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What's the vintage?

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One look at the triumphant spray of bubbly at IPL finals and the increasingly common champagne Sunday brunches, and you'd know that Indians are glugging the stuff. While the rest of the world cuts back - according to industry estimates, Britons drank almost one million fewer bottles of champagne in 2011 than they did in 2010 - shipments to India rose by 59 per cent to 2, 90, 000 bottles, even in the face of stiff duties.

But it's not just India's new rich who are quaffing Bollinger with their burgers. The taste for the fizz goes back to the 19th century. A recent archival discovery by Mo?t & Chandon, one of the world's most premium champagne brands, has revealed that it was shipping bottles to India as far back as 1839 (a shipment to Calcutta) and 1840 (to Madras). Internal record entries that were found in Epernay earlier in the year show details of number of bottles ordered with year and worth of the consignment.

"Most of Mo?t & Chandon's early shipments to India were the result of requests from Indian nobility and British expatriates settled in the sub-continent at the time. Not surprisingly, the first shipment went to a European firm in Calcutta called Becher Chapman and Co, " says Gaurav Bhatia, marketing director, Mo?t Hennessy India. "This discovery is very significant not only to the brand but also to India's association with luxury. A relationship going back more than 170 years is something to uphold and cherish and will be actively documented to educate our consumers in India, " Bhatia adds.

In fact, an advert for Pommery, a French champagne that now sells as Vranken-Pommery, at the first-class waiting room of the Old Howrah station during the twilight of the Raj, borrowed the parable of the crow that filled the pitcher of water with stones, and replaced water with champagne.

Indian royalty's taste for western luxury brands has been quite well-recorded. Maharajas placed orders with jewellers like Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels. In fact, the iconic Patiala necklace, ordered by the Maharaja of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh, in 1926, was the largest single commission Cartier ever executed. So it's not surprising that the royals were raising flutes as well as tossing back Patialas.

Today, India has a host of champagne brands - Moet has the lion's share of the market with brands like Mumm, Krug and Armand de Brianac vying for attention. The prestige attached to the bubbly is no longer restricted to the famous and beautiful. Ordering a bottle of champagne, replete with burning sparklers and sashaying hostesses, has become the ultimate status symbol in India.

But what will really push champagne sales in India, according to sommelier Magandeep Singh, is the way the product is placed and sold. "I wish people would realise that champagne is also a wine, " says Singh. "You don't have to wait for an occasion to drink it. But people are too conscious of the status attached to it because of the price it's sold at, " he adds.

Singh, who is also a 'wine solutions provider', has an answer to how champagne could appeal to a larger section of people. "Smaller servings, " he suggests. "A glass of champagne should ideally be either 75 ml or 100 ml. It would prove to be more cost effective for the consumer because you would get 7 glasses per bottle. Hotels hand a guy 150 ml of champagne in one serving. No wonder he gets tipsy, " he adds.

BURST THE FAT BUBBLE

Abottle of bubbly may not be good for your wallet but it's good for your waist. According to the champagne diet - developed by New Yorker Cara Alwill Leyba - a flute or two of bubbly a day can keep the flab in check. Two parts healthy living and one part fun, the diet sure is classy. It allows you to eat high-quality, nutrient-dense and tasty things (totalling around 1, 200-1, 400 calories a day). Plus, of course, a glass of the effervescent drink. A normal glass of Champagne has just 91 calories per glass, says Leyba. Laurent Perrier's Ultra Brut, beloved by Kate Moss, has even fewer at 65 calories. "And because the bubbles reach your bloodstream more quickly, you consume less, " she says.

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