It's the drink at weddings and New Year's parties. It's on the butler's tray at black-tie affairs, gallery openings, even the occasional yacht launch. But aside from special occasions and highbrow events, Champagne stays locked in the cellar like wine and beer's pitiful, abandoned step-beverage. With the taint of "tradition" conspiring to keep many younger consumers away from what's seen as an elitist, old-school drink, few in the under-50 set even consider Dom Perignon - likened to "liquid stars" - an option for a night on the dance floor or around the barbecue. After all, why sip a flute of snobby champers when the world is full of fun-lovin' craft beers and kamikazes?
Champagne sales have fizzled in recent years, as the consumer base has aged and young drinkers have failed to pick up the glasses their parents and grandparents are putting down. But if some of the world's most lauded Champagne houses and newer, wackier manufacturers have anything to say about it, Champagne is about to pop the cork on a new era in fizzy enjoyment. Their strategy: lure in the Champagne drinkers of tomorrow with the style and new media of today. The results: Champagne makeovers that let the world's most conservative beverage finally kick up its heels.
To tempt the eyes and palates of the younger generation, Champagne houses have given this classic celebration beverage a 2001 facelift. Gone are the boring bottles, staid labels and gold foil. The new look of Champagne is sleek, stylish, even sexy.
The showiest new look for Champagne is the cute and colorful "mini" bottle. This diminutive trend started at the lauded House of Pommery, which shook up the Champagne world last year with Pop, a sweeter and less fizzy version of the classic sparkler designed for the after-hours bar crowd. Launched at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2000, Pop is a pint-sized, cobalt blue bottle of Champagne (187 ml) that comes in six-packs in space-age wire carrying crates. Adding to the experience, the fizzy liquid is imbibed through a color-coordinated blue straw. Though it isn't packaged like your parents' bubbly, Pop is a high-quality Champagne created according to the high standards of the House of Pommery and allows for "a break from the protocol of good behavior without violating the pedigree of its Champagne heritage."
Not to be outdone in the quest for style-conscious Champagne-converts, Piper-Heidsieck also offers a single-serving bubbly that comes with its own straw. Created by the company as a sly way to introduce a younger crowd to its quality product, the cute red Baby Piper bottles are turning up at big-city fashion and celebrity events around the country. Moet & Chandon has likewise gotten into the baby-bottle market, and other houses will no doubt follow as enthusiasm for pint-sized beverages spreads. It won't be long before trend-followers the world over can slurp baby Champagne at a bar or club, or in the comfort of their own pad, for a mere $10-$20 a bottle.
While baby Champagne bottles are getting a younger, hipper look with trendy straws, full-size versions are also being treated to eclectic, eye-catching new accessories. The most ostentatious is no doubt Piper-Heidsieck's Gaultier-designed "corset bottle."
The darling of French fashion wrapped Piper-Heidsieck's Special Cuvee in a fire-engine red vinyl corset whose lacing allows tantalizing glimpses of the curvy bottle. A single black lace winds through golden grommets and ties in a bow around the cork: tres chic!
Veuve Clicquot brings a similar glamour to its Brut with stylish isotherm bags and trademark cooling buckets. Rather than take your Champagne out naked, these signature decorative items let drinkers wrap the bottle in a layer of tasteful cool. Companies hope these nifty accoutrements will appeal to today's color-coordinated, gadget-happy generation of drinkers.
If all this eye candy doesn't do the trick, ongoing innovations in Champagne mixing are sure to draw in new bubble-heads. Until recently, perhaps the only party libation less cool than Champagne was the swish Champagne cocktail. But those who equate the Champagne cocktail with country club brunches and airport lounges may be surprised by the hot, exotic concoctions currently bubbling up on the menus of some hot, big-city nightspots.
Some of the tastiest examples of sparkling cocktails fizz up the menu at San Francisco's Champagne haven, The Bubble Lounge. Patrons here are tempted with concoctions like "Ruby Red" (deVenoge Champagne, Stoli Raz, Chambord) and "Fleur de Soir" (Henri Abele Champagne with elderflower fruit puree), and other Champagne bars around the country are following suit with their own unique combinations.
A tad funkier but no less intriguing is British manufacturer Weird Pop's revamped Champagne, La Dame de Shanghai. This classic California methode champenoise is married with natural wild American ginseng extract for a unique taste and effect. Sold at about $17 a bottle, La Dame de Shanghai is a real bargain when you factor in ginseng's "aphrodisiac" qualities and reputation as a "supreme energizer, alkalizer and sensualizer." If Champagne is the sexiest of all beverages, this has got to be the sexiest of all Champagnes.
So next time you sidle up to the bar for a beer, grab a straw instead and give today's Champagne a try. The tasty, trend-setting bubbles will go right to your head.