Drink: Losing your bottle

Anthony Rose If you are worried about stocking up on millennial Champagne before the rush, don't panic. The industry is well prepared for the biggest party in its history

All's tranquille on the Champagne front, as they might say in the region. In fact high-street sales are showing a slight downturn to date this year. Is this the calm before the bun fight? Almost certainly. What's going to happen? "If only we knew", "It's a complete nightmare" and "It'll be like Christmas on a vast scale" are typical reactions from buyers with very short fingernails and unpacked bags under their eyes. Are the high street's fears of a mad last-minute panic justified? Up to a point. Everyone knows Champagne sales go barmy at Christmas but there's never been a millennium eve in the lifetime of the drink. So a late rush is inevitable, but if there's panic, it's because vested interests will be stoking rumours of shortages.

Will such rumours be justified? In a word, no. Yves Benard and Philippe Feneuil, co-presidents of the CIVC, the Champagne Committee in Reims, have done much to keep supplies buoyant and prices respectable. Both came to London recently to scotch any ill-considered drought rumours. "We don't want to use this special event as a way to make more money without justification," says Benard, who acknowledges that the committee has no control over what retailers decide to do.

An unofficial estimate suggests that, globally, 50 million bottles will be opened on the night itself and 100 million over the brief festive period. Consumption for the next few years is expected to stay near the peak 1998 level of 300 million bottles. Fortunately, the region can cope. Stocks are at an all-time high and last year produced a record harvest equivalent to 342 million bottles.

The experienced retailers did all their millennium ordering last year, basing their requirements, Michael Fish-style, on long-range forecasting and faith. "We've all had to take a guess," says one buyer with fingers, no doubt, crossed. Most are at least doubling their own-label supplies.

The better-known Grandes Marques have already put up prices and say they intend to stick to them. But many are limiting stocks to about five per cent more than last year. This suggests a possible shortfall of top brands by Christmas, particularly of the 1990 vintage. The houses which supply own-label are less scrupulous, some charging up to 20 per cent more than usual, but intense retail rivalry should ensure that retailers themselves absorb some of the extra cost.

They will try to avert a winter stampede by encouraging customers to buy in advance. Most will start promotions in midsummer. This means anything from discounts to expanding ranges to include more Grandes Marques, more vintage Champagne and more special bottlings and larger formats, of which magnums look like the most popular.

The wine trade is expecting customers who don't normally drink Champagne to buy for the first time, while regular Champagne drinkers, it is hoped, will treat themselves to vintage Champagne and, in many cases, deluxe blends such as Roederer Cristal, Veuve Clicquot's La Grande Dame, Dom Perignon, and Krug. Justin Apthorp, Champagne buyer for Majestic, says: "We'll sell all the deluxe cuvees we can get our hands on. Roederer Cristal is the flash stuff. If you can get hands on the 1990, you're doing well." He doesn't think large formats will do as well as some seem to think. "Jeroboams [a four-bottle bottle] will fit the English fridge ... as long as you take everything else out."

So expect activities to get under way at the end of June and hot up from September. Normally, sellers are given large amounts of financial support for promotions from the producers. This year, growers are reluctant to subsidise to the same extent, because they say retailers will be able to sell everything they buy. But given the expected demand and the need to get customers in early, the big high-street retailers are likely to weigh in with big discounts regardless.

There are three good reasons for buying (relatively) early. First, obviously, to avoid getting your toes stamped on. Second, to have a better chance of buying mature stock and allow a bit of extra time in bottle to round out. Third, because limited stocks mean the most popular brands, vintages, styles and formats will run out. As an indication of pressure on vintage Champagne, 1993, an attractive vintage without the opulence of the 1990, is already on the shelf with 1995 coming in June.

What's hot and what's not? The 1990 vintage, and, to an extent, 1989, 1988 and 1985, are perfect for the millennium. Stocks will start to dwindle to the extent that the best of the 1990, especially Veuve Clicquot, Bollinger, Pol Roger and Louis Roederer, will probably not be around by Christmas. Of the deluxe cuvees, Roederer Cristal 1990, at pounds 99.99 a bottle, is top of the in-crowd's wish list followed by Krug Grande Cuvee, 1990 Dom Perignon, and the underrated 1990 La Grande Dame and 1988 Pol Roger Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill. So the message is: don't panic, but don't delay

White of the week

Penfolds Bin 21 Semillon Chardonnay, pounds 3.49, Co-op (available elsewhere at pounds 4.49). The Co-op in its wisdom has lopped pounds 1 off this perennial Penfolds favourite until 9 May. The cream soda and lemon-curd flavours of the Semillon mingle with the more rounded Chardonnay to produce an attractively zesty spring-like dry white.

Red of the week

1996 Wynns Coonawarra Shiraz, pounds 6.99, Sainsbury's, Majestic, Oddbins, Victoria Wine, Unwins. Made by Wynns' experienced winemaker Peter Douglas, this is a typically peppery Coonawarra red from the Shiraz grape, showing a touch of cool-climate mintiness and plenty of spicy, toasty oak. An excellent value Aussie Shiraz. The top-notch 1997 will be available shortly.

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