Message in a bottle

One of the main reasons that champagne houses covet working with the leading airlines is they like the exposure for their brands. They want to be seen as the preferred pour in the first or business class cabin. Partly because this is an affluent audience that’s difficult to reach, they will even agree relatively unprofitable deals to get the listing, though of course they are at pains to deny this.

But they know there is a large potential downside to this exposure. Will the cabin staff pour the champagne in front of the customer, thus showing them what the brand is and also what the reassuringly luxurious packaging looks like (this is a prestige cuvée market). And even if the staff are trained to do this, will the temptation be too strong to pour the glasses out of view, where any clumsy, unskilled pouring won’t be seen, bringing the champagne to the customer in a glass already filled?

This shouldn’t of course happen on terra firma in a good quality restaurant. Champagne served by the glass should be opened (ideally) but certainly poured, at the table, in front of the customer. There are very good reasons for doing this, both from the restaurant’s and brand owner’s points of view.

From the restaurant’s perspective, nothing is more likely to boost its sales of champagne that day than waiting staff opening a bottle of fizz and pouring it, in full view of other diners. It’s the best advertisement you can have for champagne by the glass. But customers paying a premium price for a glass of champagne, also deserve to see the bottle it comes from. The suspicion that any outlet might be serving something less prestigious than they are charging for, is not something a restaurant should arouse.

From the brand owner’s perspective, they want the restaurant’s clientele to see what they are drinking, partly in the hope that such customers will want to buy the same wine again whether in another restaurant or at home and will in future know what the label looks like.

When I met up for lunch last week with the team at Drinks International to celebrate publication of the fourth ‘Most Admired Champagne Brands’ supplements I have overseen and written, naturally we looked at the fizz list first. [You can read the magazine, our most successful and largest to date, via this link: .] When we spotted Piper Heidsieck Rare 2002 selling for just £15 a glass (£89 a bottle) at 28-50 in Fetter Lane (it’s the same price in its two sister restaurants in Maddox Street and Marylebone Lane) it was an easy decision. This must be the bargain fizz deal in the on-trade currently.

The wine came, not served in flutes, but in more generous, tulip shaped wine glasses — full marks to the restaurant here — but they were pre-poured away from the table and there was no sign of the elaborately decorated ‘Rare’ bottle (see photograph) that shouts ‘prestige cuvée’. A lost opportunity to impress us, or other diners, and possibly to make more sales.

The other great, more venerable still, aged champagne bargain, that’s been around for several years now, is Charles Heidsieck 1995 Blancs des Millénaires. You can still find bottles of at one or two select retail outlets for around £150 (£149.95 The Finest Bubble). It won’t be there much longer because the next, 2004 vintage, has just been launched.

We will be catching up on this and other new releases soon, plus some pink champagnes for Valentine’s Day.

Vintage champagne that hits the spot

Nipping out for a last-minute bottle of fizz to celebrate the end of 2017 and welcome in the New Year? If it’s something vintage you are after that’s drinking superbly well now, then Waitrose Brut 2005, the wine I finished my recent WSET tasting with, is very hard to beat. Made from a blend of 50% Chardonnay, 41% Pinot Noir, 9% Pinot Meunier by the CRVC (the Reims co-op that also produces the excellent Castelnau champagne range) it’s sumptuously rich and ripe, showing distinctive toasty notes suggesting it’s close to its peak of maturity at 12 years. And it is an out and out bargain at just £19.99 currently.

I’d also be very happy to be drinking the Nicolas Feuillatte Blanc de Blancs 2008 vintage tonight. A cuvée that’s a grand tour of some of the best Chardonnay sites all over the Champagne region, including around a third from the villages to the south-west of the Côte des Blancs known as the Vallée du petit Morin and for me, a significant splash of Montgueux Chardonnay. This unique, isolated cru on a hill due west of the city of Troyes, I suspect accounts for the much of this wine’s textural creaminess. Fruit from here also features prominently in Feuillatte’s prestige Cuvée Palmes d’Or, which is a class act.

I also re-tasted yesterday Chanoine’s lovely 2009 vintage, which is a 50/50 Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend from this top-quality harvest, that regrettably many leading producers failed to vintage – mainly because it followed the financial crash and some producers were worried about having large stocks of unsold vintage champagne in their cellars. As a result, Chanoine Frères, itself one of the oldest houses founded back in 1730, was able to buy some high-quality juice from some notable houses who had decided not to commercialise this vintage.

With attractive spicy notes evident that suggest some oak fermentation is present, this is a real delight to drink now, showing both richness and elegance and it will set you back only £24 at Tesco even when it is not on price promotion. Vintage champagne from one of the better-known names will typically cost at least double that, but not, I suspect, give twice the pleasure.

Still places available at my WSET tasting

Next week I’m doing another Champagne tasting at the London HQ of the Wine & Spirt Education Trust (WSET). This time, with purchases for Christmas and the New Year partly in mind, I’m concentrating on pointing people in the direction of some great champagnes from slightly less known producers, which match or better some of the wines made by the big names. And partly as a result of being less well known, your money goes a lot further in terms of getting more exciting wine.

There are eight different producers involved, four growers and four co-operatives. We start with a fine pair of contrasting growers’ champagnes. Laherte Frères, who are located in the Premier Cru village of Chavot, make some lovely wines, many based on Pinot Meunier as Brut Ultradition, our first wine in the line-up is. Stylistically there’s quite a contrast with the Pierre Gimonnet Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru. Gimonnet, one of the first growers I ever met in Champagne over two decades ago, has a fantastic holding of top Côte des Blancs vineyards including Cuis, known for its steely longevity, where this family operation is based.

Pierre Paillard’s Grand Cru (Bouzy) ‘Les Parcelles’ Extra Brut

For the second pair we move more into Pinot Noir territory and these are sourced from two adjacent, Montagne de Reims grand cru villages, Bouzy and Ambonnay. Pierre Paillard only has vineyards in Bouzy, but as with most small producers, these are broken up into lots of tiny parcels spread all over the whole Bouzy cru which is roughly 365 hectares in size. This particular wine is a 60/40 Pinot/Chardonnay blend from 22 such plots Paillard owns.

Then we move to the Grand Cru of Ambonnay where Benoît Marguet is based – he’s just next door to Krug, who he sell grapes to incidentally

Benoît Marguet taking barrel samples

— for the super rosé he makes for Berry’s which is sold under their award-winning Berry’s Own Label range. It’s made from a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, using the saignée method where colour is literally bled off the skins of the black Pinot grapes.

In Champagne, as in other parts of France say like Chablis, the co-operatives make some of the best wines in the region. While some are sold under their own brands, as three of the wines in my tasting are, they are also the most important suppliers of Own Label champagne to the UK’s major supermarkets and occasionally gems crop up, particularly among the vintage wines.

In this tasting we are including four vintage champagnes, from a quartet of Champagne’s top co-ops, two from the fine 2008 harvest which even nearly a decade on, still shows a trademark vibrant acidity. One a Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend, the other pure Chardonnay. Then we pair the top quality 2012 vintage (Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs), which may in time be judged as at least the equal of 2002, with a lovely mature 2005 which is at its peak. Hopefully a great note to finish on.

There are still some places left and the cost is just £45 a ticket/person. The tasting is on Tuesday 5 December and starts at 6:30pm, finishing between 8 and 8.30pm. Here’s a link to the WSET website you can use to sign up:

The eight champagnes in the tasting are:
Laherte Frères Brut Ultradition NV (Chavot) Stockist: The Wine Society, £25.
Gimonnet Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru (Cuis) Brut NV, Oddbins £32 (75cl), £70 a magnum; The Wine Society £25, also available in Growers’ wine case (1×6 75cl) code:  LC17407 at £149, down from £177, a saving of £28, equivalent to £24.83 a bottle.
Pierre Paillard Grand Cru (Bouzy) ‘Les Parcelles’ Extra Brut NV, The Wine Society £27 a bottle, £162 a six-bottle case (also available in Growers’ wine case code:  LC17407 see above).
Berry Bros. & Rudd Rosé by Marguet, Grand Cru (Ambonnay), £36 a bottle, £194.40 a six-bottle case, a saving of £21.60).
Brut Vintage 2008, Hedonism Wines £56.80 a bottle.
Nicolas Feuillatte Blanc de Blancs Vintage 2008, Waitrose £28.99 a bottle.   
De St Gall
 Grand Cru (Avize) Brut Vintage 2012*, M&S £35 a bottle (*may still be the previous very good 2009 vintage).
Waitrose Brut Vintage 2005, Waitrose £24.99 a bottle.


In praise of half bottles’ faster maturing

Too few restaurants offer a decent selection of half bottles on their wine lists, though the trend towards listing a number of wines served in 25 and 50cl carafes, now seen in many more casual dining establishments, is to be applauded. Half bottles of champagne are particularly handy, especially if there’s two of you and you plan to have some wine too. Just a glass of good fizz is rarely enough.

While quite a few champagne houses now seem reluctant to produce half bottles, citing quality issues and the fact that they mature more quickly, I see that (speed of development) as an advantage in certain instances. A half bottle of Krug is a welcome Continue reading “In praise of half bottles’ faster maturing”

Try something different or bag a top-flight bargain

Waitrose has by some way the widest selection of sparkling wines and champagnes among the main UK grocers and has introduced some further exciting lines recently, mostly only available through its on-line Waitrose Cellar operation which runs to 63 different champagnes. While the current 25% off promotion is running — until next Tuesday 8 November — this is a great opportunity to try some of these at a bargain price. In addition, there are some attractive deals on some prestigious names, rarely Continue reading “Try something different or bag a top-flight bargain”

Stock up on vintage 2008 while deals last

Tesco’s deal offering 25% off on all its wines and champagnes – on purchases of six bottles or more – comes to an end this coming Monday (31 October) but is only running in tandem with one other discount on Taittinger Brut Réserve (down to £20.25 if you buy at least six bottles). As November nears the discounts are likely to sharpen on the main brands sold through all the grocers, but now may be the time to stock up on a few bottles of vintage Champagne.

There are2016-04-12 12.23.18 some very fine vintage champagnes around, with 2008 an impressive wine in the Continue reading “Stock up on vintage 2008 while deals last”

Prices remain low despite weakness of pound

At the time of writing the lowest price for champagne in UK supermarkets continues to be at around the £10 a bottle level with ‘exclusive labels’ at Lidl, Aldi and ASDA to the fore. Sainsbury’s and Tesco tend to favour a six bottle discount of 25% running at the same time as other offers and the former grocer has started just such a deal today (16 August) while the latter is expected to follow suit in the run-up to the Bank Holiday weekend.

It’s no surprise to hear that the vast majority of champagne in the UK take home trade is sold at a discount. In the total champagne category Continue reading “Prices remain low despite weakness of pound”