Anyone would think we had plenty to celebrate

Emma Cook raises her glass to an explosion in the sales of champagne
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"Do you want to know the best thing about champagne?" says 32- year-old Rob Peterson jovially as he drains his tulip crystal glass in Kettners, a champagne bar in Soho. "It takes you up quickly and gives you a buzz, not like lager or wine. It's the best high around that's legal."

Rob, a retail manager who works in Covent Garden, is at the bar with two friends and they've just polished off their third bottle of Laurent Perrier. It's barely 7pm. "I enjoy it, I suppose, because there's something decadent about it," reflects Bob. "But it's not just that. I like the effect."

Once champagne was the tipple of the rich. Today we are a nation of champagne guzzlers, regardless of class or creed. In 1996, 20 million bottles of champagne were imported to the UK compared to only 14 million in 1991. In the first nine months of this year champagne shipments were 12 per cent ahead of 1996. And that was before the time of year when consumption rockets; 40 per cent of all champagne sales are in the last three months of the year, with most of the corks popping at midnight on New Year's Eve.

Even a decade ago, no one could have imagined the extent to which champagne would become so popular. Now pockets of club culture covet the drink; while acid house stuck to Lucozade, London's speed garage scene favours Bollinger.

Yet despite its accessibility to a wide market, rather than the reserve of a privileged few, champagne hasn't lost its status. Unlike second-hand Porsches and mobile phones, champagne has become the style statement that's ideal for Blairite Britain: good enough for everyone, but still top quality.

This doesn't surprise Antony Mallaby, chairman of the Champagne Agents Association who describes the British appetite as "really very healthy". Apparently we knock back more of the stuff than anyone in Europe except, of course, for the French.

"The Germans overtook us briefly in 1995," says Mr Mallaby, "but now we're winning the battle with Eighties consumption levels.

"Today's sales are through a much wider spectrum of outlets; off-licences, hotels and restaurants. It's not just in London but right through the country. It's A, B, C1 and C2 and across all ages."

This seems apparent after one glance across the mock marbled bar of Kettners. Clusters of casually dressed 20-something girls stand around shiny buckets topped with ice along with city types and suits and office party casualties.

Dawn Little, 28, who works as a supplier in Billingsgate fish market is enjoying her second bottle of Laurent Perrier with two friends. "I don't do it because it's cool or decadent. I actually like the taste," she says. "It makes a difference from getting a bottle of wine." Nearby, Jeff Saisi, 45, an advertising agency rep, admits rather wearily: "It may as well be paraffin. I drink so much of the stuff."

Not that he's averse to the taste - he's sharing his third bottle of Louis Roederer, at pounds 31 a throw, with his mate Jon Hurst, 24. According to the manager Mohamed Adair, who is selling roughly 30 bottles more each night compared to this time last year, the biggest selling brand is Kettner's house champagne followed by Bollinger and Laurent Perrier.

Part of this increase could be a feel-good factor but it also reflects a shift in consumer taste and awareness. Mr Mallaby says: "UK consumers are a great deal more sophisticated than they're ever given credit for. They're prepared to try a lot of different things. We are a nation of experimenters in wine."

Francoise Peretti, director of the Champagne Information Bureau, agrees. "Today we're seeing people who discriminate. They know what it is - they have an increasing knowledge of wine. And they drink it because they want the real McCoy. They're not ordering it as a status symbol."

Saying that, there's still a fair amount of snobbery and etiquette involved. The wrong shaped champagne glasses, for instance, can expose you as an instant amateur. Forget the flat ones you see in 1950s movies. Annette Duce, champagne buyer for Fortnum and Mason, recommends flutes at all times: "In flat ones the bubbles and aromas dissipate very quickly. Long flutes look beautiful with the beads of bubbles marching to the top. Champagne and sparkling wines aren't seen as frivolous brands anymore and are given the glasses they deserve."

According to Justin Apthorp, champagne buyer for Majestic Wines, the number one selling champagne by far is Moet & Chandon followed by Lanson.

The uppity sparkling wines from countries trying to rival France's Champagne region have done little to encroach on these prestige labels. People still prefer the real thing. Mr Apthorp says: "Sparkling wines sales aren't particularly that brilliant - the cheap end is doing badly."

Unlike sparkling wine, though, there is only a finite amount of champagne, which adds to its appeal. The Champagne region in France covers 62,000 acres and each manufacturer has certain allocations. This year, Bollinger ran out a month ago. The next shipment will not arrive until the New Year.

No doubt the demand will increase as the Millennium approaches and British consumers discover that you don't have to wait until Christmas to pop open a bottle. As Mallaby says: "It's no longer an occasion wine. It's something people drink frequently, when they feel happy."