The Champagne Bureau's annual tasting is an event that even the most jaded wine writer looks forward to from one year to the next. Independent reader Eunice Jorna from Hull had also been awaiting it for weeks. Ever since she placed the top bid to accompany me to a tasting, one of the lots in The Independent Charity Christmas auction.
Eunice's nose for a tasting was timely, too, as it just preceded champagne's approval by politicians: the Government was about add 150 brands of champagne, instead of lambrusco, to the shopping basket that measures high street price trends. Days later the Chancellor added just a penny in duty to champagne "in anticipation of World Cup success this summer". Eunice is not alone in her love of champagne. The Champagne Bureau statistics show that at 36,765,884 bottles, we British do our bit as the world's number one importer of the stuff.
So that's how Eunice, her son Adam and I came to approach three large, oval tables, each circled with some 60-odd newly or about to be launched champagnes grouped into three styles: vintage, rosé and demi-sec. The latter category of sweet wines was the Champagne Bureau's misguided attempt to stimulate enthusiasm for the style - at a time when our tastes have well and truly shifted to younger, drier champagnes.
After a brief demo on the art of elbowing shippers, PRs and The Financial Times' Jancis Robinson out of the way, Eunice and Adam headed straight to the vintage table. Before I could say "spittoon" they were sniffing, swirling and spitting like pros. The 1997 Bollinger Grande Année (£55-£60, Waitrose, Majestic, Oddbins, Sainsbury's, Tesco), was a divine start and a hard act to follow yet, equalled, if not bettered, by a magnificent 1995 Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires. This champagne has yet to arrive here, but will be around £70 a bottle when it does. Eunice went a paler shade of rosé. Soon mother and son were comparing styles and vintages, lingering over one of the finest blends on the table, the fabulously aromatic, creamy-rich and sourdough-yeasty 1996 Jacquesson Avize Grand Cru (around £45, Mayfair Cellars, 020-7386 7999; Thameside Wine, 020-8788 4752).
They discovered that big names like the 1999 Moët et Chandon didn't necessarily deliver the required luxurious mouthful, but a handful of small growers' champagnes did: the wonderfully savoury, nutty 2000 Larmandier-Bernier Blanc de Blancs (£23.95 by the case, The Vine Trail, 0117 921 1770), the richly full-flavoured 1998 Lenoble Blanc de Noirs (£21, bottle/case, Ellis of Richmond, 020-8744 5576) and a classic, creamy-textured 1998 A Margaine Spéciale Club Blanc de Blancs (£25.50, The Flying Corkscrew, 01442 412312).
After a spot of lunch, Eunice and Adam took to the pink fizz, enjoying the Larmandier-Bernier Premier Cru Rosé de Saignée NV (£23.50, bottle/case, The Vine Trail), and the delightfully stylish 1998 Pol Roger Brut Rosé (around £45, Majestic, Connolly's, 0121 2369269; Fortnum & Mason). They even ventured over to the almost deserted demi-sec table and tasted one or two, but soon gave up in the face of not enough cake and too much icing. Do the champenois seriously want us to drink these saccharine confections?
Days later, I received an e-mail that would have been music to the champenois ear: "Until last week, champagne was a luxury reserved for celebrations, weddings and birthdays ..." Even with Eunice's newly acquired expensive taste in champagne, she doesn't intend it to stay that way. EReuse content