A bewildering variety faces the Christmas champagne shopper. Hester Lacey provides some useful cork tips
champagne, explains the leaflet published by the Comite Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne, is a wine that conveys "charme, extase, intelligence et tendresse". They have gone so far as to divide champagne varieties into four different families, ruled by Body, Spirit, Heart and Soul characteristics. Spiritual champagnes tend to be intelligent and romantic; soulful ones are ecstatic and mystical, champagnes of the heart are tender and enthusiastic, while more corporeal varieties are sensual and charming. Ooo la la.

But this doesn't help the lay drinker much. Psychoanalysing champagne is all very well, but if you want to drink it rather than chat it up, there is a bewildering variety on sale. The easy way is to grab the one you've always enjoyed; but branching out is easy, says Francoise Peretti, director of the Champagne Information Bureau.

Champagne, she says, is an intimidating purchase for most people. "Give credit to your country - the best wine connoisseurs in the world are British. Perhaps 10 per cent of the population are great connoisseurs. But the other 90 per cent go into the supermarket or the high street shop, look at the selection, and are quite baffled."

Don't panic. The first step is to be clear about when you are going to drink your champagne. "The British are more advanced than the French - they drink champagne as an aperitif," says Francoise. "You would choose a lighter champagne as an aperitif, and a more full-bodied variety to drink with food. It would be ostentatious and silly to say that champagne goes with everything - it's not something to drink with every meal. But when we tasted it with a traditional Christmas lunch, we found a rose, vintage or non-vintage, would go well with turkey. In general, champagne goes well with fish and seafood, and you should steer away from very strong flavours and over-spicy foods - though I once had a premier cuvee with mince pies and it was quite nice."

Once you have a rough idea what you want, if you don't have the opportunity to go to a tasting, ask your wine merchant for a recommendation. "For Christmas, by all means be adventurous, but if you aren't 100 per cent confident, ask for advice. The people who work in wine shops know what they are talking about, so don't hesitate." (Some suggestions from the Champagne Information Bureau appear below.) Breaking the bank is not necessary. "The best champagne is the one you can afford and the one you like the best," says Francoise. "There is such a diversity of prices, consumers should be jumping up and down with joy. Look around!"

Once bought, champagne needs to be treated with respect. "Don't store it too close to the Aga. Heat is no friend to champagne. And don't leave it in the light - though all bottles are anti-UV- treated these days. You should buy from a shop with a good turnover, so you know it hasn't been sitting around too long." If you are only keeping it for a few weeks, it doesn't matter if the bottle stands upright or lies down - "don't agonise over it," says Francoise briskly.

If you forget to chill your champagne or there's no room in the fridge, half an hour in a sink or bucket filled with a mixture of ice and water will do. "Don't serve it too cold," is the official advice. "If it's freezing cold, wait a bit or you won't get the different aromas; all you'll taste is a cold drink."

Glasses must be properly clean. "Dishwasher products have a built-in anti-foaming agent which will make the champagne go flat in an instant," warns Francoise. "Rinse the glasses in water. Be sure to use a clean cloth to dry them or your champagne will also have a dirty nose." She prefers plain glasses to cut ones - "you start tasting with your eyes, the bubbles look so pretty rising" - and the ideal shape is a tall flute with a long stem. If you don't have flutes, a red wineglass is fine - the essentials are a long stem to avoid warming the champagne, and a narrow shape to stop the bubbles dissipating.

Getting the cork out without spilling a drop is easy. The trick, explains Francoise, is to remove the wire muzzle, then hold the cork and turn the bottle. "Keep your hand over the cork and the gas does the work for you. If the cork is stuck firmly, use pliers or nutcrackers to gently ease it up. And keep hold of the cork - once the wire is off, it's a flying object."

And once it's out of the bottle, don't even think about adulterating it. Buck's Fizz? "Aaaaaah," says Francoise with a shudder. "It takes so much effort to make a bottle of champagne, so much effort to blend it so that its character is right - why mix it?"

A good bottle of non-vintage champagne will cost in the region of pounds 20; vintage bottles are often more expensive. Francoise suggests laying down your own for the millenium. "If you want to set a bottle aside now, rather than going into a frenzy later on when everyone thinks of it, it's worth noticing that we have had some fantastic vintages recently: 1985 is great, '88 is great, '89 is superb, '90 is brilliant."

The alcohol in sparkling drinks reaches the bloodstream quickly, and a champagne hangover can be vicious. (Though anyone who can afford enough of it to get hungover can probably afford time to lie around recuperating). In moderation, though, it's forgiving - "the only drink that leaves a woman beautiful," according to popular lore.

8 The Champagne Information Bureau: 58 Jermyn Street, London SW1Y 6LX

POP YOUR CORK FOR THESE

Here is a list of ideas for the festive season, suggested by the Champagne Information Bureau, tasted and heartily recommended by Real Life. Some are well-known, some less so. Cheers, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year.

Ayala, creamy, fruity.

Albert Beerens Brut Reserve, special offer of pounds 12.99 from Bibendum Wine (tel 0171-916 7706), hefty, full-bodied.

Billecart Salmon Brut Reserve, pounds 18.99, fruity. Bollinger Special Cuvee, rich, full-bodied.

Bruno Paillard, light, delicate.

Lanson Black Label, pounds 17-pounds 18, fruity, dry.

Laurent Perrier, pounds 18.49, light, fruity.

Mumm Cordon Rouge, fruity, fresh.

Pannier, hefty, fruity.

Perrier-Jouet Grand Brut, pounds 16.99, perfumed.

Taittinger Brut Reserve, pounds 20.99, dry, light.

Veuve Clicquot Brut Yellow Label, around pounds 21, fruity, fresh, light.

Veuve Delaroy Brut Reserve, special offer of pounds 9.99 from Bibendum Wine, light, crisp. (Where a stockist is not mentioned, try any good wine merchant or off-licence. Own brands can also be good value - Victoria Wine's own- brand 1989 vintage is on special offer of pounds 15.99 until 3 January.)

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