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

FIZZY FRIDAY

Lanson Gold Label 2002 v 2004

Inspired partly by the Tesco ‘Co-buy deal’ (still about 4 hours to go on this as I write, see http://www.buyapowa.com/deal/2790 and order before 6pm today ) on Lanson Gold Label 2002 we opened a bottle of this impressive example of the top class 2002 vintage for our Fizzy Friday tipple this weekend. The bottle I had in my cellar was disgorged in March 2011, it helpfully says on the back label (see picture below) – Lanson is the first of the major houses in Champagne to do this on all the wines in its range – so while I personally am trying to keep back as many ‘02 vintages as I can for several years yet, three years post-disgorgement age give this wine every chance to shine now.

And shine it did. The first thing to note about Lanson vintage is that the grapes for it are impeccably sourced. Only five Grands Crus – the highest rated vineyards in Champagne – are used, with the 47% Chardonnay in the blend coming from Cramant and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger in the Côte des Blancs, while Pinot Noir grown in Aÿ, Louvois Verzy and Verzenay accounts for the remaining 53%. This combination gives impressive initial clarity and freshness allied to a richness, concentration and power in the mid-palate. Returned to the next day it had opened up with pronounced toasty smoky notes, ripe quince fruit and an attractive palate intensity that suggests it has a long future ahead of it.

Scouting for bargains on ASDA’s website a couple of days ago I noticed that they are offering the current 2004 Lanson Gold Label vintage at £30 a bottle if you buy a case, down from the regular price of £40 and matching the best price that can be reached under the Tesco ‘co-buy deal’ if another 20-odd buyers sign up for it.

Time to get the 2004 Lanson out of the cellar to try the two side-by-side. The blend in this case is pretty much the same, 48% Chardonnay set against 52% Pinot Noir, but this time the white grapes are also sourced in Avize and Oger (two other Côte des Blancs Grands Crus), while Pinot from Bouzy is used instead of Louvois, but the backbone remains Aÿ, Verzy and Verzenay. The biggest difference is one of vintage with the ripe, high quality Chardonnay from ’04 giving this wine a luscious creamy texture that makes it very moreish drinking now, despite two years less ageing and in the case of the wine from my cellar, only a year’s post-disgorgement age.

People generally don’t realise how good Lanson’s vintage champagnes are but anyone tasting either of these two should start to get the message. Buy them while the price is so attractive, you won’t be disappointed. Either wine can be cellared further too.

The 2004 Gold Label is on offer at Sainsbury’s for £31.35 if you buy six bottles or more from 30 April

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Fizz price war takes off

As we near the end of November, so the promotional activity at the supermarkets hots up with lots of copycat deals as the grocers try to match anything their competitors put out. Heidsieck Monopole Blue Top, a basic level non-vintage brut, is being pushed by Sainsbury’s, Tesco and ASDA who all have it priced around the £15 mark. Sainsbury’s have gone one step further cutting the single bottle price to £12.49 a bottle, as a reader near Oxford spotted. Perhaps to better the Co-op’s deal on Piper Heidsieck, they have also extended their offer on this brand, and cut the price further to £18 a bottle.

In the latest competitive move ASDA has upped the anti by bettering Morrisons offers on Lanson Black Label and Rosé (by 99p) and cutting the price of its own label exclusive Pierre Darcys Brut NV to just £10 a bottle. Aldi has reduced the price of its Veuve Monsigny exclusive label to £9.99 into the New Year.

Further discounts are likely to emerge shortly with another 25% off the whole range due to start imminently. See latest offers

Rising cost of grapes will affect Champagne prices

Although we are currently seeing heavily discounted champagne prices in UK supermarkets in the run-up to Christmas it seems clear that the major brands will all try to raise their selling prices early next year following widespread rises in the cost of grapes from the 2011 harvest. On average grape  prices have risen by at least 3% across the board but there are reports of  larger increases for grand cru grapes.

“We are hoping the increase won’t be higher than 2 to 3%, but this will depend on the Crus involved, says Bruno Paillard, chairman of BCC, Champagne’s  second largest group and owner of Lanson. “Some places in the Aube this year should see their price 5€ per kilo, while some grands crus grapes will cost more than 6€ per kilo.”

Alexandre Penet-Chardonnet, a small producer with vineyards in the Montagne de Reims grands crus of Verzy and Verzenay says the price is “around 5.85€ for grand cru Noir”. At Champagne Mailly, the grand cru co-operative, MD Preau puts the increase in prices for grand cru material at “around 5%”. While a press operator dealing with a number of the major houses based in the grand vallée de la Marne says: “It will be 5.85- 5.9€ per
kilo for basic grapes at my press house which is a 4.5% increase on 2010 prices  and he is seeing prices as high as 6.40€ per kilo for certified grand cru Pinot Noir”.

Matching Champagne and spicy food at the Cinnamon Club

Originally published in Imbibe Magazine Jan/Feb 2009

Spicy food with Champagne, it’s not an obvious choice. I once persuaded a CIVC henchman I was lunching with to try Champagne and oysters spiced up with a dash of Tabasco sauce and he quite clearly thought I was mad. But finding suitable styles of Champagne and other sparklers to match spicy food was exactly the challenge given to a number of on trade suppliers. It wasn’t just any old spicy food either, but a menu with a real kick put together by Vivek Singh at the Cinnamon Club.

To help us decide what might work first of all we tasted all the wines that had been entered for the challenge, looking at the different styles and levels of sweetness, ranging in the case of the Champagnes from a bone dry Extra Brut (just 3gms sugar per litre compared to the Brut norm of around 11 or 12gms) to a Pol Roger Rich (a demi sec), which someone had thoughtfully put in. It appeared that those who merely entered the standard NV Brut style of the house they represented hadn’t fully thought things through, or perhaps they didn’t understand that we really did mean full on spicy.

But while it would have been better to have had some more obvious food friendly styles whether vintages, sec and demi-secs or perhaps cuvées that had seen some oak, among the two-dozen of so samples on the table, we certainly had enough options to get an idea of what did or didn’t work. We kicked off with three fishy appetisers, stir fried crab; garlic crusted king prawn and tandoori swordfish, matching them against several NV Brut styles initially as we kept back more concentrated, pink and sweeter options for some more challenging dishes later in the menu.

Each of these three dishes had accompanying sauces of varying density and strength, but the crab, which was spiced with garam seeds and the garlicky prawn dishes were easier to tame than the smoky tandoori swordfish.

Chef Singh said there were two ways of approaching the matching exercise: either putting together complementary flavours or else something that was a big enough contrast to cut through the spicy richness of the food. Of the non-vintage Champagne blends those with greatest intensity and the one all Chardonnay cuvée, fared best against the fish and seafood. The extra depth, maturity and a certain gingerbread-like spice of the Deutz Brut Classic and the lifted citrus notes of the Henriot Brut Souverain getting the best response from the panel of tasters while bright and fresh Piper Heidsieck, one of the best appetisers styles of Champagne on the market, was deemed an acceptable match.

For the next course of three different meat starters: tandoori chicken, char grilled partridge and spiced pigeon cake we tried a selection of the pink fizzes ranging from Lanson’s NV Noble Cuvée to sparklers from Tasmania, Argentina, Spain, Italy and the Loire; two Pinot Noir dominant blends of Champagne from small producers in the grand cru village of Bouzy in the Montagne de Reims and Pol Roger NV Rich for good measure.

Of the pink fizzes, the extra concentration of Lanson’s Noble Cuvée Rosé stood out as matching the intensity of spice in the first two dishes, although the lentils served with the chicken were hard for anything to cope with. Pinot Noir’s affinity with spice was also demonstrated by the 2000 vintage of Georges Vesselle’s Brut Zero while the other most successful match was Pol Roger Rich, which at least one panellist thought would have been the best option if you had drunk just one Champagne through the meal.

In the spiced pigeon cake the higher chilli quotient was just too much for the dry styles of fizz and even the Pol Roger was a fairly poor foil. As we went on to an even more intensely flavoured main course of smoked rack of lamb – marinated in mace, cardamom, cream cheese and yoghurt and served with two sauces: mint, cashew nut and chilli plus onion and saffron – nothing worked until we turned to the sparkling reds, where the lack of harsh tannin, sweet fruit, a minty element and the inherent spiciness of the Shiraz grape coped manfully. Both the longer aged style of the Black Queen Sparkling Shiraz 1999, and the spicy Majella Sparkling Shiraz 2004 (Coonawarra) worked well, the only issue was the high alcohol level at lunchtime.

General guidelines

With something lightly spicy and garlicky, especially if it involves fish or seafood, try an all Chardonnay style of fizz with a bit of zip.

More intense flavours need a wine with more depth and concentration like an aged vintage Champagne or a more oxidative style that is perhaps encouraged by oak fermentation, styles like Bollinger, Gosset and the Georges Vesselle vintage we tried spring to mind.

Off dry Champagnes, which may be classified as anything from ‘Extra Dry’ through ‘Sec’ to ‘Doux’, the sweetest, often work better with spicy food than they do with puddings.