Waitrose is tapping into the online market for fizz with a new service that started on Thursday (21 April) that allows customers to buy single bottles of champagne with free delivery. It’s offering an impressive range of 47 different lines — 42 champagnes and five English sparklers — through this new service with prices starting at £26.99 a bottle for Duval-Leroy’s Fleur de Champagne, while the most expensive bottle currently is a Salmanazar (equivalent to 12 standard bottles) of Bollinger Special Cuvée Brut NV at £675.
Taittinger has bought land in Kent with the plan to produce high quality English sparkling wine. In a deal signed on 18 November, Taittinger has purchased 69 hectares of farmland orchard at Stone Stile Farm, near Chilham, from the Gaskain family who are established Kent fruit farmers. It’s estimated that between 35 and 40 hectares of the farm,
To people outside the business I’ll admit to being a ‘wine writer’, even sometimes a champagne specialist. But this admission tends to result in predictable comments from those that regard such a ‘profession’ as one continuous (alcohol fuelled) jolly. It isn’t of course, as I am pains to point out, but just occasionally there are days when I have to admit it may appear so to the uninformed. One particular days stands out last month.
Invited to take a look at the relatively new sparkling wine operation at Exton Park in the heart of the Hampshire countryside, I was keen to go. I’m trying to visit as many English sparkling wine producers as possible over the next few months in an effort to get a better understanding of this rapidly developing sector. And while I’ve been to some of the longer established wineries before – Chapel Down, Ridgeview and Denbies come to mind – there’s a string of enterprising, ambitious newcomers that have opened their doors in the past five years or so and visiting them is the best way of finding out what they are all about.
But I hesitated because I had a feeling there might be a clash of dates. Wasn’t the Berry Brothers ‘artisan’ champagne producers tasting at Vintners Hall in the same week? And what about meeting that new Gaillac producer. Typically they all turned out to be the same day, the most interesting wine trade events have a nasty habit of clashing, but on paper it looked possible to do all three.
Exton Park is a relatively new vineyard set on rolling, chalky hills planted over the past decade in three tranches over an area of 55 acres (about 10.5 hectares) with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (The Champagne authorities are now encouraging producers there to shorten the latter to just Meunier, according to Michel Drappier, who I have just returned from visiting [more about this trip soon]. Apparently they want to distinguish it more easily from Pinots Noir, Blanc and Gris [called Fromenteau in Champagne] though these latter varieties between them only account for about 50 hectares in total and nearly all of that is Pinot Blanc). But I digress, back to the lovely sun-bathed Hampshire countryside.
Exton Park fruit used to be sold to the nearby Coates and Seely operation where the winemaker was the French-born Corinne Seely. But she has moved on and is now only involved at Exton Park where she helped owner Malcolm Isaac, who made his money in the watercress business, design a winery on site, following his decision to make his own sparkling wine rather than sell the grapes to other producers.
Was it a good decision? On the basis of this visit, tasting and lunch, it certainly was. The whole set-up looks very professional and the wines, even though the oldest plantings are only 12 years old, are already impressive. Interestingly, while many English wine producers are essentially making purely single vintage sparklers, Seely wants to blend different harvests for the standard Brut Réserve NV, always using at least a third reserve wine, as she feels the weather in southern England is just not reliable enough to produce a consistently good, all vintage product.
This nicely balanced, refreshing fizz is a blend of 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay and, when we move on to try the Exton Park Blanc de Noir it turns out Seely is a bit of Pinot Noir fan and it’s this variety, grown on the south facing chalky slopes, she’s most excited about here. The wine, backs up her judgement, and impresses other interested visitors too including Gerard Basset and Joe Wadsack. It’s got decent Pinot aromas, grip and depth, plus a rounded mellowness. They don’t chaptalise (add sugar to the fermenting wine to raise the alcohol level) here so this is all the more impressive at a relatively light 11.5deg abv. This is definitely an English winery to watch.
Travelling back to London on the train in the warm afternoon sunshine I wasn’t too sure how well I’d cope with tasting 50-odd artisan champagnes at Vintners Hall, but it proved to be a spectacularly good and uplifting tasting, which I will write about separately very soon. As I emerged at around 6pm, palate for fizz now somewhat jaded, all I had to do was get to 28/50 Marylebone in the rush hour.
Despite the difficulty I had finding the restaurant in the maze of streets north of Oxford Street, I’m very glad I did. It would have been worth it just to try the exciting different wines of Clos Rocailleux with English owner and winemaker Jack Reckitt, trained at Plumpton College like some of the vineyard team at Exton Park. The Clos Rocailleux winery is based in Gaillac – which I hope to see for myself next month – and relative beginner Jack Reckitt had bought along the first three vintages of his white (2012 – two different parcels, 2013 and 2014 tank sample) made from Mauzac for us to try. Aromatic, slightly medicinal with honeyed notes, these were a perfect antidote to a palate somewhat dulled by tasting numerous different fizzes, as was the nicely balanced rosé, made by a short maceration.
We also tasted two different reds I hope to enjoy drinking again next month. The 2012 Gaillac Rouge a 70% Syah and 30% Braucol blend and the 2012 Réserve Rouge, again made from a majority of Syrah, plus some Braucol and splash of Duras. Apart from the Syrah these are not really red varieties I know much about, but that’s one of the beauties of this part of south-west France. I love the Clos Rocailleux labels too.
What most impressed me about the wines, white rosé and red, is they came alive with the super fresh and simple menu at 28/50. The white, a far more attractive match to asparagus than Sauvignon Blanc, the reds having the concentration and tannin to partner simple steak, plus the refreshing acidity to make you want to keep drinking them. If there are more wines like this to find in Gaillac it’s going to be a good trip there next month.
I have had quite a few emails from readers recently asking me if this ‘cheap’ champagne sold by such and such a supermarket is actually any good and worth buying. Even one enquiry as to whether Tesco’s ‘exclusive label’ Louis Delaunay Brut would keep long enough for a wedding in June next year. This and many other similar questions led to the idea of setting up a blind tasting of a cross section of such supermarket wines, the champagnes that tend to have the most dramatic discounts at key times of the year, so it all seemed very timely.
I asked Anthony Rose of the Independent to drop by and help me assess them. I didn’t call in any samples of the supermarket ‘own label’ champagnes (bar one from Morrisons) but concentrated on the more obscure names, suppliers of which tend to change relatively frequently, so style and often quality can be inconsistent. All the wines included will be retailing at some point before the New Year at under £20 a bottle, some for considerably less. The Louis Delaunay mentioned above will only be priced at under £10 (if you buy four bottles) for another 24 hours (though I daresay the price will drop to near this level again in the next five weeks).
To make things a bit more interesting I included two sparkling wines in the line-up – one English, one Australian. As it happens both Chapel Down Vintage Réserve and Cloudy Bay Pelorus will be on promotion too soon, both being priced at £14.99-£15.99 a bottle. With the possible exception of Nicolas Feuillatte champagne, they were arguably the two strongest brands in the 18 strong line-up. Pelorus is of course owned by Veuve Clicquot, and they know a thing or two about branding there.
Anyway I digress. You’ll want to know the results of our tasting and which of these fizzes we reckon are worth shelling out for. We picked seven champagnes that scored 87 points or more, a level both the Chapel Down and the Pelorus also achieved. Following on from a very impressive Lidl tasting for journalists last week (of which there will be more in a few days) it was little surprise to see the Lidl Comte de Senneval Grand Réserve (£17.99) do well. It was the only wholly Grand Cru sourced champagne.
It was a surprise when the wrappers from the blind tasting came off to see we marked the Tesco exclusive Louis Delaunay one point higher. If you want to try it you have only 24 hours to get it at just £9.74 a bottle (providing you buy four). The better known regular discount vehicles from Tesco and Sainsbury’s — Andre Carpentier and Etienne Dumont respectively – were rather dull in comparison. But things picked up again with Veuve Davanlay from Morrisons, which will be selling at better than half price — £12 as you ask – from the start of December. Though I wouldn’t want to spend £28.99 on this wine, we both preferred it to the Morrisons M Signature Brut that costs £18.99.
We then hit a good patch with the two sparklers; Nicolas Feuillatte Grande Réserve Brut (£15 at Sainsbury’s until the New Year), Laytons Brut Réserve from Jeroboams (down to £15.95 a bottle and you can also get halves and magnums) and finally a newcomer to M&S, Abel Chalot Brut which will be half price down from £32 to £16 from 2 December. This last named champagne I gave my highest score to, after enjoying a couple of glasses of it the next day watching England play appalling rugby. It quite cheered me up.
On Sunday a group of consumers came round to try the fizzes and we will report on what they thought shortly.
Fed up with all those pseudo half price champagne offers in the supermarkets? For the most part the supermarket exclusives sold at the year end at 50% or less than their full prices are alleged to be, aren’t worth buying. You’d be far better off spending £10-£15 on a good sparkling wine, something like Graham Beck’s Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend from the Western Cape that’s 25% off at Waitrose until 21 January making it just £10.49 a bottle.
But if want to buy champagne now there are some really attractive wines from high quality small producers (growers, co-ops and small houses) selling with a genuine discount at merchants like Berry Brothers and Jeroboams in their January sales. Berrys have Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs, one of my favourite wines from 2013, down at £22.50 a bottle and wines from some of the best growers in Champagne including J.L. Vergnon, René Geoffroy and Laherte Frères all at £22 (if you buy a case). Jeroboams is selling Georges Vesselle Brut for slightly less. These are all champagnes that make some of the cuvées from the big houses priced at over £30 look ordinary. The grocers’ ‘half price’ offerings are a very poor relation.