The King of Bubbles

It’s difficult to imagine now but for decades Champagne was practically the only sparkling wine people in the UK consumed in any decent quantity

Article by Winston Chesterfield

The thing with champagne is, it has never been cheap. Whereas you can pick up other sparkling wines for under £10 a bottle, you will struggle to find a bottle of decent Champagne for less than £25.

From the late 19th century, ‘expensive’ became one of the words most associated with the drink. As a consequence, Champagne consumption is increasingly seen as a portrayal of wealth and status, rather than the imbibing of a wine of high quality.

This is a mixed-blessing for producers. Whilst they can capitalise on luxury price expectations for the product, they have to deal with the fact that plenty of people end up buying it, serving it and drinking it because of what the label of Champagne says about them, rather than how they feel about the liquid inside.

This superficial quality to Champagne has fermented slowly in popular culture, ever since Moёt paid George Leybourne to prance about the stage as Champagne Charlie. Whenever a bottle smashed against the side of a ship, or a racing driver showered an adoring crowd, the reputation of Champagne grew – but its real value, the epicurean quality, was slowly being eroded: it doesn’t take long for the desirable codes of bourgeois society to appear as mere vulgarity.

“Why Champagne?” – until recently, not one person ever really asked that question. It was always “Why not…?”

But now, more and more people are trying alternatives to Champagne and are finding themselves switching entirely, leaving the ancient and famous French houses on the store shelves.

One of the organisations that has been responsible for shifting case after case of the stuff since it was first widely available is Justerini & Brooks. Like many ancient wine merchants, J&B has supplied grand households, royalty, luxury hotels and restaurants with fizz for well over 150 years.

No better authority then, for the host of an elegant Champagne tasting. And no better venue, surely, than the Hotel Café Royal in central London, given that it’s Victorian founder, David Nicols, was originally a French wine merchant.

J&B called it a ‘Celebration of Champagne’, an exploration of the incredible variety available from the region. So many may assume that ‘champers’ starts and ends with Brut or reel off a few of the huge names, but not realise that these are really just companies that buy grapes to make the wine, not grow the grapes themselves. Champagne is a brand of its own now. People think they know what Champagne is all about, even when they don’t drink it.

Though there were a few crowd-pleasing big-hitters on the docket at this tasting, the night really belonged to the lesser known names. Why? Because this was about rediscovering champagne, reimagining the experience – not building high expectations of enterprises with colossal marketing budgets.

Long live Champagne.

Justerini & Brooks, 250th Anniversary Cuvee, Extra Dry, NV – £45.35 (1.5l)
The night started with Justerini & Brooks own 250th Anniversary Cuvee, an Extra Dry NV made entirely from Pinot Noir grapes. Served out of magnums, this was acceptable palate preparation, but ultimately unremarkable. A nightclub would be the perfect place for consumption – it refreshed extremely well, as is the case with most Extra Drys, but receded very quickly.

Ruinart, Blanc de Blanc, NV – £55.03 (75cl)
The next Champagne is one of my personal favourites, from the ancient house of Ruinart. Ruinart is an oddity in LVMH’s stable, partly because it was kept away from mass retail and promotionally confined to on-trade environments like restaurants and bars. Now, however, Ruinart is fast becoming a household name, thanks in particular to the 100 per cent Chardonnay Blanc de Blanc, which some consider the most honest expression of the house. A decade ago, this crisp, reliable would have been recherche – now it is one of the most ubiquitous entries on the wine lists of the world. At this price point, you cannot find a better Blanc de Blanc.

Diebolt-Vallois, Cuvee Prestige, Grand Cru, Blanc de Blancs, Brut, NV- £32.43 (75cl)
The following Champagne was another Blanc de Blancs, this time from a comparatively less ancient grower estate, Diebolt-Vallois, which was established towards the end of the 20th century. Unlike Ruinart’s chalky, minimalist expression, this was a spicy, perfumed interpretation which was more redolent of finer prosecco than champagne – not something I was moved by. Whilst it might have been the most affordable of all the Champagnes tasted, it was also the most forgettable.

Bollinger La Grande Annee, 2007 – £69.33 (75cl)
The third Champagne saw the introduction of a true heavyweight of premium Champagne: Bollinger Grande Annee 2007 vintage. Bollinger is most commonly known as the Champagne favoured by James Bond and the Queen. The standard NV is very drinkable and widely available, but the Grande Annee is the house’s Prestige Cuvee. One of the finest parts of drinking it is the nose; the smell of freshly popped toast smothered in butter wafting from the kitchen as you carefully descend the stairs after a heavy night on cheap vodka. The vintage really comes into its powers when the finish elongates, with strong notes of honey and hints of aged lemon. This is one of the best value vintage Champagnes money can buy.

Philipponnat, Cuvee 1522, 2007 – £59.33 (75cl)
The fourth Champagne was the Cuvee 1522, a 2007 vintage from the house of Philipponnat, an ancient Champenois name that goes back to the 16th century. Though more associated with its single-vineyard Clos de Goisses – which predates the mighty Clos de Mesnil from Krug – the stewardship of scion Charles Philipponnat has seen the house expand its portfolio. This Cuvee feels far older than it is. Possessing the heady aromatics of a wine, its complexity is at first beguiling but renders it something of a curiosity after some time, and this becomes distracting and results in it being less drinkable.

Egly-Ouriet, Les Crayeres, Grand Cru, Blanc de Noirs, Brut, NV – £98.33 (75cl)
The penultimate Champagne was the night’s scene stealer. For me, it totally outshined the last firework showstopper selection (Dom Perignon, 2009). From Egly-Ouriet – a house with which I was entirely unfamiliar – a Crayeres Blanc de Noirs; a 100 per cent Pinot Noir masterpiece. This had all the fascination and curiosity that the Philipponnat was trying to express, but with the knowing balance and drinkability of the Ruinart. It had the nose that married the sharp, grassy flint of good Pouilly-Fume with the gooey butter notes of a Pouilly-Fuisse. And all this from an NV. At £98, it is fairly punchy, but given that I ordered a bottle immediately after the tasting, you don’t think about price when it’s this good.

Dom Perignon 2009, £116.33 (75cl)
And so to the Dom. DP is a household name in Champagne. Like Krug and Cristal, it is one of the most elite of the big names. As such, it tends to attract the snob drinker – the ones who buy for the label rather than the liquid. This was acknowledged when Dom Perignon produced glow in the dark labels for the bottles sold on trade in nightclubs. Though a clever innovation, they were demonstrating how much their ‘discerning’ drinker had changed. There is no doubting the greatness of the Champagne, though. Frankly, this should not be drunk in nightclubs; aromas of cheap perfume and sweat are not fit particles to share with the glorious warmth, longevity and subtlety of this 2009 vintage.   riddle_stop 2

 

Enquires: Justerini & Brooks, 61 St James’s Street, London SW1A 1LZ / 0207 4846400 / www.justerinis.com/

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