Best value wines for Christmas and the New Year

With the round of autumn retail tastings over, it’s time to look back to find some of the best bets for champagne, that you can readily buy in the next couple of weeks and that won’t break the bank. The Wine Society has an extensive champagne and sparkling wine list and while it’s a members’ only co-operative, it doesn’t cost a fortune to become one. You can join for £40 and for any wine loving friend who isn’t already a member, it would make a great gift.

This three-way blend of Champagne’s three main grape varieties is based on the 2014 harvest and fermented in small old Burgundy casks. Four years on its lees gives extra complexity

You only have to go to one of their regular press tastings and see who attends, to understand the high esteem in which the Society is held by fellow journalists. On the Champagne front, it deals with many of the big-name houses, and it sells their wines at very keen prices. But some of the most exciting offerings and best value are to be found among the growers it works with, some of the smaller family run houses and the very traditional producer based in Epernay that makes the Society’s own champagne – Alfred Gratien.

I always like to have some Alfred Gratien Brut NV in my cellar and at the current price of £132 for six bottles, a saving on the standard price of £72, I can’t think of a reason not to buy more (and I just have today). Fermented in oak casks this wine gets a good deal more time in bottle than many celebrated names and boasts a rich, spicy, savoury style that works both as a great pick me up and with the right sort of food: savoury fishy canapés.

Alexandre Chartogne has taken the wines to another level

Of the small houses and growers on the list, while it’s hard to go wrong, I’d pick out at quartet that really won’t disappoint and although each has acquired a following, their prices remain very reasonable given the quality, character and individuality they display. Based in the village of Merfy to the west of Reims, in one of the oldest areas of vineyard in the appellation, Chartogne-Taillet is run by Alexandre who has taken his parents business, and already good wines, to another level. Cuvée Sainte Anne NV at £30 is a great introduction to an exciting range.

Laherte-Frères run by Aurélien Laherte is based in Chavot just to the west of Epernay

Located in in the Marne Valley to the west of Epernay in Chavot, Laherte-Frères is run by Aurelien Laherte, who like Alexandre Chartogne, is one of the original members of the Terres et Vins group of growers founded in 2009, that includes some of Champagne’s best, many of whom farm organically and some biodynamically. Ultradition Brut is a delicious offering, complex and with real depth of flavour, a snip at £29. In contrast we have two growers offering the delights of Grand Cru Pinot Noir on the one hand, and top Chardonnay from Grand Cru sites, plus the highly rated cru of Cuis (a favourite Côte des Blanc cru for Bollinger) on the other.

Gimonnet’s Brut is made from the top premier cru site of Cuis

 

They are respectively, Pierre Paillard based in Bouzy (where all the family vineyards are located) and Pierre Gimonnet in Cuis, a grower with vineyards there and in Cramant, Chouilly and Oger too. Coincidentally both these fine producers are run by two brothers. All the Gimmonet wines are exemplary Blanc de Blancs, the premier cru Brut (£29!) is a brisk introduction that shows complexity and depth, partly bought by judicious use of reserve wines.

The Blanc de Noirs style of the Paillard wines are a fine contrast, richer, more savoury, but never lacking the freshness you should find in Grand Cru Noir. Les Parcelles 14 Grand Cru is a great example at just £29 a bottle.

I’ve been impressed recently by a rise in quality in the Boizel champagnes, where considerable investment over the past few years has perked up the Boizel Brut NV (sold at the same price and with the same discount as the Gratien if you but a case of six) to make it very decent drinking. And if you

This wine gets the extra ageing that gives it a lovely richness and maturity

want an added level of maturity and richness brought on to a great extent by extra lees ageing, the Society offers Castelnau’s Brut Réserve at £29.50.

We will be looking at some of the best buys from specialists like Berry Bros & Rudd plus other High Street retailers in the next few days.

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 Continue reading “Message in a bottle”

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”

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”

Will discounting slow, given likely small harvest in 2016?

Who buys champagne at the ‘full’ price in a UK supermarket? If a supermarket lists something you want, you just need to wait until they slash the price before making your purchase. And if it is one of the big brands, you won’t have to wait for long. As the retail war between grocers continues apace, the only issue is trying to assess what’s a ‘good discount’ for any given brand. Each week there’s usually something with a least a £10 reduction, see the Latest Champagne Offers page.

But will it last? The recent problems with the 2016 harvest, already hit by severe frost earlier in the year, and more recently from several weeks of Continue reading “Will discounting slow, given likely small harvest in 2016?”

Great offer on some of my favourite fizz

The Wine Society has some great offers on champagne running until the year end. And they have put together a mouth-watering six bottle case you can order up until 27 December for delivery by New Year’s Eve. And they’ve extended the deadline for pre-Christmas delivery to midnight on Sunday (20 December).

The case includes one bottle each of Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve, consistently one of the best and most complex NV champagnes on the market over the past decade; the Society’s superb barrel Continue reading “Great offer on some of my favourite fizz”

Lallier launches exciting new style ‘non-vintage’

If you are looking for a great advertisement for the use of ‘reserve wine’ in the make-up of Lallier R012 Pic B with glassnon-vintage champagne, this is it. A new cuvée created by Lallier owner/winemaker Francis Tribaut, it is mostly based (81%) on the very high quality 2012 harvest and (this particular sample) was disgorged in February 2015, so it had around 24 months’ lees ageing plus about five months on the cork when I tried it, not particularly long for top-notch un-vintaged champagne — or champagne sans année as the French more elegantly describe it. But top-notch champagne it certainly is with a refreshing tang plus an unusual richness and depth for a relatively youthful wine.

Tribaut has, it appears, borrowed and put his own spin on an idea from the Chiquet brothers at Jacquesson whose NV champagne each year (currently Cuvée 738 based on 2010) is a different blend that seeks to reflect the particular harvest and show it in the best light possible. The key here in the Lallier wine is however, I suspect, the quality and age of the reserves wines that are used in the blend. They come from the 2002, 2004 and 2008 harvests which some would name as the three best of that decade – though ‘06 and more recently ‘09 are also making waves. The high quality of the base year 2012 is almost universally agreed. And 85% of the blend comes from grand cru sites like Aÿ (where Lallier is based) and Ambonnay (Pinot Noir), Cramant and Oger (Chardonnay).

Producers more typically use reserve wines from the two or three years prior to the harvest base year in their non-vintage blends– so that would be the un-exciting 2011, 2010 harvests and the ripe high quality ’09. But picking very specific, more venerable reserve wines all from good to great years, makes a difference. Or it certainly appears so here. I’m a big fan of the Jacquesson 700 series NV wines but they are quite a bit more expensive than this Lallier newcomer – currently Cuvée 738 is £43.95 at bbr.com . Lallier makes very good champagne across the whole range but doesn’t yet have the cachet of Jacquesson so the value is very decent too.

Normally priced at £28.95 a bottle, champagneguru readers have the exclusive chance to buy a six bottle case of this wine at an attractive discount until the end of September, thanks to a deal we’ve put together with on line retailer Slurp. For details of the deal turn to the Latest Retail Offers page.

Magnums and Own Label the best buys at Waitrose

With Waitrose 25% off all six bottle purchases of wines and champagne running for a further four days, it’s a good time to take a quick look at the champagnes they showed at last month’s tasting to pick out the best deals. As I have mentioned in the latest retail offers page, these are mainly on the wines that don’t usually get discounted by this much and are regularly well priced, namely the Own Label champagnes.

2015-05-07 Roed & Bolly magsOf these the stand out wine on tasting last month was the 2015-05-07 13.32.11Waitrose Blanc de Blancs Brut NV which is supplied by Maison Burtin — part of the BCC group, the largest in Champagne after LVMH, that also owns Lanson and Philipponnat among other brands. This was showing very attractively with some peppery, spicy notes and a distinctive biscuity textural complexity in the mid-palate which many big name brands would be happy to boast of. Buy six bottles and the price comes down from an affordable £24.99 to a bargain £18.74.

The other wine I’d stock up is the Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs 2007 vintage, down from £33.99 a bottle to £25.49. I thought it was the non-vintage blend of this wine, still very good indeed which I tasted last week at a brilliant Berry Bros & Rudd ‘Artisans Champagne’ tasting (of which more shortly). But in fact Waitrose no longer sell the non-vintage cuvée this is an all Grand Cru vintage cuvée and an even better buy. One reader has already pointed this out to me, buying some last week when sadly the discount was a little smaller, but hopefully he will still be happy with the quality in the bottle. (I’m opening a bottle of the Le Mesnil 2004 in a minute to remind myself how delicious this wine gets with more age).

I also notice that on the groceries website (waitrose.com) Heidsieck Heritage which is made by P&C Heidsieck and was very decent the last time I tasted it (it wasn’t shown at the May tasting), is just £17.99 so this would come down under the 25% off deal to just £12.49 which makes it a pretty good buy for a party.

In praise of magnums

Waitrose champagne buyer Ken McKay told me that under their recent full review of sparkling wine and champagne they have delisted some champagnes in order to increase the range of sparkling wines, but at the same time, because magnums have been selling well, they have increased the range of larger formats they are offering from the start of June and they had five different champagnes in magnum at the tasting. They were Lanson Black Label (£67.99), Laurent-Perrier (£77.99), Pol Roger £77.99), Louis Roederer Brut Premier (£84.99) and Bollinger Special Cuvée (£89.99).

These all showed well, except for the Pol Roger which was curious subdued – in my experience magnums of champagne nearly always taste better than bottles of the same wine, sometime significantly so. Speaking to James Simpson MD of Pol Roger at the London Wine Fair this may be explained by the relatively recent disgorgement of this wine and I note that is doesn’t appear on the Waitrose list yet, so perhaps they have decided to hold it back a couple of months, by which time it should have recovered from the shock of disgorgement.

Helpfully Lanson actually put the date of disgorgement on the magnum — in this case June 2014 – so you can make a judgement about when to drink it. Given the already fresh, crisp Lanson style, I’d keep it until Christmas, by when it will have mellowed further. Of the other three, Laurent-Perrier, a good all round aperitif style that’s light and refreshing, will be on offer from 24 June, so I’d wait until then if you want to buy some. The Bollinger Special Cuvée, which usually really shines in magnum, is not quite mature enough but already good. The star of the quintet is the Louis Roederer Brut Premier, very good in bottle the last few times I have tasted it this year, in magnum it is even better, deliciously lively, spicy, complex, with a long long finish. This too will be at a great price from 24 June if you can bear to wait that long to try it. Sadly magnums are not included in the present 25% off deal.

There are two ways you can shop this offer at Waitrose online by going to www.waitrosecellar.com to buy by the six bottle case or through the grocery channel at www.waitrose.com  There are 61 champagne options in waitrosecellar.com and 41 through the grocery channel, but more magnums on the former site.

In praise of magnums

As you have probably gathered from recent posts, and those during last year’s festive season, I am a fan of magnums. The magnum is without doubt the perfect receptacle for ageing champagne in and in nearly all cases in my experience, faced with the same wine served from a standard 75cl bottle or magnum format, the latter will taste better.

Champagne aged in magnum develops and evolves more slowly, so it will always seem fresher than its 75cl counterpart. But it isn’t just about freshness, there’s extra zip, more nuances of flavour, and ultimately greater complexity. As I have noted because producers are aware of this, some houses will release and sell their magnum stock at a later point after longer ageing than their bottles. In the case of non-vintage blends, sometimes the base wine that is likely to make up the largest portion of the blend, will be from an older harvest in the case of the magnum non-vintage cuvée – this, as I have mentioned recently elsewhere, is the case in the example of both Bollinger and Veuve Clicquot.

If you are looking to buy something now in magnum for a special celebration over the holidays, it’s really non-vintage wines we are talking about here. Vintage champagne in magnum can also be sublime, but many current releases in magnum simply aren’t ready to drink, at least not if you wish to enjoy them at anything close to their peak. In terms of development they may be three or four years behind the same wine in 75cl bottle format.

For the better houses the price of a magnum is often more than the price of two bottles. That’s partly why I was keen to highlight the deal at Waitrose (13 stores and online) on magnums of Bollinger Special Cuvée, which at least one regular visitor to the site has found and purchased for only a shade over £60.

But where else outside the supermarkets – Sainsbury’s and Tesco have both had good deals on Veuve Clicquot in large bottles – can you find any stock of non-vintage champagne in magnum that you could buy and drink without disappointment (if you have the chance and the cellar space, most good non-vintage champagne in magnum will develop very well over a couple of years or so and if you can afford to put some away so much the better) in the next few days.

Hunting the other day for some bargains among the pages of the Majestic website I found they had quite a selection, albeit that not every store stocks them, so you might have to hunt around. Two of the least expensive on which there are both good deals are Laurent-Perrier, currently down from £70 to £50, and Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut which is £55. Both with the emphasis on freshness, lightness and balance would make great aperitif fizzes for Christmas Day or Boxing Day or before a celebration dinner. Taittinger Brut Réserve with its largish splash of Chardonnay is in a similar vein and down from £70 to £60 per magnum.

The more muscular ‘R’ de Ruinart blend in its distinctive bulbous bottle, down from £100 to £75 a magnum would add a note of class. Class, luxury and seductive creamy texture can be found in the Veuve Clicquot rosé magnums which will set you back £95.

If you want a Blanc de Blancs (all Chardonnay) magnum Ruinart may provide the answer and it’s down from £125 to £100, as is their rosé, though I’d favour the Clicquot pink wine and save a fiver. The much improved G.H. Mumm Cordon Rouge blend in magnum, sprayed about on the F1 podium, is £60 as is the apple fresh Lanson Black Label. Bollinger is down from £99 to £80 is you can’t find a Waitrose store stocking it and this wine is a treat with real depth of flavour. Another Pinot Noir dominant non-vintage cuvée of real class which has been on particularly good form in 75cl bottle format when tasted over the course of this year is Louis Roederer Brut Premier which rather surprisingly Majestic sells in magnum at a regular price £10 less than the discounted Bollinger — ie £70. This is a brisker, fresher style but develops beautifully with time so really you should be buying magnums now for 2016 and beyond.

In terms of flavour profile I tend to think of Pol Roger as somewhere between Bollinger and Roederer but it is another serious contender in the magnum stakes. You can buy it from Champagnedirect.co.uk for £74.97 (plus at least £6.95 delivery) in time for the New Year celebrations. Berry Bros & Rudd has a three magnum deal on Pol – enabling you to put two away for future celebrations — whereby the regular price of £84 falls to £67.20 a magnum, a saving of £50.40. This is the preferred Christmas tipple of their talented buyer Simon Field MW, whose commentary on the delights of the magnum, kindly penned for my book on Champagne, I am reproducing below its glorious unedited entirety.

Magnum Force

“Champagne comes in a bewildering array of  bottle sizes, from the somewhat perfunctory quarter bottle, best concealed in a floral gift when visiting a hospitalised relative, all the way up to the Nebuchadnezzar and beyond, the larger the size the more impractical the vessel and the more remote the eponymous Biblical origin.

Nebuchadnezzar we have heard of; he, after all, was famous for selling his wife for a pair of shoes. But Melchizedek I know not; a Melchizedek is a 30 litre bottle, and in addition to being fantastically impractical (unless one has a small crane to hand) is also bound to be of inferior quality, as the liquid has been decanted from a series of smaller bottles, post ageing, and will have lost freshness and fizz in the process.

Indeed this process, known as transvasage, is practiced on all the large formats above jeroboam size and instantly rules them out as candidates for the best bottle size. But why the Magnum? Well beyond the theatre and the sheer indulgence of having one on one’s table, the voice of experience dictates that this size, above all others, allows Champagne to age most gracefully and to maintain the fundamental tension between acidity, sugar, fruit and fizz which make this small and essentially rather dull region so famous.

It’s all to do, they say, with the rate of oxidation and the relative surface area of liquid exposed to the air. So they say. All rather tenuous in my opinion. For me it’s a matter of taste alone and for this reason, every Christmas Day, we open up proceedings (not a minute before noon you understand) with a Magnum of Pol Roger. Not a bottle, not a Methuselah and most certainly not a wretched Melchizedek, but a Magnum. Sir Winston Churchill would approve, I suspect.”
Simon Field MW, buyer at Berry Bros & Rudd

Bolly magnums only in a few Waitrose stores

A visitor to the site complained earlier in the week that they couldn’t find any discounted magnums of Bollinger Special Cuvée in Waitrose stores and thus I should remove this information from the website. As it states in the Latest champagne offers page, and in the blog published on 11 December this deal which sees the price drop to £67.49 (for Waitrose card holders the magnum price was down to £60.72 until 16 December) is only running in a dozen stores and on WaitroseCellar.com. I checked with the Waitrose and this is the list of 13 (not 12) outlets they gave me: Bath, Belgravia, Berkhamsted, Cambridge, Canary Wharf, Crewkerne, JL Foodhall Oxford Street, John Barnes, Lymington, Marylebone, Rushden, St Katharine Docks and West Ealing.

I’d be pleased to hear from anyone finding, or not finding, the discounted magnums in any of these stores. When I last checked the WaitroseCellar.com website was out of stock but this evening (18 December) it had magnums available, but the discounted price was £75 not £67.49. The discrepancy here appears to be because Waitrose, or possibly Bollinger, has hiked the price of magnums to £100 not the £89.99 figure that went out to journalists a few weeks back in the email giving Waitrose’s wine offers for the current trading period.

It seems the supermarkets (and other large retailers) are changing the regular selling prices so often you may find that a larger percentage discount sometimes results in a higher selling price for certain champagnes.