Champagne put to the test: Taking the fizz out of bubbly

Forget Moët & Chandon. The experts agree that if you really want to impress, crack open a Somerfield or a Sainsbury
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Champagne is best served cold at a temperature of between 7C and 9C in a flute glass, to retain the bubbles. An ice bucket is stylish but optional. The champagne itself? A refined palette might select the elegance of the Tesco Premier Cru, while the really discerning would plump for the £14.99 Prince William range from Somerfield.

Surely it should be something more expensive like the Moët & Chandon, you might ask? Forget it. Despite costing far more than the supermarket bubbly, the Moët & Chandon won't please like the own-label champers, at least according to a taste test by Which?, which may lead to a reappraisal of mass-market bubbly.

In a blind test that has thrilled the marketing departments of the major retailers and perturbed at least one of the grande marques, six wine experts gave a resounding vote of support to some of the less glamorous bottles.

Topping a test of 32 champagnes and sparkling wines was Sainsbury's Premier Cru vintage 2000, which costs £22.99 but is on offer at £17.99 until 12 December. The judging panel, which included a master of wine, praised the own-label offering for its "elegance and class" and "biscuity complexity".

In second place was Somerfield's Prince William bottle, which was praised as being "crisp, quite light and elegant" with a "toasty maturity".

A private family champagne stocked by Oddbins was third and two famous marques, Lanson and Veuve Cliquot, came in fourth and fifth. Marks and Spencer had the best overall result of any supermarket, with a champagne ranked eighth and a carbonated New Zealand ranked 11th - the highest placing for a sparkling wine.

But rich old Moët & Chandon, Britain's best selling brand and one of the illustrious champagne houses, limped in at number 20, behind no fewer than six supermarket sparkling wines.

According to the panel of tasters, the £24 Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial was inferior to a £3.99 cava from the Co-op and - how embarrassing is this? - a £3.29 Castell Llord Cava Brut from Netto. It also underperformed Lidl's £11.99 bubbly.

Which? was yesterday describing the results of its test as evidence that shoppers should not have their heads turned by the panache of the finest names in champagne.

"The fact that top wine experts picked more supermarket own-brand champagnes than well-known names as their favourites speaks volumes - don't feel you have to spend a fortune," advised Neil Fowler, Which? editor.

But how true is it that the grande marques are little better - and sometimes worse - than the own labels? While the chain store labels undoubtedly sometimes offer excellent value, many experts believe the best champagnes in terms of the trade-off between cost and taste are priced between £30 and £40. And sparkling wines from outside Champagne may be a better option, especially for cocktails.

The Which? test demands respect because it was carried out by independent experts. A panel of six tasted the bottles at Which?'s offices in Marylebone on 11 October. The testers were The Independent's wine critic Anthony Rose; the freelance writer Charles Metcalfe and his wife Kathryn McWhirter, also a oenophile; the New Zealand master of wine Peter McCombie, and the wine writers Peter Richards and Susie Barrie.

Supermarkets were asked to supply a champagne of around £22 and a sparkling wine costing between £5 and £15. Which? added the three best-selling champagne brands in Britain - Moët & Chandon, Lanson and Veuve Cliquot - and the British sparkling wines Nyetimber and Ridgeway (both of which fared poorly). Netto's appealing fizz was below the price range specified but was included because the discount chain was unable to supply a more expensive bottle.

"The idea was to get together the great value sparkling wines and champagnes for Christmas and see what the major retailers could come up with," said Mr Metcalfe, co-chairman of the International Wine Awards.

In general, the tasters found: the finest £20 champagnes came from supermarkets; the big brands could not guarantee impressive performance; champagne generally outclassed sparkling wine; but some cheap sparklers did better than some champagnes.

"The message is: don't feel you have to buy big-name champagnes if you want a good drinking experience," said Mr Metcalfe. "But also don't feel you have to buy champagne if you are making a 'champagne cocktail' like buck's fizz or kir royale because the taste will be lost - a sparkling wine will do. Unless, of course, you want to have the cachet of champagne, in which case it is another matter."

Regardless of the cheaper alternatives, champagne is wildly popular in the UK, where 30 million bottles of champagne are consumed every year. Britain is the biggest market outside France and the biggest importer in the world.

Under EU rules, sparkling wines (cava in Spain, spumante in Italy) cannot call themselves champagne unless they are produced in the 32,000 hectares of vineyards in the Champagne region. Its soil produces distinctively elegant carbonated wine.

In its article "Let's get fizzical", Which? concluded: "As a group the champagnes generally stood out as being finer, richer and interestingly flavoured than the sparkling wines, which were mostly thought of as 'fresh, clean and fruity, but lacking in complexity'."

As they travel around the Champagne region, supermarket buyers choose the blend of the three champagne grapes - pinot noir, pinot menuere and chardonnay - for their own-label brands. They have to possess two key skills: an extraordinarily fine palette and the commercial ability to hammer down the price.

At the vineyards, supermarket buyers have immense power because they increasingly dominate what we drink. Almost three quarters of all retail wine is sold by the supermarkets. Some 64 per cent of champagne in Britain is sold by supermarkets. Melissa Draycott, champagne buyer for Sainsbury's, tastes hundreds of champagnes every year and, in one week in April, tasted 250. One of six wine buyers at Sainsbury's, she selected Which?'s winner from a small vineyard, Duval Leroy, in March.

So valuable is Angela Mount, the nose for Somerfield, that the supermarket insured her palette for £10m three years ago. She was elated at having her Prince William Premier Cru eclipse the prestige brands in the test. "I'm absolutely delighted. It purely backs what I've said all along," she said. Her bottle sells for £14.99.

At the other end of the scale, Pernod Ricard, the world's second biggest drinks group, has announced plans to make the world's most expensive champagne. The Perrier Jouet's Belle Epoque will cost €1,000 (£670).

Experts believe, however, that the most expensive end of the market is more about offering prestige than delectation. A £500 bottle of vintage champagne may indeed taste better than a £50 bottle but the difference will be subtle or inconsequential to most palettes.

Serena Sutcliffe, the international head of Sotheby's wine department, personally favours Louis Roederer ("great definition and class") and Bollinger ("hugely individual personality").

She said: "I would go up from non-vintage and buy a house's vintage. It combines the character of the house - the qualities of the vineyard, of the soil - with the character of the year. You can get some very good bottles between £25 and £35."

Best buys

1 Sainsbury's Taste the difference Vintage 2000 Premier Cru Champagne

£22.99 on offer at £17.99 to 12 December Sainsbury (Champagne: 2000 vintage)

Score 16.2

2 Prince William Premier Cru Champagne NV

£14.99 Somerfield (Champagne Non-vintage)

Score 16.1

3 Pierre Gimonnet & Fils 1er Cru 'Gastronome'

£19.99 Oddbins (Champagne Non-vintage)

Score: 15.8

4 Lanson Black Label NV

£20.78 Tesco (Champagne Non-vintage)

Score: 15.7

5= Radcliffes de Brissar Champagne NV

£24.99 Thresher Wine Rack (Champagne Non-vintage)

Score: 15.1

5= Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin NV

£26.94 Tesco (Champagne Non-vintage)

Score: 15.1

7 Tesco Premier Cru Champagne Brut NV

£14.99 Tesco (Champagne Non-vintage)

Score: 15.0

8= Champagne Les Pionniers NV

£13.99 Co-op (Champagne Non-vintage)

Score: 14.5

8= Oudinot Cuvee Brut NV

£17.99 on promotion in December down to £12.99 Marks & Spencer (Champagne Non-vintage)

Score: 14.5

10 Waitrose Champagne

£21.99 (1999 Vintage)

11= Bluff Hill (NZ) NV

£7.99 Marks & Spencer (Sparkling Non-vintage)

Score: 14.3

11= Asda Brut

£16.94 (Champagne, 2000)

Score: 14.3

13 Carlin Premier Cru

£11.99 Aldi (Champagne Non-vintage)

Score: 14.2

14 Marques De Monistrol

£7.99 but £3.99 to 31 December Co-op (Vintage Cava 2001)

Score: 14.1

14= Vintage Cava Brut

£6.99 Somerfield (Sparkling 2000)

Score: 14.1

16 Jean D'Eperon

£10.99 Morrison (Champagne Non-vintage)

Score: 13.8

17 Castell Llord Cava Brut

£3.29 Netto (Sparkling Non-Vintage)

Score: 13.7

18 Perle de Vigne Crémant de Bourgogne, Louis Bouillot

£7.19 Majestic (Sparkling Non-Vintage)

Score: 13.5

19 Pelorus

£17.99 Wine Rack (Sparkling Non-vintage)

Score: 13.4

20 Moet & Chandon Brut Imperial

£23.94 (Champagne Non-vintage)

Score: 12.9