Wine: Pop goes the millennium

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Indy Lifestyle Online
If every man and woman in the world were to down a glass of champagne on New Year's Eve, 1999, a night's global decadence would swallow up the equivalent of two harvests of champagne. A big if, but, with a way yet to go to the big party, the first buzz of millennium fever is in the air. Already, Alain Thienot, a small champagne house, has been asked for a quotation on 1,000 cases of its as-yet-unreleased 1995 vintage. Krug, the Rolls-Royce of champagne, is said to have sold pounds 250,000-worth of the 1985 vintage to a punter who's "taking a position" on the millennium.

The most spectacular initiative to date has come from Louis Roederer, which has produced and sold half of 2,000 methuselahs (each equal to eight bottles) of the 1990 vintage of its prestige brand Cristal. Each is fermented in its own, individually numbered bottle, and will be released in 1999, no doubt with a fanfare to do justice to the $2,000 fee for the privilege of exclusive membership of the Circle of Collectors of Methuselahs of Cristal 2000 (0181-871 3955, or 00-33-26 40 42 11).

In Britain, Selfridges is offering vintage champagne for release in 1999 with the warning: "vintage champagne is predicted to be in particularly short supply for the millennium". Christopher Piper, a Devon wine merchant, is offering 1985 Krug and 1989 Charles Heidsieck, claiming that "pressure will be put on all stocks of all types of champagne and the inevitable consequence will be some serious price increases." Bill Gunn, from Pol Roger, Winston Churchill's favourite, reports "quite a lot of demand... We will do a limited edition."

Yet, Roederer apart, party preparations within the region are as yet somewhat muted. "Actually, the only interest we see right now is coming from the UK," says Richard Geoffroy from Moet et Chandon. "We are working on a special project for the millennium, which will be announced in the winter." Guillaume de Synes from Henriot reports "no plans for the millennium yet. Perhaps we'll release a collection of older vintages."

Why such a lack of party spirit from a region whose wines are the epitome of special occasions? For one thing, the strategy of the past two years has been to play down champagne as a wine of celebration and, in tune with the increasingly sophisticated consumer, to point up its diversity of styles and range of quality and price. How else to explain to bewildered consumers that paying pounds 80 for 1985 Krug rather than a fraction of that price for a supermarket champagne is not entirely based on the snobbery of the label?

Shortages are currently the last thing on champenois minds. For the seventh year in a row, the Champagne region has produced yet another voluminous crop - the equivalent of 286 million bottles in a 1995 harvest of good quality. In the previous three years, champagne retained a surplus for a rainy day. But since the world's thirst can't keep up with the rate of bubbly production, they did not bother to keep any surplus back last year. And, since 1995 is a dead cert vintage year, the message is that despite the scare stories and rumours of shortages inevitably to come, short of a natural disaster, champagne is confident of its supplies.

Champagne is only now emerging from a prolonged period of crisis caused by soaring production costs and plummeting demand. Last year the price of grapes rose for the first time in three years. Any major escalation in the price of champagne would be a gift to the burgeoning industries of California, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa - any country, in fact, with increasingly good fizz to sell.

So how about champagne for the millennium? Non-vintage champagne improves with six months to a year in bottle, but at the current rate of production, supplies of non-vintage champagne will be plentiful, so there's no point in investing early. For those who can afford luxury blends, Krug, Roederer Cristal and Dom Perignon will be standard-bearers of one-upmanship in 1999; but, at current offer prices, invest in them at your peril.

A better case can be made for setting aside a few bottles of vintage champagne, which is remarkably long-lived for such an ephemeral experience. Of the vintage trio of 1988, 1989 and 1990, most of the 1988s are now released, with some of the richer, fuller 1989s coming on stream. Not all will last the course. The 1990 is by and large considered the best of the three. Most champagne houses will not be releasing their 1990 vintage until 1997 or later. On the eve of 2000, 1995 too will be on stream. So the message is: keep your nerve. Short of a Bond-style plot to buy up both vintages to feed speculation fever, there should be ample bubbly to go round

Recommended champagnes

Vintage 1988 Billecart Salmon; 1985 Gosset; 1985 Charles Heidsieck; 1988 Henriot; 1988 Veuve Clicquot; 1988 Pol Roger; 1989 Louis Roederer; 1989 Bruno Paillard; 1989 Andre Jacquart

Non-vintage Bollinger; Charles Heidsieck; Henriot; Lanson; Laurent Perrier; Bruno Paillard; Piper-Heidsieck; Louis Roederer

Good value Michel Arnould et Fils, TW Wines, Thetford (01842-765646); Albert Beerens Reserve, Bibendum (0171-722 5577); Philippe Brugnon, pounds 14.88 case/bottle, Oxford Wine Company (01865-820729); Sainsbury's Blanc de Noirs

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