Anthony Rose: The French and Americans laugh at the English habit of enjoying our champagnes with a bit of age to them
Saturday 22 August 2009
I recently fossicked out a bottle of the obscure Heidt et Fils Carte Blanche Champagne, lurking in an ill-lit corner of the cellar. Being hopeless at cellar records, I had no recollection of how long it had been there, nor whence it had come. It soon became clear from the shrunken shaft of the cork that it was a fizz probably somewhere between 15 and 20 years old. The golden colour, gentle mousse, but above all the deliciously evolved nutty flavours and an ever so slightly sherryish whiff, confirmed that it was a wine of venerable age. Polished off rapidly with some past-its-sell-by-date, vacuum-sealed Hungarian foie gras I'd managed to prise open after years of resistance, it was a union made all the closer to heaven for its unexpectedness.
While I wouldn't advocate keeping your non-vintage champagne for 20 years, the point is that even a humble non-vintage champagne evolves and improves with two to three years or more in the bottle. The word "improves" is a moot point, mind, because the French laugh at the necrophiliac English habit of enjoying our wines with a bit of age to them. Given half a chance, they will open their bottles as soon as they emerge blinking from their subterranean cellars. Even the Americans find it hard to resist applying a corkscrew to any wine barely out of short pants.
I have recently come across some excellent non-vintage champagnes which will reward anyone able to resist temptation and prepared to stash a few bottles for mature consumption. At this year's annual champagne tasting, the quality of the non-vintage cuvées was mixed, but I would confidently lay down the excellent non-vintage Henriot Brut Souverain, £23-£25, The Vine Shop, Ware (01920 485522), Lay & Wheeler (layand wheeler.com), the superb Jacquesson Cuvée 733, D Byrne, Clitheroe (01200 423152), as well as Bollinger Special Cuvée, down from £35.98 to £29.98, Tesco, to 8 September, and Piper-Heidsieck Brut NV, £29.99, buy 2 = £19.99, Majestic.
Vine Trail (0117 921 1770) is a Bristol-based company with a brilliant website (vinetrail.co.uk) and a highly recommended list of growers' champagnes. Punching above its weight, the Chartogne-Taillet Cuvée Fiacre Brut, £36.50, is a fizz of remarkable flavour and texture with lovely baked apple and brioche notes, while the basic Chartogne-Taillet Cuvée St Anne NV Brut, £23.95, is excellent value. In the blanc de blancs pure chardonnay style, the Champagne Ulysse Collin Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs, £31.95, is an intense, appley fizz, the Champagne Bertrand Gautherot, Vouette et Sorbée Fidèle, Extra Brut, £32.95, creamy-rich, biscuity, full of character.
If you're looking for especially good-value champagne, there's a handful to be found on supermarket and independent wine merchant shelves that will benefit from ageing. Among them, Janisson Premier Cru, £17.98, reduced from £22.98, Asda, is refreshingly crisp and appley, Waitrose's Blanc de Blancs NV Champagne, £21.99, a model of creamy chardonnay with its textured mousse, Berry's United Kingdom Cuvée, Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru, E Mesnil, £21.45, Berry Bros & Rudd (0800 280 2440), a riot of textured, yeasty, honeycomb flavours. Berry's also has the best price on the classic Pol Roger Brut Réserve NV, £29.30, or £26.35 bottle/case, the crème de la grande marque crème.
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