French run out of new year fizz

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The Independent Online
THE SHORTAGE of millennium champagne is now so serious that French wine merchants have been driven to cross the Channel in a desperate hunt to buy back their own bubbly.

Shrewd English wine investors have stockpiled the top vintages, leaving French suppliers no option but to pay hugely increased prices in the face of unprecedented demand for top quality champagne.

The New Year hangover has already begun for many sommeliers who have been forking out an extra pounds 1,000 per case.

The most sought-after vintage is the 1990, which was largely bought up by British investors at the time of its release, according to one leading merchant.

"The French rarely keep anything for more than two years whereas the English have a love for putting things away for as long as they can; it's the squirrel syndrome," said a spokesman for Morris and Verdin importers and shippers of wine, at London Bridge. "Only the actual champagne producers are well stocked, but those bottles which left their cellars in 1990 will not have been kept by the French."

Jonathan Stephens of Farr Vintners, the largest fine wine traders in the UK, confirmed that when it comes to wine price forecasting, the English really know their stuff.

One of his clients handed over pounds 500,000 four years ago asking him to buy up vintage champagne. "He has achieved a good return on his investment by selling the vintage champagne at varying prices over the last year. Let's just say he's done better than if he'd kept his money in the bank."

Thierry Thomasin, head sommelier at Mayfair's La Gavroche, where 1990 Dom Perignon costs around pounds 160 a bottle, confirmed that there was a shortage of vintage champagne. "I said at the beginning of the year `oh la la, we have to be careful'.

"We have a wine cellar now that is extremely well stocked, but I have colleagues from France who are calling me asking where they can buy good champagne.

"The price of a case of Cristal 1990 originally cost pounds 650 but now prices are exceeding pounds 1,650. I feel sorry for them - my friends in France are having to pay three, four times over the price of the original. Some wine merchants are breaking contracts because they can not supply more than 1,500 cases a time to customers. Thankfully we do not have that problem."

Last year one London City trader drove to Reims and spent pounds 15,000 buying 900 bottles of the vintage bubbly. In January he advertised his cache on the internet and was swamped with offers from restaurants and hotel chains bidding upwards of pounds 25,000.

Britain is champagne's top export market, with a 21 per cent share, ahead of Germany and the US. In 1997 more than 22.2 million bottles were shipped to the UK, meaning that on average, more than one was uncorked every 1.5 seconds.