Eating & Drinking: Tooth enamel stripper

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The Independent Culture
FIRST, let's get in touch with our feelings through frank, open dialogue. I begin by saying, "Last Wednesday I spent 90 minutes in a room with several hundred open bottles of Champagne." You say, "I hate this guy and I want his job." I say, "I was tasting, not drinking, and it's not as much fun as it sounds." You say, "Pull the other one." I say, "Will you please let me explain?" You say, "You've got 30 seconds."

OK, 30 seconds starting now. Champagne is a highly acidic wine, and prolonged tasting strips tooth enamel as effectively as coarse-grain sandpaper. It is also, unless you're a seasoned expert, difficult to taste so many with discrimination. Moreover, the tasting room was unbearably crowded. It is not fun fighting through a scrum of bodies who all need access to a finite number of bottles and (more important) spittoons. Some people spit and pour away leavings with an astonishing disregard for the laundry bills of their fellow man and woman. And spitting Champagne, as eminent wine writer Charles Metcalfe suggests, is messier than spitting still wine: the fizz makes for a frothily unruly stream.

Was that 30 seconds? Maybe. Anyway, now that the unconvincing anguish is concluded, I can tell you that this was an interesting tasting. And an important one, if you can apply that adjective to a tasting, because Champagne is a Big Subject in the run-up to You-Know-What. The Champagne industry is expecting us to buy and swill their products in record quantities - about 30 million extra bottles, bringing 1999 sales worldwide up to around 315 million. Since UK sales in 1998 reached a new record of 24.2 million bottles, this year should see an increase to about 27 million.

To accommodate our thirst for fizz, the Champagne industry has done the decent thing: they've raised their prices. Some producers have hiked 'em by as much as 25 per cent, though increases from the big houses are still within single digits. And while I hear anecdotal evidence of some retailers and producers planning major price hikes as Y2K approaches, the multiples I've talked to think the increases have mostly happened. With stocks of 960-odd million bottles, there's no rush to buy in the hope of beating (a) inflation or (b) a dry Champagne well.

But there is another reason to rush out, and that is the imminent depletion of older vintages. Wines from 1988 and 1989 are nearly extinct. Stocks of 1990 are heading that way, very rapidly in some cases. And having focused my attention at the scrum on vintage wines, I can say with certainty that a stark message came through the dissolved tooth-enamel: if you want vintage Champagne for your Millennial celebration, buy 1988-1990 while they're still there.

That's obvious, since vintage Champagne needs at least a decade in bottle before it reaches maturity. But it's even more compelling now because most houses will soon be moving on to 1991. Some have moved already, and some are even selling 1993 or 1995, for heaven's sake. Few wines from these years are anything like ready to drink. They are also not as good as '88 to '90.

So, which should you buy? The easy answer, and it's not a crazy one, is: any of them, especially 1990, which was a vintage from heaven. But this is not especially helpful, so here is a partial list of four less famous names: Billecart-Salmon Cuvee Nicolas-Francois Billecart 1990 (Oddbins and others, about pounds 35, 0181 405 6345 for stockists); Canard-Duchene 1990 (Oddbins, Majestic and others, about pounds 22, 0171 887 1800 for stockists); Jacquesson Signature 1989 (about pounds 40, 0171 329 8899 for stockists); Joseph Perrier Cuvee Royale 1990 (about pounds 25, 01572 823030 for stockists). NB: I tasted Canard-Duchene 1991and it was excellent. NB: If I had to choose one, it would be Billecart. NB again: see below for further Champagne slaverings.

Final suggestion: if you love vintage Champagne as much as I do and have the means of buying and storing in bulk (which I, sadly, do not), grab a few cases. These wines are built to last. Final question: will we be buying as much of the stuff as the industry hopes? No one knows. Judith Candy, of Tesco, says they expect to have about 10 per cent more Champagne on 1 December, 1999 than they had on the same date last year. Obviously they're hoping to sell it all. But she admits: "We're all in a guessing game." And a hoping game, she might have added.

To drink now

Prestige Cuvee Champagnes are priced for cocaine barons and Bill Gates. But when they're good, watch out. Scrum Wednesday presented me with my first taste of Pol Roger Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill, named after PR's most prominent fan. I am in love. My notes conclude by saying: "nothing stands out because it's all perfect". Telephone 01432 262 800 for stockists; say goodbye to pounds 75. Current vintage is 1988, and they'll soon be moving on to 1990, which should be even better. If pounds 75 is impossible, Pol Roger's Brut 1990 (stocks "under pressure") possesses delicacy, elegance, and a pounds 35 price-tag.