We’ll gloss over the generic “Champagne” orders and the pleasant, middle-of-the road Veuve Clicquot, and head for the more characteristically Bondian Taittinger exchange. What can it tell us about Bond—and what can it tell us about Champagne?
Nineteen-forty-five and all that: vintage Champagne
Most wine is “vintage” by default; vintage means that it’s made using grapes from a single year. Most Champagne, however, is non-vintage (NV). As with port, a vintage is only declared in the best years, and at present that means vintage Champagne is only made around a third of the time. NV Champagne is made all the time and the makers blend it carefully using the various wines at their disposal in an effort to make it taste the same year after year in line with (in bloodless business speak) brand identity. Vintage Champagne does vary, however, in line with the peculiarities of that year’s conditions. It’s also made a little differently and to more stringent requirements. A vintage Champagne should be more complex and will need to age for at least, say, five years, and it can improve for thirty or so years, depending on the year. The prestige cuvées, such as Moët & Chandon’s Dom Pérignon and Louis Roederer’s Cristal, are also from designated years and can age even longer. These are the elaborately made and prodigiously expensive flagship wines for the Champagne houses. For the record, 1945 was a famously good year—it was the last year of the Second World War and some said that the soil was especially fertile from all the blood.
Blanc de Blancs
Three grapes can be used to make Champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The latter two are, of course, black grapes. Most wines use a mix of all, and Chardonnay is the most expensive to grow and at a premium, while Pinot Meunier is the cheapest. Blanc de Blancs is made exclusively from Chardonnay and this gives it a certain extra creaminess—and cost. It has less astringency (and arguably less complexity and snap) than some Champagnes and is a good choice for those who don’t think they like Champagne much. For years I thought I preferred astringency to creaminess, but it turns out that in Champagne I don’t. I enjoy a good Blanc de Blancs and for me it’s out-and-out the best Champagne to drink in the morning or last thing at night, being easier on the palate. Think Christmas morning or the early hours of New Year’s Day, say.
An excellent Champagne house, once fashionable, then not so fashionable or quite so good for a spell, now reviving again. Did they make the best Champagne in 1953? Probably not, but I don’t know. They do make a famously good prestige cuvée Blanc de Blancs, Comtes de Champagne, although this didn’t exist until several years after Casino Royale was published, but it seems likely that they still made a particularly good one before that. So, well played, Bond. Would Bond still choose Taittinger now? Perhaps, but then consider this press release:
As the official Champagne of the 2014 FIFA World CupTM, Champagne Taittinger has released a special limited edition World Cup souvenir bottle of Brut Réserve NV and Gift Box.
So, no. It was one thing for Pol Roger to add a black border to their famously white labels after Churchill’s death in 1965—it was his favourite Champagne and while he was something of a mountebank, he was a great statesman and a heroic drinker—but this sort of thing won’t do at all.
Bond’s choice, circa 2015
It’s tempting to simply assign Bond a prestige cuvée of some sort—he drinks Dom Pérignon elsewhere—and be done with it. Make no mistake, these are supremely good wines, but they now seem like the sort of thing that vulgarians drink in nightclubs for the super-rich, while Cristal is waved around in hip-hop videos. The consumption is too conspicuous, not individual enough. It’s not very Bondian, and where’s the knowledgeable eclecticism in it?
Jacquesson is far from obscure, but it isn’t well known, either. It’s probably the most distinctive Champagne house now, with its own modus operandi and emphatically good wine. They are unusual in their zéro dosage policy, which means minimal addition of sugar at disgorging and extra dry wine, while they are very unusual in not applying a consistent brand style to their NV Champagne. There is a house style of sorts, of course, a tendency to subtle, stylish, slightly austere minerality, while the wines usually age well and pair well with food (important for Bond), but the character of each bottling reflects that of a specific vintage, upon which it is based. Except that the year is not given on the label, a number is: Cuvée No. 733 is based on the 2005 vintage, No. 734 is based on the 2006 vintage, and so on. Identifying the year for a NV Brut is against practice and precedent in Champagne and shows a colossal, Bondian self-assurance. It also lends the Champagne a certain extra individuality and distinction. It should also be said that Jacquesson no longer make a prestige cuvée, on the grounds that if they prioritise their numbered cuvées it would be senseless to keep back the best grapes for other wines. This is the most serious NV Champagne there can be, and there’s plenty of telling detail that can be tossed in casually when ordering, in a brief, Bondian display of erudition.
For £40 or £50 (retail) you can buy one of the more recent bottles, though you may want to keep it for a few years. It’s not quite cheap, but it is excellent value. And if you order it in a restaurant or bar the sommelier will probably be more impressed than if you order one of the prodigiously expensive prestige cuvées: you know how to order wine, not just how to spend money. It’s also a joy to drink.
Clearly Bond would never countenance Prosecco now that it’s two bottles for £10 on Thursday nights at every other bar. Nor is Prosecco much like Champagne or a substitute for it: they’re made very differently. If you’re going to buy an Italian sparkling wine instead of Champagne, then Franciacorta (fran-cha-kor-tah) from Lombardy is the closest equivalent. It uses similar grapes—Chardonnay, Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir) and Pinot Bianco—and the metodo classico (i.e. méthode champenoise). Franciacorta can be very, very good and isn’t as well known in the English-speaking world as it ought to be.
Champagne and food
Champagne, especially the vintage stuff, is actually an excellent match with many dishes, including Bond’s lobster and pâté, and even the notoriously unforgiving eggs he has twice. French dressing, being vinegarish, will kill any wine and I fear that Bond has been most unwise in having that on his avocado pear. He would do better to dress this or salad with a little oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper.
When to drink Champagne
Auberon Waugh (quoting his novelist father, Evelyn) suggested that we habitually get Champagne-drinking wrong, and that by implication Bond, in his cheerful tête-à-tête with Vesper, gets it right:
The last thing he [Evelyn Waugh] wrote about wine appeared in the New York Vogue in the year before he died. It dealt with Champagne, and described the circumstances in which it should be drunk: ‘For two intimates, lovers or comrades, to spend a quiet evening with a magnum, drinking no aperitif before, nothing but a glass of Cognac after—that is the ideal … The worst time is that dictated by convention, in a crowd, in the early afternoon, at a wedding reception.’
That comment strikes me as profoundly true. Immense harm is done to Champagne by the English habit of drinking it, usually warm and in a sort of trifle dish, at weddings in the early afternoon. That is why so many people in England claim to dislike Champagne.
As it happens, Evelyn Waugh was a friend of Ian Fleming’s wife, Ann, and was staying with them at Goldeneye in Jamaica during the composition of Diamonds are Forever. Waugh didn’t get along with Ian Fleming especially well, but he would at least have approved of Bond’s Champagne drinking in Casino Royale. Drinking it alone with food also seems a good way to keep off boredom while away on business.
How to open and serve Champagne
First, make sure it’s cold enough, around 7–10° C. The finer wines can stand to be a little less cold, and their flavours will be more apparent at higher temperatures. A few hours in the fridge or 15–30 minutes in an ice bucket (half water, half ice) will do it. If the Champagne is too warm the cork may pop with a little more violence than is quite convenient and the wine will foam out.
Open by holding the bottom of the bottle and twisting it, holding the cork stationary with your other hand. Have your glasses to hand, should there be any foaming.
Glasses. The best informed opinion is now that you should serve good Champagne in an ordinary white wine glass; the flavours and aromas are concentrated, etc, and it keeps the bubbles. Until recently, it was felt that flutes were best because they retain the fizz, and they’re still often recommended for lesser wines. Coupes, the “sort of trifle dish”, are almost universally derided now, in particular as they present a large surface area for bubbles to escape from. My view, however, is that anyone who keeps their Champagne that long in the glass deserves whatever bad thing happens to them. I like coupes, I like the way they look and the way they hold in the hand. Unless you’re at a formal tasting, why not drink out of a coupe? After that, I don’t mind an ordinary wine glass. There’s something pleasantly negligent, insouciant about drinking fine Champagne from an ordinary glass, so long as no one thinks you’re slavishly following the (new) rules. There’s only one fixed rule: don’t put it in a jam jar.
Swagger it like Bond
If you have a freelance writer’s income, you may find yourself having to rely on ingenuity and insolence rather than money to drink like Bond, especially where Champagne is concerned. This will be a problem for many who don’t have the unlimited and fictional resources of Bond to draw upon. The thing is to make the absolute most of what you have, to order shrewdly—good sparkling wine is almost invariably better than cheap Champagne—and to be dismissive of anything you can’t afford. For example, this summer a wealthy friend served me a Dom Pérignon 2000; I told him that it was “excellent but not memorable”, in one of those meaningless but seemingly judicious remarks. (Fortunately, we’re old friends, so he chuckled appreciatively rather than smashing his glass into my face.) There are many forms of evasion and attack to cover deficiencies and embarrassment. It should be done with some knowing, humorous, semi-ironic humbug, and yet with absolute conviction at the same time, a very subtle and British combination.
Also look out for Owen Williams’s Bond articles for Empire film magazine—here’s “James Bond from page to screen” and “James Bond’s literary afterlife” to start with. Owen compiled the Bond Files for Alderman Lushington.