Champagne's new spirit

Hip bubbly bars are pairing the sparkly drink with low-brow potato chips, hot dogs and gyoza

NEW YORK • Maybe it started when comedian Bill Murray persuaded wine snobs it was okay to drink champagne over ice.

Over the past few years, sparkling wine has been on a tear worldwide.

It is one of the three fastest-growing wine categories, according to a VinExpo/IWSR study released in June.

Champagne shipments to the United States rose for the fourth year in a row, to 21 million bottles.

The study also projects that global consumption of sparkling wine will jump another 8.7 per cent by 2019, significantly more than overall wine consumption, at 1.4 per cent.

Amid all this enthusiasm for the fizzy stuff, a new trend - hip bubbly bars - has brought cheers.

At Air's Champagne Parlour, a playful Art Deco "salon and living room" devoted to sparkling wine that opened just over a month ago in New York's West Village, on offer is a drink called WWBMD.

 That is short for "What Would Bill Murray Do?" and is a champagne drink poured over ice with "expressed lemon" for US$15 (S$20).

The bar mixes hard-to-find grower champagnes from tiny producers with high- and low-brow food, nostalgic blues and Motown.

"I wanted to turn the paradigm of the champagne bar on its head and introduce people to up-and-coming bubbles in fun, unexpected ways," said owner Ariel Arce, 29.

Air's list of more than 100 bottles reflects the zeitgeist, with grower champagne favourites and pet- nats, as well as top proseccos and even an unusual sparkling wine from Greece made from the xinomavro grape.

Value, not a word that most people associate with great champagne, is essential, she added.

For a long time, bubbly was sold as a branded luxury product. Now, drinkers have discovered it is also a wine category where they can find good deals and interesting flavours.

Like other new-style fizz bars, Air's is pushing the idea that champagne can be an unstuffy drink that goes with more than costly caviar.

Yes, Ms Arce offers three kinds, but served with chive potato chips.

Her inspiration for the laidback air of Air's was London's unconventional Bubbledogs, which opened five years ago and pairs 60-odd top champagnes with elaborately topped hot dogs.

Among the chic new champagne bars in the US playing the high- and low-brow food game is San Francisco's The Riddler, which opened in January. It features tater tot waffles and complimentary popcorn with various flavoured salts, which help point up any champagne's crisp acidity.

A photo of English actress Jacqueline Bisset, clutching a bottle in the 1967 Bond film Casino Royale, hangs on one wall of the small, bright space, setting its tongue-in- cheek tone.

Casual fizz bars have also taken hold in Tokyo, where Champagne & Gyoza opened earlier this year. 

It pairs gyoza - a crisp, one-bite, pan-fried dumpling street snack - with 30 brands of champagne, from basic non-vintage to magnums with very serious price tags.

The Champagne region itself is home to a unique, rustic but stylish treehouse spot.

To get to the Perching Bar in the forest of Verzy, south of Reims, you navigate raised walkways and rope bridges and sip in swing seats.

That does not mean that classic, plush upscale champagne bars have disappeared.

The one at Michelin-starred Texture in London, which opened 10 years ago, is still thriving while high-end pop-ups of grandes marques names have been invading hotels with ever increasing frequency.

On winter weekends, Aspen's Little Nell hauls a Veuve Clicquot bar on skis up the mountain slopes for those in search of off-piste adventure.

This summer, until the end of this month, the Paris Shangri-La hotel is hosting Le Bar a Ciel Ouvert by Krug, where you can sip and watch the sunset on a terrace with a view of the Eiffel Tower.

In the garden of the Grand-Hotel du Cap-Ferrat, a dedicated Dom Perignon pop-up by the fountain will pour glasses of vintages 2000 and 2006 DP through Sept 16.

But back to Air's.

Ms Arce has added flavour identifications to make it easy for people to see which by-the-glass selections are right for them.

"Smoked strawberries" for Paul Clouet Rose is brilliant; "jasmine" for the De Sousa not so much.

It is all part of the bar's quirky charm to advance a new idea about how to fall in love with champagne all over again.

And that is the right spirit which should go down well with most folks.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 20, 2017, with the headline 'Champagne's new spirit'. Print Edition | Subscribe