Review: “Sparkling – The Story of Champagne”

Director Frank Mannion gets access to the Champagne region’s most famous houses in his documentary “Sparkling”. But rather than deliver fresh insight, this “love letter” to the celebrated drink falls flat, says Guy Woodward

Words by Guy Woodward

Frank Mannion and Tony Laithwaite in Sparkling The Story of Champagne
Director Frank Mannion (right) says cheers with Tony Laithwaite – one of many wine titans to appear in documentary "Sparkling – The Story of Champagne"

“The film is a love letter to the joys and pleasures of Champagne,” reads the promotional material for Sparkling – The Story of Champagne. That much is clear from the opening scene, in which director and some-time narrator Frank Mannion, sharing a bottle with Bruno Paillard, declares his Champagne “divine” before adding: “I can see the stars”, in a butchering of the famous quote attributed to the region’s founding father, Dom Pérignon (don’t worry, the actual quote – “I can taste the stars” – is given full airing several times over the course of the following hour-and-a-half).

For much of that time, the film doesn’t deviate far from this cosy format, with assorted grandees of various Champagne houses given free rein to recite various marketing messages and myths against carefully curated cutaways of their bottles before clinking glasses with Mannion, who dutifully compliments them on their wine. The director comes across not so much in love with Champagne as totally in thrall to the region.

What’s less clear, however, is just who Mannion is trying to reach with the film. There are lots of enchanting tales here, but most of them will be well known to seasoned Champagne watchers. More casual observers, on the other hand, may pick up a few dinner-party titbits, although whether they’re willing to sit through 90 minutes of such fare is another matter.

Frank Mannion & JenniferDelord at Royal Champagne Hotel
Mannion visits a representative for the Royal Champagne Hotel and Spa near Epernay in the heart of the Champagne region

Certainly, this isn’t a critical look into the intricacies of Champagne. Don’t expect to learn much about the nuances of the various cuvées. Instead, this is heavily branded storytelling, as Mannion goes from one house to another to hear their tales. Some are more compelling than others.

“The house of Piper-Heidsieck is the perfect example of what makes a great Champagne house,” we are told by Benoît Collard, general manager of Piper-Heidsieck. “To be a great Champagne house, you have to make great Champagne, and we’re lucky enough to be the most awarded Champagne house of the century.” Branded liveries dominate – I could barely focus on the words of the Veuve Clicquot representative, such was his resplendence in a tie of the brand’s trademark yellow/orange hue, with matching tables, chairs and umbrellas.

This isn’t a critical look into the intricacies of Champagne – this is heavily branded storytelling

Many of the stories told, while colourful, are as hackneyed as they are dubious. Did Churchill really drink 40,000 bottles of fizz in his lifetime? Did Marilyn Monroe really bathe in the stuff? Did Napoleon really stop off in the region before battle to stock up on it? “There’s probably no wine on earth that lends itself to such hyperbole as Champagne,” we are told. You can say that again.

There are some interesting facts interspersed with the PR guff (insights into the famous painting by Jean-François de Troy, Le Déjeuner d’Huîtres, which first depicted the drink; and why US producers are still allowed to label their wine “Champagne”). But ultimately, most only reinforce the overriding message – the importance of PR.

The film takes an unexpected, but welcome, turn halfway through, when the focus moves to England. The shift was unplanned – filming in France was curtailed by lockdown, so the UK crew decided instead to turn their attention to the burgeoning market for English fizz. Again, there are snippets of interest – England’s claim to have invented sparkling wine, the impact of climate change, and the similarity of the chalk soils of Kent and Epernay.

Vitalie Taittinger pouring Champagne
Laurent d'Harcourt in Sparkling the Story of Champagne documentary
Vitalie Taittinger (left) tells Mannion about Taittinger's ties with BAFTA; Pol Roger president Laurent d'Harcourt (above) speaks of Sir Winston Churchill's affinity with the brand

On such topics, the filmmakers could have dug deeper, but instead we’re soon back to the familiar formula of cosy chats, as polished marketeers trot out the same old tales familiar to any student of English wine – namely that it used to be awful, winemakers didn’t know what they were doing to begin with, but they’ve since beaten some Champagnes in blind tastings – all accompanied by unfortunate shots of some rather wet-looking vineyards.

Such shots do, at least, give a chance for the French contingent to re-emerge with cartoon snootiness at the idea of English fizz ever rivalling Champagne. “When it no longer rains in England, we’ll drink English wine in Epernay,” says a wonderfully dismissive Gilles de la Bassetiere of Champagne de Venoge.

The film concludes that there’s room for both wines, and that it’s not a competition – it might have been more fun if it had been. Instead, a frothy affair is ultimately likely to be of more value to the winemakers – French and English alike – than wine lovers.

“Sparkling – The Story of Champagne” is at selected UK cinemas now.