Top marque for supermarket in the champagne stakes

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Indy Lifestyle Online

A supermarket own-brand champagne costing under 20 has out-performed bottles from traditional houses such as Taittinger and Moet & Chandon in a blind-tasting by wine connoisseurs in the run-up to Christmas.

A team of eight wine writers, shippers and consultants, including two Masters of Wine, gave the 18.99 Waitrose own-label Blanc de Blanc the maximum five stars, praising its "creamy palette and richness".

By no coincidence perhaps, the grocery chain's chardonnay blend is made by P&C Heidsieck, the champagne house which produced the only other five-star variety, the 53 Piper Heidsieck Cuve Rare.

The connoisseurs said the test, run by Decanter magazine, showed that supermarket own-labels could rival the branded, non-vintage offerings from the grandes marques.

Although the more established houses in the Champagne region are still out on their own in terms of vintage produce, usually costing 50 and more, British supermarkets are improving their own-label non-vintage offerings, blended from several years.

Last November, oenophiles for Which? preferred own-label champagne costing about 20 to more expensive offerings from Lanson, Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot.

For Decanter's test, a team including masters of wine Nick Adams and Stephen Skelton and The Independent's wine columnist Anthony Rose scored 146 bottles with no knowledge of the labels.

Apart from the two award-winners, they recommended 11 four-star bottles, from the likes of Louis Roederer and stocked at wine merchants. They mostly cost between 29 and 47.

Of the 98 bottles with three stars, the top-scoring was Decanter's best-value champagne, a blossomy own-label from the northern chain Booths. Priced at 14.99, it pipped a 33 Bollinger special cuve.

Thirty-three bottles were two-star and two were a "poor" one star, including a Rene Jardin from The Sunday Times Wine Club.

Overall, the panel said the standard of non-vintage champagne was superior to previous years, probably because the blend no longer included grapes from the poor 2001 harvest.

Guy Woodward, editor of Decanter, suggested that strong global demand had relaxed the approach of the grand houses at a time when British supermarkets were improving.

He said: "Maybe a lot of the great champagne producers have got a little bit complacent. I suspect some of them are resting on their laurels. They put all their best grapes into the vintage champagne and the non-vintage is a bit of an afterthought whereas for supermarkets non-vintage is the main thing."

Mr Skelton, a specialist in English wines, hailed the quality of the grocery blends and singled out Waitrose, saying that its buying team put in more effort than other supermarkets.

For Waitrose, the sparkling-wine buyer, Dee Blackstock, praised the producer P&C Heidsieck, with whom the store had close links as a result of frequent cross-Channel trips. "I think they have always had brilliant winemakers and blenders and access to excellent fruit," she said.

Mr Woodward, whose website lists supermarket offers on champagne, advised shoppers to avoid heavily discounted bottles, which had probably not been aged enough. Champagne at around 20 normally represented good value, he said.

Decanter's verdict

Five-star

Waitrose Blanc de Blancs, 18.99

"Signs of maturity, bready, yeasty notes. Broad, creamy palette. Richness and hints of white chocolate."

Piper Heidsieck, 53.66

"Attractive honey touches and red berry backdrop. Really intense and full bodied. Lovely reserve wine character, refined brioche elements. Superb."

Four-star

Louis Roederer Brut Premier, 31.50

"Bright, clean with finesse. A very elegant, classy, beautifully balanced wine. Its acidity and attack are very impressive."

Ruinart, 30

"Very pleasant fresh brioche, a touch of honeyed fruit. Quite soft in texture but subtle and interesting. If offers a rich, seamless fruit quality with finesse."

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