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Food & Drink: The fizz that returned the flavour: Champagne or a New World sparkler? A timely tasting allows Anthony Rose to single out some good bets for Christmas

IN THE Sixties it dawned on Moet et Chandon's president, Robert Jean de Vogue, that champagne would eventually outgrow its 30,000 hectares of vineyard. He could hardly have realised that he was about to plant the vine that would reap such a sparkling wine whirlwind just a generation later.

His vision was to expand operations into the new world to meet the growing demand for sparkling wines. The fruits of his foresight today are a family of Moets in Argentina, Australia, California, Germany, Spain, Brazil and Austria. Where Moet led, a host of champagne houses followed.

Roederer, Deutz, Taittinger, Pommery, Mumm and Laurent Perrier are involved in ventures in California. Bollinger has bought into Petaluma in Australia. Deutz has lent its savoir-faire to Montana in New Zealand, Roederer to Tasmania's Heemskerk and Piper Heidsieck to a sparkling wine venture in the Sahyadri mountains of western Maharashtra in India. Encouraged and flattered by champagne's overseas ventures, homegrown producers such as Iron Horse in Sonoma, California, Petaluma, Seppelt and Yalumba in Australia, Albert le Brun and Montana in New Zealand, are now returning the favour by exporting successfully to Europe.

It probably never even crossed de Vogue's mind, or anyone else's in Champagne for that matter, that sparkling wine made in the new world, their sparkling wine, could ever match champagne for sheer quality. Alain de Courselles of Moet et Chandon, when I met him five years ago, said: 'We are not aiming to duplicate the taste of champagne but to create a local taste. The difference between champagne and sparkling wines from the new world is like day and night.' Welcome, Mr de Courselles, to the twilight zone. The notion that champagne is a unique product, whose prestige and glamour cannot be matched outside the Champagne region, has taken a double knock: there are too many cheap champagnes of poor quality, and much new world fizz offers superior value for money.

No one in Bordeaux would be daft enough to suggest that no cabernet sauvignon from the new world can ever rival a bordeaux, for the simple reason that they recognise that within Bordeaux, quality ranges from the most basic wines at about pounds 3 a bottle to the star clarets of the Medoc, St Emilion and Pomerol at pounds 30 upwards. Similarly, albeit in a less polarised way, champagne varies from the inimitable and fabulously expensive to the cheap and seriously ordinary. Most of the pounds 7.99 champagnes on supermarket shelves this year fall into the latter category. And if anyone has bought what the French call a premier prix champagne, or basic champagne, in a French supermarket for Fr45 or so, they will presumably have realised better deals are to be had from almost any sparkling wine from the new world.

Progressive types in Champagne recognise how old-fashioned is the idea that champagne must be worth extra simply because of the name on the label. They acknowledge the view espoused by the younger wine merchants that their customers today are more likely to judge champagne on its merits and on value for money than on its gilded livery. Since shipments of champagne to the UK peaked at 22.8 million bottles in 1989, the new world has given the so-called classic tradition an uncomfortable run for its money. Champagne shipments were down to 14 million bottles last year.

At a blind tasting with a group of consumers last week, we compared four well-known champagnes with their counterparts from the new world. We found to our surprise, given the poor publicity of a year ago, that Mumm Cordon Rouge, with a biscuity aroma and soft, brisk fruit, was clearly superior to the decent if dull Mumm Cuvee Napa from California, last year's sparkling wine of the year. At Oddbins' six for the price of five offer, the Cordon Rouge is only pounds 13.33 a bottle. Comparing the best-selling Moet et Chandon with its Australian counterpart, Green Point 1989, the Moet was disappointingly heavy and abrupt, the Green Point excellent. Its hint of yeasty, brioche character on the nose, soft, creamy mousse and good citrus-fruit acidity was very champagne-like, in fact. Green Point is pounds 9.99 (Victoria Wine, Augustus Barnett).

The third pair, Bollinger and Croser 1988, were chalk and cheese. Bollinger's aromatic richness was matched by an austere but stylish palate, rich in the complex flavours of mature, blended reserve wine. Croser was elegant, too, but savoury, almost Marmite-like on the nose and refined in its fruit flavours. Bollinger Special Cuvee is pounds 18.42-pounds 22.75, (Oddbins, Wine Rack, Tesco, Sainsbury, Bottoms Up, Majestic, Thresher). The excellent new Croser 1990 is pounds 10.45 at Oddbins.

The lightly toasty, stylish Deutz Brut Champagne eclipsed its rather light, hard-edged New Zealand counterpart, Deutz Marlborough Cuvee (the Oddbins list quotes me enthusiastically on it, but if my quote does not refer to the superior previous vintage, my enthusiasm, I am afraid, has waned).

The Bollinger Special Cuvee was voted the wine of the evening on quality, closely followed by the Deutz, Laytons (071-388 5081). Andre Simon shops are offering pounds 30 off the case price of Deutz (reduced to pounds 179.15) as well as half-bottles (pounds 188.55) and magnums (pounds 183.85) if you buy three cases. On value, the Green Point was the winner, with Croser a respectable second. Which all goes to show that at the highest quality level, champagne is still numero uno. The best of new world fizz simply adds a new dimension of value for money. A similar pattern has emerged from various tastings conducted in the past couple of months: champagne at its best is better quality; new world fizz at its best is better value.

Apart from the two already mentioned, I have tasted some impressive new world sparklers in the past month or so. Shadow Creek 1983 (pounds 5.99, Majestic) is a mature pinot noir/chardonnay blend from Moet's California operation, Domaine Chandon, and rather good value. J from the Jordan Winery, in California's Sonoma Valley, is not cheap at pounds 13.95 (Lay & Wheeler, Colchester 0206 764446), but is a very classy drop. From New Zealand, Lindauer Rose (pounds 6.99, Tesco, Victoria Wine, Oddbins) is an elegant pink fizz, particularly inviting as an aperitif. Still in New Zealand, Daniel Le Brun Brut from Marlborough (pounds 9.95, Augustus Barnett) is probably the most champagne-like of new world fizz. This is not surprising, as Mr Le Brun is an emigre champenois who has perfected the methode champenoise in his new abode.

From the people who brought you Angas Brut, Yalumba has scored again with its Pinot Noir Chardonnay and its smart Bollinger lookalike label, this year's wine of the year (pounds 7.49-pounds 7.99, Oddbins, Sainsbury, Majestic, Davisons). It is rich, ripely sweet and slightly toasted, if a little overblown. More elegant, to my mind, is Yalumba D (pounds 10.99-pounds 13.50, Oddbins, Les Amis du Vin, London W1 and W9 (081-459 8011), Adnams, Suffolk (0502 724222). It is their top-of-the-range sparkling wine, a classy fizz with toasty, mature, reserve wine aromas and a lovely creamy fruitiness.

Cremant de Bourgogne from the Lugny Co-operative (pounds 6.25, Waitrose, pounds 6.53, Gateway) is almost indistinguishable from champagne itself. It has the requisite yeasty, biscuity aromas, and an underlying delicate creamy texture. For top quality vouvray of the crisp, honeyed chenin variety, try Bredif's stylish Vouvray Brut (pounds 8.89, Augustus Barnett and Gaston Huet's, pounds 8.99, Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up).

In tune with the times, I was intending to confine my Christmas fizz line-up to good-value alternatives to champagne. However, having tasted several excellent, relatively inexpensive champagnes, some are too good to miss and I think the ones mentioned here still fulfil the value-for-money criterion.

Waitrose has at last turned the Alexandre Bonnet Blanc de Noirs champagne from the Aube into its own-label champagne. At pounds 11.50, this savoury fizz with its fine pinot flavour is quite superb. Thresher has a fine, biscuity grower's champagne in Drappier Blanc de Blancs, a 100 per cent chardonnay blend, pounds 15.99, also at Wine Rack and Bottoms Up. Tesco's stylish Blancs de Blancs Champagne from Duval Leroy was the most impressive champagne at the store's recent tasting, and good value at pounds 13.79.

Scottish readers might care to explore the Christmas offer of Champagne Vilmart, a fine, honeyed, traditional grower's champagne. Alexander Scott of Gelston Castle, Castle Douglas (0556 3012) has it on offer at pounds 13.95.

Next week, Christmas high street wines.