and name-checked in ample Instagrams was a result.
But how and why have the Champagne houses shucked off traditional constraints and launched these poppy, seemingly sacrilegious blends? It’s down to tradition, taste, and conveniently coinciding trends.
Much as marketers might suggest that the idea of icing champagne is outré or unexpected, it’s a long-time habit in France, especially in the south, according to Champagne expert Caroline Brun, who works with such brands as Bollinger.
“In St. Tropez, people have been drinking Champagne [this way] since the 1960s. It’s a fresher way to drink champagne, which, as you know, can be enjoyed anywhere, anytime,” she told Bloomberg via email. “It’s as simple as that.”
Indeed, ice Champagne’s implicit association with the yacht- and model-heavy life of a mogul in St. Tropez has earned it the nickname ‘Disco Champagne.’ Quaffing it this way implicitly transports the drinker poolside, somewhere with jet-set je ne sais quoi; no wonder serving Champagne in a goblet with a few ice cubes is known in France as à la piscine, or “swimming pool style.”
Piper-Heidsieck was the first Champagne brand to try to import this tradition stateside a decade ago, with its Piscine program, which emphasized oversized glasses, but according to Brun, kept the recipe of the Champagne the same. “It was just a campaign for a glass with their normal cuvée.”
Moët entirely reformulated its juice for Ice Imperial. When food or drink is consumed at colder temperatures, sugars are less prominent, so it’s perceived to be less sweet. This quirk makes brand extensions aimed à la piscine a handy way to repackage, and so re-popularize, the sweeter Champagnes whose flavor has fallen from favor. (Longtime Champagne champ stateside for Moët was its sweet White Star expression, but in 2012, LVMH discontinued distribution in the U.S.) Ice Imperial, with 45 grams of sugar per liter, is technically a demi sec, while Veuve Rich’s 60 grams earn it the traditional doux classification—the closest Champagne can come to fizzy candy. It’s a stark contrast with brut Champagne, arguably the standard flavor profile today; with a maximum 12 grams per liter or dosage, it’s 80 percent less sweet.
There are other advantages to channeling the insouciance of the south of France in midsummer. Clicquot and company clearly hope these new brand extensions can emulate another product with similar associations: rosé wine, which has gone from poolside plonk to permanent tabletop fixture in the last decade, thanks to some canny marketing. Today, the rosé market worldwide is now estimated to be worth $389 million, with the U.S. and France accounting for 50 percent of it. Rosé has become synonymous year-round with high-living jet-setters, a glimpse of summer in a glass, given birth to its own hashtags (#roseallday), lifestyle brands, and generation-defining color (millennial pink).
The iced Champagne makers are hoping their new category will pop in much the same way. They’re also pricing it at a premium: Expect to pay around $10 more for the Ice version versus Imperial’s standard edition; Veuve Rich is also pricier than the company’s ubiquitous Brut. Certainly, the market is fizzing. Sparkling wine is one of the three fastest-growing wine categories worldwide—global consumption as a whole is projected to increase 8.7 percent by 2019—while stateside Champagne imports have increased every year for the last four years. (Figures for ice Champagne are not broken out by umbrella organization CIVC because “the consumption mode is not one of the criteria upon which the growers and houses declare the volumes that they have produced,” says Communications Director Thibaut Le Mailloux, via email.)
This new niche of sparkling wines also launched at a timely moment in craft cocktailing, according to Charlotte Voisey from drinks firm William Grant & Sons. Bartenders have been enthusiastically rediscovering European-style café cocktails such as the Aperol spritz. Lower-alcohol recipes have become staples at most cocktail bars over the last three years and, as with rosé, are associated with unabashed day drinking. This year, for example, New York’s award-winning Dante bar was one of several spots to declare 2017 the Summer of Spritz.
“The whole spritz phenomenon has just blown up, and the Aperol spritz definitely paved the way,” says Voisey by phone from her office in New York. “Now people try to order spritzes without knowing exactly what they are—they just know they’re supposed to order them. It’s perfect for summer: a bubbly wine drink, thrown over ice in a lovely wine glass.”
How handy, then, that Champagne makers suggest drinking these brand extensions in exactly the same goblet-style coupes in which Venetians traditionally served their prosecco-based spritz. It doesn’t hurt that the serving sizes are heftier than a traditional flute, so you’ll power through a bottle of Ice faster than its old-school counterpart.
Bartender and writer Jeffrey Morgenthaler agrees that it has become much easier to persuade drinkers to try these new Champagnes.
“That whole category of drinks is very much about sparkling wine being served over ice, so it’s not even a slight misstep to do it,” he explains by phone from his bar, Clyde Common, in Portland, Ore. The new iced Champagne category, though, confuses Morgenthaler.
“The Champagne companies are always like this,” he says. “They want to be hip and relevant, but they don’t want to contaminate the culture of Champagne, so they make these very weak steps, like putting Champagne in tiny bottles with a straw. And it’s so funny, because Champagne doesn’t need a gimmick. It’s awesome, the best alcoholic beverage out there—better than gin or whisky.”
Writer and veteran bartender Angus Winchester is more blunt: “It’s just an example of bandwagon-jumping by the French drink makers. I’m not a fan and can’t see them surviving long, thank God.” Just keep your eyes out for what Gigi’s drinking at Coachella ’18.