CHAMPAGNE is special. There are other fine sparkling wines, not least some delicious English fizz; but nothing quite equals the best Champagne in terms of subtlety, complexity and sheer class.
It is the essential celebratory drink, not just because it’s a wonderful appetiser, but because it’s the perfect partner for food.
I’d go as far as to say no other wine, still or sparkling, is quite as food-friendly as Champagne. It remains my number one choice for Christmas.
There are some Champagnes that don’t come up to scratch. Most of them are very cheap. Christmas and New Year are a great excuse for Champagne houses and co-operatives to balance their books by offloading young, lesser-quality stock. After all, the quality of the top brands is only maintained by not including some wines in the final blend.
The law dictates that Champagne must be aged, in the bottle, for at least 15 months before it can be sold. For at least 12 months it must be in contact with the fine lees. The lees are made up of dead yeast cells, which as a result of a second fermentation in each bottle, once created the wine’s sparkle.
The lees also give the wine its creamy texture, distinctive yeasty smell and help to form a stream of tiny bubbles once it’s opened. Wine that has the bare minimum time on the lees tends to lack complexity. Most big houses age their Brut, non-vintage wines, the bulk of their production, for two or three years, and their rarer vintage wines for far longer.
I set myself a mission of seeking out bargains among wines that have been blended with care and aged long enough on the lees to give them the true enticing flavour and texture of a Champagne that’s worth savouring.
One of the consistently best buys is the Wine Society’s own-label Champagne (£27). This may not be discounted, but it’s a terrific bottle of fizz, especially if you like rich, fruity Champagne.
The secret of its richness is that all the base wine has been fermented and aged for five or six months in small oak casks, as I discovered when I visited Alfred Gratien, the house that has supplied the Wine Society since 1906. The wine is then aged three years in the bottle.
To balance the richness, it has wonderfully clean acidity, a result of choosing not to pass the wines through a malo-lactic fermentation, which most other Champagne houses do as a matter of routine. It’s worth joining the society to get your paws on this – a high quality fizz that can be enjoyed throughout a meal.
The Wine Chambers have really gone to town with their Champagne selection this Christmas and offer some big names at very competitive prices. The gorgeous Bollinger Special Cuvée Brut NV is just £32 and Charles Heidsieck Brut NV £35.
The Heidsieck like the Bolly, is a wine that truly combines creamy richness and elegance. It lasts so long in the mouth that you feel as if you’re getting twice as much wine for your money. One of the reasons for its extra complexity is the high 40%) level of reserve wines in the blend kept back from previous vintages.
The man who probably did more than any other to demonstrate the significance of blending as the key to great Champagne was the great Dom Perignon, who lived and worked at the Abbey of Hautvillers until his death in 1715. His statue stands outside the huge cellars of Moët & Chandon, the house that produces more Champagne than any other, including a prodigious quantity of very high quality wine under the Dom Perignon label.
Given that they are said to produce 30 million bottles of the Brut Impérial alone every year, the quality is impressive, in a relatively light style, though a top tip is to buy a bottle now to keep for next Christmas. That extra year resting pays dividends. It’s £31.99 in several supermarkets.
Not all younger Champagnes are a bad thing, as long as they are fresh and the base wines have been blended carefully. One that impressed me considerably is Marks & Spencer’s Louis Chaurey Brut NV (£15, special offer). It has a clean, precise, lemony aroma with some savoury notes and is very fresh and well-balanced – a super aperitif Champagne or partner for seafood.
It was made by Oudinot, long-time suppliers to M&S. Another, which despite 18 months’ ageing is a degree richer and creamier, is Cattier Brut NV (£20 at The Wine Chambers).
Pink Champagne generally benefits less from prolonged lees-ageing in the bottle. Whether or not it has been made from a pink base wine or white and red wines, the secret is to age it long enough to gain creaminess. Oudinot Rosé may not be the most sophisticated pink fizz on the market this Christmas, but I enjoy its bright strawberry flavour. On special offer at £21 (Marks & Spencer) it is hard to beat and would be another worthy partner for that Christmas turkey, or goose, or nut roast, or pretty well anything else you fancy.