Festive guide for pop pickers

RICHARD EHRLICH'S BEVERAGE REPORT; Expensive, varied and as essential to Christmas as a roast turkey, our testers try a range of Champagnes
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The Independent Culture
Let Us pray: "Lord, Christmas is upon us, and we will be buying Champagne. In your all-knowing, all-seeing wisdom, please tell us which one we should pick from the myriad bottles on the shelf."

I'm as confused as the next guy about this all-important Christmas decision, in spite of having tasted a good 25 bubbly bottles in recent weeks. Here are three certainties before the confusion takes full rein. One: no matter what anyone does in the New World, the French original is still the best sparkling wine. Two: it has just one problem, which can be summed up quickly. It's too damned expensive. Three: once you've drunk enough, the difference between a fantastic Champagne and a good one really doesn't matter very much.

Champagne is not like other drinks. Apart from being so wickedly expensive, it is so inextricably bound up with the spirit of celebration that I can never divorce it entirely from its proper social context. Which is why I have once agains run this year's tasting in an un-scientific and celebratory fashion. We assembled six friends and opened 15 bottles. We had dinner afterwards. We had a good time. The bottles were tasted blind, with one exception, though I did make the concession of telling my gang about the categories they would be tasting. These were: vintage, prestige cuvee, ordinary NV, and notably cheap NV. I did not tell them which group was which. The result was monumentally inconclusive.

Everyone liked some wines and disliked others, but there was no thunderous consensus. Indeed, it was striking how often one said yuck about a wine that someone else described as lovely! The diver-sity of opinions makes me think that a full-blown summary is not quite to the point. Rather than run through all the also-rans, here is an approximate summary of the most- favoured potations.

Among the cheaper wines, the most positive response was for an independent merchant's own-label fizz. Laytons Brut had "strong fruit" according to one taster and "subtle after-taste" said another. It costs pounds 11.95, though a multi- buy option lowers that figure to pounds 9.95. The trick bottle in the group was Deakin Estate Brut 1996 (Bibendum, pounds 5.25 special offer from pounds 6), an Australian sparkler of fine quality. No one loved it on blind tasting, but when they heard the price they changed their tune, voting it a good-value option.

One of our trio of mid-priced NV wines was corked. Of the two that remained, the "yeas" outnumbered the "nays" on Chateau Boursault (Fullers, pounds 14.99): "very smooth, full taste" wrote one, though another thought it "dull". I sided with the first comment. The other was Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Premier Cru (Tesco, Asda, Victo-ria Wine, pounds 15.99), which attracted not a single negative comment. "The best so far", "very good, crisp taste" - this was the general tenor of the remarks. Worth looking out for, they thought, and I agree completely: this showed very well indeed.

The three vintage Champagnes did not initially win many friends. Further tasting with the food, though, brought them round. The two stars were Pommery 1990 (various retailers, around pounds 26), wonderful silken texture and masses of lightly toasted citrus fruit, and the fresh elegance of Mumm Cordon Rouge 1989 (Oddbins and elsewhere, around pounds 22). If you feel like splashing out, these are good spots to do it in. It's worth noting that the one wine-pro in the group spotted these easily as being a cut above the rest.

Of our two ultra-fancy bottles, the champion was another Pommery: Cuvee Louise 1988. Deeply toasty and yeasty, with layers of apricot fruit and a particularly fine finish, it makes you realise just how good Champagne can be. And just how expensive: even on special offer at pounds 49.99 from Bibendum (list price pounds 60), it requires a deep pocket and boundless enthusiasm.

The final grouping in our exercise was a bit of an oddity. From now on, all bottles of Charles Heidsieck Brut, one of the most reliable NVs around, will be labelled with the year when they were laid down in their caves. The current wines are 1992, 1993 and 1994, with the 94 at pounds 21.99 and the others at pounds 25.99 and pounds 23.99 respectively. My team made disparaging remarks on the youngest with increasing levels of praise for the 1993 and (especially) the 1992. I could see the immaturity of the 1994 but could also feel it ripening to the fine, yeasty richness of the earlier ones. The whole range is sold at Bottoms Up, the 1994 at Tesco, Unwins and elsewhere.

I completed the exercise over the days following, tasting a variety of bottles that hadn't made it into the main event. There's no question that this is a more enjoyable way of doing things, and also more flattering to the wines. One of my tasters, Nadia Marks, said that you get used to the taste of a Champagne as you sit with it a while. She is right.

In the later tastings I was most surprised by Lanson NV, which has at times been one of the least impressive of grandes marques. This bottle had good medium-level fruit under nice acidity, and best of all is the reduced Christmas price at Co-Op: just pounds 12.99 a throw. This must be the cheapest grande marque on sale at the moment, and a sound bet if you want a well known name on the label.

Whatever you decide to buy, finding a place to buy it is the easy part. Christmas is the season for cut-rate Champagne offers, and one of the best is from the London-based Nicolas chain (itself an outpost of the huge French group). They offer 20 per cent off 20 of their wines, mostly without a minimum purchase - which can be the drawback of other offers. Charles Heidsieck for pounds 15.95, as opposed to an average price of pounds 19.50, looks like very good value. Elsewhere, on the multi-buy front, Oddbins has its usual seven for six and 15 for 12 offers (17.5 and 20 per cent off respectively). Threshers offer 15 per cent off six bottles, 20 per cent off a dozen or more. More generously, Majestic cuts prices by 15 per cent on selected wines if you buy just two bottles. Their slashed-price selection includes Canard-Duchene 1990, which showed well in last year's tasting. At the London-based Fullers chain, there's an offer of the rock-solid Brossault NV for only pounds 7.99 each if you buy three.

Is there a proverbial bottom line hiding somewhere in this confusion? Perhaps it's this. Many people feel that Christmas isn't Christmas without Champagne. For those who want the necessity without the hair-raising expense, any of the above- mentioned lower-priced bottles will do just fine. If you want something more for the experience, then a pounds 20 to pounds 25 bottle should be a worthwhile investment. It may not be one that all my tasters loved, but it will have the advantage of being your bottle, on your table. With no comparisons to make, and the anxiety of choosing gone forever, you'll just be able to watch the bubbles rise and enjoy yourself. Which is the whole point of the enterprise.

And finally ... One advantage of being an American is that you get to practice cooking the Christmas meal at Thanksgiving. As an American who writes a drinks column, I also have the chance to practice wine-matching. My choice for this year would be a full-throttle, no-holds-barred Syrah or Shiraz. It's not to everyone's taste but it'll make 'em sit up and notice. Here's a shortlist of candidates, none costing painful prices: Big Frank's Best Red, Vin de Pays d'Oc 1995 (Victoria Wines, pounds 5.99); Landskroon Shiraz 1994 from South Africa (Oddbins, pounds 5.49); Maglieri Mclaren Vale Shiraz 1995, an Australian previously featured here (Tesco and Unwins, pounds 7.49); and Marietta Cellars Syrah 1994, a Californian with loads of fruit (Majestic, pounds 9.99).