Cracking champagne

Most of the grandes marques are making better wine than they have for a decade or more
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Many of my best friends are French and all that, but there are limits to what even I will accept from them. To be precise: for several years at the turn of the decade, the Champenois, the good folk who make champagne, were convinced that they were being persecuted by British wine journalists (many of whom, they hinted, were in the pay of the Australians). They were especially offended at any suggestion that their wines were overpriced, unreliable, and often sold too young.

Five years on their wines are now, generally speaking, far more reliable and have spent a lot more time in the bottle, which makes them more rounded than if they are sold at little more than the 15-month legal minimum. Moreover, the tiny price rise the major firms allowed themselves earlier this year was their first for several years. In other words, while denying the charges, they have acted as if they were largely true. There has been a general tightening of discipline throughout the region. Yields have been reduced, the amount of juice that can be extracted from a given quantity of grapes has gone down, the second pressing, or deuxieme taille, is no longer used, and new types of pneumatic presses have improved quality. The result has been reflected in the sales spiel. For the first time in years the Champenois are not presenting themselves as purveyors of dreams but, rightly, as selling the finest sparkling wine in the world.

Every wine tasting proves the point. Whereas other French regions, notably Bordeaux, did not come out of the latest Wine magazine challenge too happily, the Champenois occupied most of the top slots, despite having to compete with ever-improving sparkling wines from the New World. The same return to form emerges clearly from the latest edition of Grapevine (Headline, pounds 6.99), the authoritative annual survey by Tim Atkin and Anthony Rose of wines available in supermarkets and independent wine merchants here, and in a select handful of liquor stores at the other end of the Chunnel.

Six of the dozen wines in their "Fizz of the year" case are champagnes, and two of the others, Quartet Roederer Estate from California and the Australian Green Point, are made by Champenois wine makers. The "real" champagnes reflect the breadth of choice available in British supermarkets (by contrast, own-brand champagnes in French hypermarkets are almost invariably cheap and nasty). Atkin and Rose pinpoint two grandes marques, Pol Roger, pounds 19.99, ("soft, refreshingly elegant") and Joseph Perrier, pounds 15.99, ("weighty, characterful, chocolaty style"). Then comes the Tesco 1985, pounds 19.99 ("rich, toasty"), a wine from a sensational vintage at the same price as a non- vintage: a blanc de blancs, Veuve de Medts (pounds 13.99), made by the classy Union Champagne at Avize, from Marks & Spencer ("toasty, buttery and rich"); another blanc de blancs available only at a shop in Boulogne, and, most intriguingly, the Jean Louis Malard from Bouzy, available only at Bottoms Up (pounds 15.99).

The latter is the result of a highly sophisticated initiative by buyer Julian Twaites. He pinpointed six of the best wine-growing villages in Champagne and is offering a few hundred cases of wines which reflect their particular attributes, all under the Jean Louis Malard label. In their article on Threshers (Bottom Up's parent group), Atkin and Rose pinpoint two: the Chouilly, which is "aromatic, finely balanced Chardonnay-based fizz...very stylish stuff"; by contrast the Bouzy, dominated by Pinot Noir, is "bigger and more powerful, with fine, soft, richly flavoured bubbles".

If you're looking outside the own brands then the choice is now very wide, too. Most of the grandes marques are making better wine than for a decade or more. Until recently, for instance, the market leader, Moet & Chandon's Brut Imperial, was both bland and unpredictable, but is now much more reliable - and refreshing. Mumm's Cordon Rouge was decidedly unappetising, with a harsh metallic ring to it, but it is now back on song, full of the old yeasty richness which one associates with wines made by firms - including the ever-reliable Veuve Clicquot, based in Reims. Seagram, which owns Mumm and the lighter, more elegant, Perrier-Jouet, also owns Oddbins, where, consequently, you'll often find these two on a special offer.

But really you have to make two decisions: price and style. Of the grandes marques, those below Moet, which sells for about pounds 18.99, are the (relative) bargains, though most are on the light side. As well as Pol Roger, there's the light and flowery Pommery and the elegant Laurent Perrier (which also makes by far the best non-vintage rose, though this will set you back about pounds 24).

By paying a bit more than for Moet you get Charles Heidsieck, regarded by the Champenois as the model "standard brand". If you can pay more than pounds 20, the real aristocrats are Roederer's Brut Premier and Bollinger's Special Cuvee. It's what the Champenois call the English style - round, rich, mature, fruity, adjectives that make me proud to be British.

Anthony Rose is unwell

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