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Last Updated: Monday, 9 February, 2004, 10:53 GMT
Rise of the bubbly
By Megan Lane
BBC News Online Magazine

More champagne is being drunk in UK pubs and bars than ever before - including than at the turn of the millennium. How did bubbly break out of its toffs-and-anniversaries image to line up on the bar as a drink for any day?

On an otherwise grey and gloomy afternoon, the mood at a champagne bar high above the rain-slicked streets is suitably effervescent.

"This isn't a liquid lunch," says IT contractor Charlotte James as she raises a glass of Veuve Clicquot. "It's taken the place of lunch."

She and some friends from work have ascended to Vertigo, 42 storeys above the City of London, to celebrate her imminent wedding. All are drinking champagne, even the one member of the group who doesn't much care for fizz.

None of the women - bar the sole red wine fan - regard champagne as a drink to be reserved for "best". And they are not alone - last year Britons drank a cork-popping 35% more champagne in bars and pubs than in the year before. In the United States, sales of champagne and sparkling wines are also up.

From left, Charlotte James, Tannessy Kristianto and Jackie Edwards, photo by Phil Coomes
A liquid lunch at Vertigo
"I love bubbly," says Jackie Edwards. "I've been drinking it for about 20 years. We've always got a couple of bottles of Cava in the fridge, and several bottles of the good stuff that my husband got in for the millennium gathering dust in the wine rack. He won't let me drink it unless it's a really special occasion, but I think 'why not?'"

For them, the appeal of bubbly - be it champagne or a cheaper alternative - is its connotations of luxury and good times. It is something of a pampering experience which always lifts their mood.

"It's fun, it makes you feel it's an occasion whenever you drink it," says Tannessy Kristianto. "If I'm out in the evening with the girls, I'd rarely order bubbly because it's harder to keep track of the bottle. What are you going to do - dance around it? Champagne is to be drunk sitting down."

Champagne glasses at Vertigo, photo by Phil Coomes
A bar with a view
Virginie van Hoecke, the manager of Vertigo, says customer numbers have crept up and up since the bar opened in summer 2000.

"We had a very slow start. We did 150 covers a night, then it went up to 250, now it's 300. Most order champagne, although we do have a few wines on the menu."

The boom in eating out in the UK in the past few years has no doubt played its part in pushing up consumption. At the Gary Rhodes restaurant several floors below Vertigo, diners increasingly chose champagne as an aperitif over traditional choices such as gin and tonic.

"Champagne goes better with food as you can drink it with every course," Ms van Hoeck says. "I came here from France 10 years ago, and the English are now much more adventurous than the French when it comes to food and drink. Few French people would drink champagne with a meal."

Charge your glasses

Whereas previous generations regarded bubbly as a luxury to be reserved for weddings and anniversaries, today champagne and sparkling wines are becoming everyday tipples.

Ab Fab
Champers any time, any where
"My parents wouldn't dream of drinking champagne except at special occasions, just as they wouldn't think of getting a taxi if there's a bus stop nearby. I would," says Charlotte Jones. "But I've got a way to go before I have an Ab Fab fridge filled with Bolly."

Ben Jeveons, the manager of Fishmarket champagne bar in the City of London, says customers come through the doors saying they're gasping for a glass of champagne, just as they once did about a pint.

Unlike at Vertigo, where women make up about two-thirds of the clientele, men - most of them City workers - tend to be the ones propping up the bar at Fishmarket. But that is changing, Mr Jeveons says, as are the drinks chosen.

"Among City boys and girls, what you drank always used to be about the brand. Veuve Clicquot has a very distinctive bottle, so a lot of that was ordered."

Ben Jeveons, photo by Phil Coomes
Ben Jeveons at Fishmarket bar
Today, conspicuous consumption has got a bit more discerning. While high-end brand names remain popular, those in the know go for lesser-known boutique producers on the wine list.

Nor is its popularity confined to the rarefied atmosphere of the champagne bar.

Sales for home consumption are buoyant. The rise of rap stars singing the praises of bling-bling bubbly Cristal has brought in younger drinkers. And the launch of single-serve bottles has brought bubbly to clubs, pubs, and rugby fixtures run by clubs keen to attract female fans in the wake of World Cup fever.

As with rugby, though, trend watchers will be keenly monitoring if champagne's current popularity is a bubble about to burst.

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