The bubble bursts

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Indy Lifestyle Online
There's something to be said for laying in a bottle or three of vintage or de luxe champagne for the New Year's Eve party of a lifetime. With fortuitous timing, a trio of top-knotch vintages in 1988, 1989 and 1990 has ensured that those aiming to mark the occasion in style should have the means, if not the wherewithal, to do so. Champagne itself, with a proliferation of millennium magnums, jeroboams and other limited editions, has had no qualms about entering into the lucrative spirit of things. Or at least had no qualms.

Thanks to the recovery and the restaurant boom, champagne shipments have soared to the record levels of the 1980s. Vintage champagne itself, the product of a single year which is matured in subterranean chalk cellars for a minimum of three years, normally represents a relatively small proportion of total champagne production. UK sales of vintage champagne in 1995, for instance, were less than five per cent of the total in 1995. But fuelled by the millennium factor, they shot to a record 10 per cent in 1986. According to Antony Mallaby, chairman of the Champagne Agents' Association, "there's an awful lot of interest in vintage champagnes and de luxe cuvees".

Demand, leading to scare stories of champagne shortages, has spawned a growing number of so-called investment schemes. Plausible offers, from companies with aristocratic names, have atracted a considerable number of people with money to burn. Typically, they appear as adverts or glossy brochures inserted into national or regional newspapers or magazines, with craftily edited press cuttings in support of the shortage theory.

A comparison of prices between so-called investment offers and champagnes on the market, however, shows that these are not the money-makers they appear. According to Mallaby, "It's wrong to offer champagne as an investment vehicle. Unlike claret or vintage port, it never has been an investment." The Serious Fraud Office is currently investigating as many as 30 dubious schemes, which it reckons could involve 10,000 buyers with as much as pounds 60 million of investors' money at risk.

Clive Potter, a dealer in stocks and shares in Southend, pledged pounds 60,000 to two investment schemes offering champagne from Marne et Champagne and Beaumont des Crayeres respectively as investments. He lost pounds 6,000 in deposits to Berkely Wines when it went under but got out just in time before paying over the full whack. Research carried out by drinks journalist Jim Budd shows that a number of champagne companies, in some cases lured by the prospect of cash up-front, have supplyied champagne which is then offered to the public at inflated prices.

When Pol Roger, for instance, issued a limited-edition offer of 500 jeroboams of its 1988 Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill at pounds 385 to the wine trade, a company called Maybury Cellars then flogged them off in pairs at pounds 2,200 a throw. Pol Roger says that when it found out, it refused to supply more.

Alain Thienot is a highly reputable champagne house currently supplying La Maison de Bouvier. When Thienot discovered Bouvier was offering its champagne as an investment, it says it asked La Maison de Bouvier to drop the word investment and lower its prices. Thienot, meanwhile, like a number of champagne companies caught in the unwelcome spotlight of supplying investment schemes, insists that all sales will be honoured.

After selling a 1988 Champagne Gauthier to Berkely Wines for around pounds 25, which was then offered by Berkely Wines to the public at pounds 56, Marne et Champagne admits it should have known better. When it discovered what was happening, it stopped a second container, which has now been made available to the liquidator. According to evidence to a High Court judge in February, Forrester & Lamego had been offering unwitting investors Cattier Champagne under a different name at a mark-up of 272 per cent. Earlier this month, the Advertising Standards Authority upheld a number of complaints over inflated claims made by Forrester & Lamego.

From a smart Paris address, the House of Delacroix is yet another company offering non-vintage champagne as an investment. And according to a recent reort, the DTI is investigating Trouillard Champagne, which tried to persuade Great Ormond Street children's hospital to invest in another scheme. Connaught Belgravia, which offered Etienne Dufour Champagne, a non-existent brand until Connaught managed to find a bulk supplier, ceased trading on 24 January, 1997.

Short of an ecological disaster, the scare stories of shortages have been hyped out of all proportion. 1996 - a vintage year - will come on stream in time for the millennium. And with over one billion bottles of champagne in stock, the worst thing that could happen to anyone desperate to drink champagne is that they will have to put up with toasting the millennium in the non- vintage stuff. The Champagne Bureau in London, anxious to scotch rumours of shortage, says "champagne is not a liquid asset. Before "investing" in champagne, ask yourself who'll buy your investment champagne in 1999? Not the auction houses. Not the retailers. Your next-door neighbour?"

So what should you lay in for 1999 in the way of vintage champagne? Beware anything in this country called Millennium Cuvee for a start. Both Tesco and Victoria Wine's 1990s are plain fare indeed. Overall 1990 is an exceptional vintage but it is by no means as consistently wonderful as Reims and Epernay would have you believe. There are a surprising number of rather ordinary 1990s on the market, just as there are a significant number of superior 1988s and 1989s. So if you want vintage, look not just at 1990 but at the best from 1988 and 1989, too

The best bubbly

1990 Charles Heidsieck Brut, pounds 23.50-pounds 29.99 bottle/ case, Classic Wines, Chester (01244 288444), Justerini & Brooks (case delivery from October), London SW1, (0171-493 8721). The mature aromatic power of this vintage champagne is typical of the rich Heidsieck house style: full-flavoured with a citrus-fresh, delicately malty, mouthfilling foam cushion. 1990 Roederer Brut, pounds 33.25 case/bottle, Justerini & Brooks. A mini-Roederer Cristal, the consummate 1990 with brioche notes, complex fruit flavours and a creamy-rich expansive mousse of bubbles. 1990 Deutz Brut, pounds 24.28. Andre Simon shops, London. A tautly youthful, sophisticated Grande Marque with biscuity undertones and fine complexity, set to blossom, given time, into something special. 1990 Pommery Brut, pounds 22.28, Oddbins (7 for 6). A stylish chardonnay/pinot noir blend delicately scented with toast and nuts whose silky mousse with its rich, honeycomb character and crisp appley backbone, has the chardonnay grape in the ascendant. 1990 Duval-Leroy1990 Fleur de Champagne Blanc de Blancs, pounds 18.39-pounds 18.95, Terry Platt, Llandudno, (01492 592971), Lay & Wheeler, Colchester, (01206 764446) Adnams, Southwold (01502 727222). Attractive aromas and delicate mousse with fine, intense flavours, plenty of fruit richness and the capacity to age in an elegantly balanced whole. 1990 Philippe Brugnon Brut, around pounds 18.49, Oxford Wine Company (01367253990). An affordably elegant, grower's champagne with appley aromas and flavour and richly textured, creamy mousse. 1989 Billecart-Salmon, Cuvee Nicolas-Francois Billecart, pounds 25.71, Oddbins (7 for 6). Poised blend of pinot noir and chardonnay with rich, toasty aromas and the mouthfilling strawberries and cream character and texture of the pinot noir grape. 1989 Veuve Clicquot Brut Reserve, around pounds 31.99, Waitrose, Sainsbury's, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up, Greenalls, Victoria Wine. Outstanding, richly textured vintage champagne with oodles of complex flavours and real finesse. 1990 Jacquart Brut, pounds 19.99, Majestic Wine. A complex, good-value pinot noir/chardonnay blend with fine, honeyed aromas and a delicate, intensely flavoured, creamy mousse of tiny pinhead bubbles. 1989 Bollinger Grande Annee, around pounds 38.99, Majestic Wine, Thresher, Victoria Wine, Davisons. Powerfully aromatic, this big, rich, classy two- thirds pinot noir, one-third chardonnay blend is highly complex and intensely flavoured. 1988 Pol Roger, around pounds 32, stockist to follow. Intense aromatic quality, and creamy mousse with lots of honeyed, nutty flavours, this elegant mouthful has the ideal structure for ageing.

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