No one minds if you don’t like vodka. No one throws parties at which it’s the only alcoholic drink on offer, forcing you to choose either vodka and tonic or orange juice. The same is true of bitter — it would be ridiculous for a host arbitrarily to decide that all his guests must spend the night supping pints of Fuller’s. But champagne? You don’t like champagne? What’s wrong with you?
Summer party season is upon us, that medium-sized sea of champagne in which everybody loves to swim like giggling seals. Except for those of us who don’t, on account of our perverse, unnatural, virtually immoral character defect: we — cue those H.E. Bateman gasps — don’t like the stuff. How do we cope at champagne-only parties? Usually we take a glass and bite our lips, not just to stop us firing off a rant at the naked bloody rudeness of society’s assumption that it’s bound to be to our liking, but also to stop any of the liquid entering our mouth as we tip the glass upwards and pretend to enjoy it. This, incidentally, is how the Queen operates when ‘drinking’ champagne for a toast. She, like many of her family, dislikes it.
But perhaps we shouldn’t keep quiet. Perhaps that rant should be delivered after all. Minorities are meant to be heard these days. OK, this one’s a really small minority — but doesn’t that make us even more important? It isn’t just me and the Windsors. There’s the French actor Louis Jourdan (or at least there was, until his recent death). Famous for his role as a fizz-swilling playboy in the film Gigi, in real life he couldn’t stand champagne: it gave him a headache. The Queen’s reason, apparently, is that it makes her burp. While I’ve experienced both these properties — no, let’s call them what they are — design faults of champagne, I’d also add another: it gives me heartburn. What better way to celebrate a special occasion than by standing there trying to ignore the feeling that you’ve drunk the contents of a car battery? It’s not a wine thing. I love wine. It’s a bubbles thing. Fizzy drinks are for kids, right?
Of course, you can avoid the physical problems by avoiding champagne itself. But then you get landed with a different set of issues. Not just the ‘What do you mean, you don’t like champagne?’ riff, the pitying, patronising expressions of surprise that teeter on the edge of ‘Never mind, one day you’ll see the error of your ways and come over to our side, old boy.’ (If these get really bad, I like to wind the offenders up even more by mentioning my dislike of strawberries — you should see their faces then.) There’s also the fact that you’re the one made to feel in the wrong for wanting an alternative in the first place. The motoring journalist Nat Barnes, a fellow fizz-phobic, attends a lot of corporate hospitality events. ‘You’d be amazed how often these things aren’t geared up for a request for something other than champagne,’ he says. ‘You can look something of a social outcast, standing there empty-handed while everyone else is swigging away. I’ve even had times when it’s caused the host concern — they think you’ve been missed.’ Well, they should have provided some other options to start with, shouldn’t they? Nat has also seen people get worried by the lack of booze in his hand. ‘If you’re standing there drinking water, it can make them slightly on edge, as if you might be trying to get them drunk so they’ll accidentally let slip a story.’
But in the end these are minor complaints. The really annoying thing about champagne is the goat-getting aura of smugness that surrounds it. The way people call it ‘shampoo’. The way the cricket commentator Trevor Bailey used to refer to a ‘magnum of the medicine’. The way the drink’s very name is a result of Gallic protectionism: make your sparkling wine anywhere else and you have to call it prosecco or cava. (Come on, I’m having a go at the French here — surely we can agree on this, if nothing else?) Champagne isn’t a drink, it’s a religion, and a pretty fundamentalist one at that. It’s the one good reason for watching Formula One, the bit on the podium after the race when the drivers spray gallons of bubbly over each other. Always fun to hear the champagne ayatollahs chuntering away about that.
So what I can do? Nothing, other than quietly ask if there might be a bottle of red knocking about. And serve champagne at my own 40th birthday party. (A Salmanezah of Pol Roger, since you ask – everyone said it was gorgeous, I got stuck into the Adnams bitter. I just wish people would return the favour once in a while.) Plus, of course, I always enjoy accepting champagne as a present, knowing the bottle will go straight into the fridge until the next time I need a gift for someone else. No temptation at all to drink it — to me champagne is a currency, rather like snout in prisons. Chin chin to that.
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