Food & Drink Special: Pop stars

RICHARD EHRLICH'S TOP FIVE CHAMPAGNES
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Who said the spirit of public service is dead? Astonishing though it may seem in this age of selfish individualism, I succeeded in persuading five private citizens to spend a Saturday evening doing unpaid work for me. The aim: to determine whether more expensive champagnes are worth the extra money. The means: popping the corks on 25 bottles of the stuff.

These latter-day saints were never less than enthusiastic and were battle- hardened wine drinkers, rather than pros. I was planning to have an expert along as well, just to show us up, but he bombed out at the last minute. We were on our own with just bottles, glasses, and a large plastic bowl marked "spit here".

We did our tasting in a thoroughly professional way. I wrapped each bottle in newspaper to hide the label, coding each to indicate whether it was a cheaper (below pounds l5) or pricier bottle. Then I placed one of each type on a numbered sheet and had my guinea-pigs make their notes by number code. In other words, they tasted blind, and all the time comparing cheap and expensive champagnes. My own participation could be called partially sighted: although I had done the wrapping, I'd forgotten which bottle was where by the time I finished.

It can't be over-emphasised that tasting 25 champagnes is an unnatural act, unrelated to normal drinking. Roger, one of my tasters, said that "Champagne is bought to be drunk, not tasted." You're meant to relax when you drink it, and my tasters were wound up like the springs in a grandfather clock. When they'd finished tasting and could drink for enjoyment, their perceptions changed - mostly for the better. Liz, another taster, said of one sample: "This tastes better when you drink it than when you taste it."

Their comments seemed to bear out a pet theory of mine - namely, that most people drink champagne without really tasting. I'm not talking about Formula One drivers, who use Moet as hair conditioner, or about revellers who order a bottle at that point in an evening when what they really need is paracetamol and water.

I'm talking about the rest of us, those for whom the mere fact of drinking champagne is its own justification. Face it, no other drink is so inextricably linked with the special occasion and the celebratory spirit. To drink champagne is to disengage from the rigours of everyday life.

This is why we can drink it without tasting: just popping the cork and watching the bubbles makes us feel good. And that accounts for some of the mystical appeal of the drink. Friends often say that they'd drink champers every day if they won the Lottery, but I wonder. It might lose some of its lustre if you had it on a Thursday night before sitting down to M&S piri-piri chicken and The X-Files.

And expense plays a big part in the non-tasting phenomenon. You can't buy a drinkable bottle for less than a tenner, and the best-known brands (the grandes marques) start at pounds 17. You lay out the cash because you're celebrating; and because you're celebrating, you don't spend time analysing the flavours in your mouth.

To make matters more complicated for quality-seekers, price does not necessarily provide a useful guide. The most expensive bottle in our tasting, by a long shot, was one that no one - repeat, no one - liked. Nor do the brand-name grandes marques necessarily bottle the best bubbles. My panel's favourite came from the ranks of the grandes marques, but a few others in that category received a roaring thumbs-down.

For me, the most remarkable result of the tasting was its confirmation of the importance of the bottle age. By its nature, champagne is an acidic wine and the acid is there for a very good reason, but it makes even the best champagne a mouth-puckering fluid in its infancy. Age softens it, and this shows up whatever quality was there to begin with.

The importance of bottle age was vividly illustrated by one of our wines, the grower's champagne (made by a grower that only uses its own grapes), Albert Beerens, which is sold exclusively by Bibendum. I love this stuff. When I buy champagne, Beerens is usually the one that I choose. I assumed it would do well in our tasting. Wrong. No one liked it much, and two tasters wrote: "nasty" next to it.

I think that's far too strong, but the bottle submitted by Bibendum wasn't a patch on those I drink because I don't drink it for at least six months - and it keeps getting better for a year or more. My advice: buy some now and store it. Normally pounds 15, it's on offer until Christmas at pounds 12.99 (Bibendum, tel: 0171 722 5577).

To be fair, I'd say the same about most of the wines we tasted, especially the vintage wines. Vintage champagne is at its best around 10 years after the vintage. If my calculator is working correctly, this means that the current vintages on sale - 1989 and 1990 - will be perfect for toasting the forthcoming millennium.

When everyone had finished the blind tasting, notes were then compared. There were a few disagreements, but they were heavily outweighed by a remarkable consensus. Five wines emerged as favourites, all but one in the pounds 20 to pounds 30 range - ie, towards the top of the price scale. When the prices were revealed along with labels, all the tasters said that they could see the point of spending more money.

But some of the cheap wines showed up in a different light when their prices were revealed. Some tasters had liked them a lot, almost as much in some cases as the really expensive versions. When they learned what these wines cost, they said they should be singled out for giving turbo-charged value for money. One of my tasters summed it up nicely: "You get what you pay for," she said, "but you can also pay more than you need to."

So was there one overall winner? Let's put it this way. At the end of the evening, only one bottle was anywhere near empty. It was the Bollinger. I drank the last half-inch straight from the bottle - Ab Fab-style.

It will come as a shock to learn that we had some wine left over. After topping them with cling film, I evicted everything else from the fridge and managed to squeeze in 20-odd bottles, then stumbled to bed. The next day, my wife and I re-entered the fray with some selective tasting. There were no astonishing revelations. What tasted good at the main event still tasted good, and what didn't had not improved.

Incidentally, the leftovers gave me a chance to test a couple of items of received wisdom on champagne. Item 1: good champagne will retain its bubbles for 24 hours. This is only half true - it retains them, or a good number of them, for 48 hours, or more, when covered with cling film. Item 2: you can drink any amount of champagne without getting a hangover, as long as you drink nothing else. This in not true, full stop. Trust me.

Whatever you make of the results of our hard labour, I have a final plea. Whether you buy champagne twice a year, twice a month or twice a week, do yourself the favour of tasting it. Look and sniff and swish, and really think about what's in the glass in front of you. You may find that it's not so wonderful after all, and decide to buy a different bottle next time. You may come to see that a good wine might be better off with that extra dose of bottle age. And you might even think, "Hey, this really is good." If that happens, you'll know you're buying well - and drinking with your eyes open.

You are excused at this point for saying: "25 free bottles of champagne and he gets paid? Hell, I could do that job." I agree. And I would like your help at that next tasting. If you think you're up to it, write me a letter stating why you'd like to come. Sorry: it won't be champagne; it has to be in London and I can't pay you, but you will drink something delicious, and you'll have fun performing a public service. Still interested? Then drop me a line at the Independent on Sunday, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL.

THE PANEL'S FAMOUS FIVE

Note: I didn't ask the tasters to assign numerical values to their opinions, but the order in which their recommendations appear is roughly the order of preference. Ask about Christmas special offers, which can yield considerable savings - especially if you're buying in bulk.

Bollinger Special Cuvee non-vintage (around pounds 2l to pounds 25 from numerous suppliers): full, rich, superbly balanced; a high proportion of Pinot Noir which gives a characteristically weightier style. Only reservation: our sample came straight from the agent for Bollinger, and may have had the benefit of longer bottle-ageing than others.

Sainsbury's Blanc de Blancs 1990 (pounds 14.95): this wine produced the highest number of spontaneous orgasms. Like all wines made only from Chardonnay, it is light in style. But it's drinking well now despite its young age.

Canard-Duchene 1990 (pounds l9.99 from Majestic): with special "Millennium" offer for cases of 12 (call your nearest branch for details). Very creamy, beautifully balanced, with a notably long, luscious finish. My wine to buy for 31.12.99.

Duval-Leroy "Cuvee des Roys" 1986 (pounds 27.55 from Lay & Wheeler, 01206 764446): this bottle shocked everyone because it was the only truly mature bottle in the tasting and the only vintage wine that had reached its full potential. Some described it as "sweet," simply because long ageing had completely tamed the natural acidity of the wine. It bloomed in the nose, coated the mouth with a ripe, honeyed richness, and had a long glorious finish. If you're pushing the boat out, this makes an oar of rare distinction.

Billecart-Salmon, 1989 (pounds 29.99 from Oddbins): warm, toasty, perfect balance of ripe fruit and refreshing acidity. This should go on improving for a while.

VALUE-FOR-MONEY CHAMPIONS

Layton's Brut (Layton's, 0171 388 4567): mature, well rounded, delicious. On special offer at pounds 11.46 until the end of December. This is a bargain of epoch-making proportions.

ASDA non-vintage brut (pounds 11.99): fresh and crisp, and a snip at this price.

Henri Harlin non-vintage (pounds 12.49, Oddbins): everyone liked this, some loved it.

MY UNILATERAL HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Pol Roger White Foil (around pounds 2l.22 from various sources including Oddbins, Threshers, Majestic, Lay & Wheeler): fine mousse, very creamy, lush tropical fruits. Worth keeping.

Billecart-Salmon non-vintage (pounds 19.99 from Oddbins, pounds 19.50 mail order from Adnams): asublime NV from of the lesser-known grandes marques - elegant and complex.

Pommery, 1990 (pounds 24.49 from Oddbins, pounds 22.5O from Bibendum): heavenly finesse which can only deepen with further bottle age. My other choice for the Millennium.

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