Thursday 19 September 2019

Drinking champagne alone

Why do we rarely drink a bottle of champagne alone? Could it be that champagne is quintessentially social, an experience like kissing, which has to be shared in order to be properly enjoyed?

It can’t simply be the cost – I would think it a personal treat if I drank by myself a bottle of good claret or white Burgundy costing the same as a bottle of champagne. And can any drink really be reserved for “special occasions”? – in which case surely the drinking of it should make any occasion special by default.

There are of course famous quotes about drinking champagne at every possible opportunity. In victory you deserve it, in defeat you need it, and so on. That line of Coco Chanel’s: “I only drink champagne on two occasions – when I am in love with a Nazi, and when I am not.” (She may not actually have mentioned the collaboration bit.)

But drinking champagne by yourself somehow suggests decadence, indulgence, an unacceptable sort of wealthy languor. So what actually happens if you detach it from its image, and drink it alone as you would any other wine?

Only one way to find out. Mrs K was going to a Do, an awards event where she might well drink fizzy in both social and celebratory contexts. So as I will be alone, I decide that instead of my usual everyday red or white, I will try drinking champagne, alone, thoughout the evening. It already feels weird.

Lurking in the cellar I find a bottle, which must have been brought by a guest but stashed,  because its journey had rendered it either too warm to drink, or too Elvis. (All shook up.)

It’s surprising how odd it feels to open a bottle of sparkling wine with no-one else around. No-one to “Ooh!” and “Ah!”. And no-one to appreciate my opening technique, avoiding a loud pop and wasteful spume by opening it like a skilled sommelier, with only the gentle hiss of a duchess breaking wind,

(Although, as I have got older, I find I am less impressed by the skill of the sommelier and more by the technique of the duchess.)

However, like the tree which falls when there is no-one listening, there is definitely a sense of deflation when no-one witnesses my opening.

Should I get down a single champagne glass? I wouldn’t get down the best glasses for a weekday bottle of red; but again, the rituals of champagne are hardwired, like some kind of vinous firmware. I climb a stepladder and retrieve a single flute.

Things begin well with a glass while I cook. Perhaps it's the collective unconscious of years of cooking for get-togethers, making me think that tonight must be a special occasion. Or perhaps it's just that I always find cooking is more enjoyable with wine, whether or not it’s in the food.

And it is a reasonably tasty champagne, which I shall describe, as most wine critics describe most champagnes, as “biscuity”, without specifying whether that “biscuit” refers to Rich Teas, Digestives or, for that matter, Jammy Dodgers.

Before now I have certainly carried a pre-dinner glass of fizz through to the table, and drunk it with my starter. But I can’t actually remember drinking sparkling wine with a main course. A champagne flute certainly feels odd in this context; it’s one thing when you’re simply drinking, but when you’re washing down a meal, this glass tube feels slightly absurd. And after a meal, as things begin to settle down, raising a lightweight glass of fizz seems simply inappropriate.

By the end of the evening, I’m afraid the champagne has also become rather sickly. The first mouthful of chilled champagne is surely the best, sparkling as much as it ever will, cold as it can be. But it’s downhill from there on. Unlike a good claret, champagne does not improve in the glass over an evening. It gets sugary. And two hours on, it’s not so much crisp biscuit as soggy Custard Cream.

Clearly no, I am not Sebastian Flyte, nor was meant to be. There are things which are immensely satisfying when pursued alone, which start well and often get better. Like reading. But drinking a bottle of champagne clearly benefits from company. When you can each enjoy those first, fresh glasses from the bottle, and then move on.

A bottle alone? In the end, the experience is mirrored by the final mouthfuls of the champagne itself – just a little bit flat.


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