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Sophie Birkbeck Golden Magnum Winner - class of 2016

“I drink Champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it―unless I’m thirsty.” – Lily Bollinger

It’s fair to say things have changed a bit since I attended the Champagne Academy course in 2016. We have welcomed two beautiful children into our family, I’ve moved house, changed jobs and a bona fide global catastrophe has mixed things up a bit. I write this with our 3-week-old baby snoozing quietly beside me; for the time being at least. Even in lockdown, you need to take whatever time you can to get things done. Luckily, I’ve had a glass of Champagne to fortify myself for some high-speed typing.

I feel Madame Bollinger’s famous quote about the appropriate time to drink Champagne has never been more apt than during the past 12 months. Whilst we’ve rarely had the physical company, Champagne-fueled Zoom calls have become essential.

The last year has been heartbreaking for many on-trade hospitality outlets, with much-loved businesses which have traded successfully for decades being forced to shut their doors. I and many of my colleagues have been furloughed for long periods, the novelty of which wore off very quickly despite the extra hours to dedicate to drinking champagne. On the other hand, the creativity of some on-trade clients has been inspirational as they pursue new avenues to try and recoup some of the lost business. The concept of ‘treating yourself’ from home has never been more apt, and it’s been great to see how Champagne can fit into some of these new concepts. Whether it be a festive hamper with a bottle of bubbles, pre-made cocktails or Valentines Meal Kits, Champagne has certainly maintained its place as the treat of choice.

2016 and my time on the Champagne Academy seems in some ways like a lifetime ago, and yet it is all remarkably fresh in my memory (despite the copious amounts of Champagne consumed…). It’s so difficult to identify a single highlight; each house really pulled out the stops to make our visit incredibly special, a genuine once-in-a-lifetime experience. I can confidently say I’ve never eaten or drunk so well in my life, and I doubt I ever will again. The cooking class with Ruinart and the Vin Clair tasting with Piper Heidsieck were such great fun, the decadent meals and surroundings at Moët & Chandon and Taittinger were simply exquisite and made me feel like I was living in the time of Marie Antoinette. The visit to Krug’s Clos du Mesnil was incredible; dinner in the winery, followed by what I can only describe as the classiest house party you could imagine! You can see why choosing just one highlight becomes impossible. The whole trip left such a strong impression of the history and quality of this unique product; every glass is crafted with so much love and precision. Every time I hear the pop of a cork I am reminded of the commitment of the wonderful people I met in Reims and Epernay, whom I can now call friends. Every glass tastes that much sweeter thanks to my experience with the Champagne Academy. There’s a dosage pun in there somewhere that’s just out of reach of my befuddled ‘baby brain’…

Winning the ‘Golden Magnum’ was a fantastic end to a wonderful week. It was a close-run thing with very stiff competition from so many knowledgeable candidates. I had set out with the aim to do the best I could to get my hands on those sixteen magnums – who wouldn’t?! – and made a point of reading over my notes each morning before breakfast in an attempt to retain as much as I could for the test that day. One piece of advice for any would-be Golden Magnum winners would be to duck out of the evening’s festivities just a little early (say 1am rather than 5am?!) and keep your eyes on that most incredible prize! We had the opportunity to meet and learn from the real experts in the field, and I wanted to absorb as much of that knowledge as I possibly could.

On returning home after my amazing trip I wasted no time in recommending that my colleagues and friends in the wine industry get in touch with the Grand Marque houses to express their interest in being part of the best kept secret in Champagne. It’s a crime more people don’t know about the Academy and the wonderful opportunities they offer, and I’ve certainly tried to do my part to share the good news. I would strongly encourage anyone interested in this incredible region and in the best drink on the planet to get in touch with the houses, attend one of the dinners (I’m crossing everything they will be back on again this year, they are the highlight of my calendar) or to visit the Champagne region when restrictions allow.

It really was a ‘red letter day’ when the magnums were delivered to my door! I shared the first one with some of my fellow academicians after a fantastic talk and tasting on the Champagne region, hosted by fellow classmate of 2016, Arthur Motley, at Drinkmonger in Edinburgh. Since then, magnums have been enjoyed on high days and holidays (and, on occasion, Tuesdays), adding a bit of sparkle to special events with friends and family. My dad’s birthday, moving into our new home and visits from friends have all been made a bit more special by the popping of corks from these fabulous bottles. Those corks have been kept for some future crafting project I’ve yet to decide upon!

I am delighted that three magnums remain of the original sixteen, although I’m sure they won’t last long once restrictions lift and family and friends are able to get together again. That really will be a celebration worthy of some top-quality Champagne!

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