Bubbly war leads to bargains galore

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The Independent Online
CHAMPAGNE wars are in full swing on both sides of the Channel. In Britain, Tesco is selling the Louis Massing brand at pounds 7.95 a bottle, a price matched by Safeway's Lionel Derens.

Sainsbury is riposting with advertisements featuring Lord 'Denis the Bollinger Bolshevik' Healey, the successor to leggy lovelies in the series such as Selina Scott and Catherine Zeta Jones. In Champagne itself, the depth of the recession was emphasised last week when Moet et Chandon, the biggest firm in the region, announced that nearly a quarter of its workforce would be made redundant by the end of next year.

The recession has hit Champagne hard. In the late Eighties, the Champenois got greedy - the grapes alone were costing over pounds 3 a bottle - and quality dropped as the cost of maturing it soared.

Quality controls have now been tightened up, reducing the quantity of grapes which can be harvested from a given acreage and the amount of juice which can be squeezed from a kilo of grapes, and lengthening the minimum period for which the wine has to be aged. But these steps were too late to prevent a crash in sales - shipments to Britain alone dropped by over a third, to 14 million bottles, between 1990 and 1991.

Sales have recovered slightly since then, but most of the benefit has gone not to the best-known names, or even to the supermarkets' own brands, but to special purchases sold at around pounds 4 below the price of supermarket own brands. But the buyers are having to be careful. According to one, 'there's a lot of awful stuff out there' - acid, young 'green' champagnes, most bought by French supermarkets less worried about quality than their British equivalents. The real cheapos come from growers or merchants embarrassed by a lack of what the French call 'le cash flow'.

The slump has not affected all the firms equally. Sales of Bollinger at pounds 21.75 have doubled this year. Bill Gunn, who imports Pol Roger, Churchill's favourite champagne, says that sales have held up relatively well 'partly because we have a well-balanced geographical spread, from the Savoy to the North'.

And the two super-cheapos? Both were better, fruitier, less acid than expected. The Derens was unremarkable, but with a nice fruity feel about it. The Massing was a star, well aged with a refreshing, lemony feel on the nose and palate.