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Fizz for the festive period

by Tom Cannavan, 12/09

The festive period is when many people splash out on wines they might not normally drink. In this category, Champagne and sparkling wine leaps out as the quintessential Christmas purchase.

This is a guide to some of the many wines on offer this Christmas, with an attempt to cover all budgets. Independent merchants have a great selection - especially amongst the smaller Champagne houses and 'grower Champagnes' - but for this particular report I've concentrated on the High Street.
  

Plenty of supply and cut-throat competition amongst our supermarkets and bigger wine chains is leading to some serious discounts at the moment. It's quite easy to find well-known names on promotion at 33% or more off, with a little shopping around.

what's in a name?

Many of the Champagnes appearing on half price deals carry labels that are strangely unfamiliar. These may be smaller Champagne houses, but many are just brands, used to add a gloss of distinction to huge volume Champagnes produced by the region's cooperative cellars. Tesco have been flogging a lot of André Carpentier at £8 - actually a brand from Jacquart & Associates that appears on discount every year, but appears to be highly variable. Refering to it in 2008 Victoria Moore of The Guardian newspaper said "sappy, easy-drinking," whilst writing about it in The Times in 2007, Jane MacQuitty said "evil little paint-stripper." You pays your (not much) money and you takes your choice...

This tactic doesn't necessarily mean the wines are poor of course, but it does pay to be cautious, to try before buying in volume with unfamiliar names, and to perhaps recognise that not every high street bargain Champagne is quite what it seems. There are many straightforward discounts around too. Whilst I'd avoid the stacks of unfamiliar £10.99 fizz that featured in M&S last Christmas for example, they are selling their reliable Oudinot Brut NV at £14.99 instead of £19.99, which is a good deal. Majestic appears to be about the cheapest overall, though usually only if buying two bottles of the same Champagne, and meeting their six-bottle minimum purchase requirement (12 online).

some wines tasted recently

Deakin Estate (Australia) Sparkling Brut NV
Deakin Estate is a well-known Australian brand that is actually owned by Freixenet, leading Cava producers (see below), so there's plenty of expertise behind this tank method blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The colour is a pale straw/gold, with nice, small bubbles. On the nose there's a fresh, pear-droppy character, with some lemon too in a clean profile. On the palate that dry, crisp, orchard and peachy fruit melange is offset by citrus acidity and a frothy mousse. Simple and straightforward, but crowd-pleasing party stuff of good quality. 86/100. £7.99-8.75, Oddbins, Bibendum, Great Grog. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com.

Freixenet (Spain) Cava Elyssia Brut NV
This is a brand new cuvée from Freixenet, which combines the traditional Macabeo and Parellada grapes of Cava, with the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that are the basis of Champagne, aged 18 months in bottle. It has a pale gold colour and plenty of small bubbles, and a hint of buttered toast on the nose before a ripe, soft, peachy fruit character. On the palate this has a core of bitter lemon, but it is hung with that riper, almost tropical fruit sweetness, the whole effect quite delicate but on the sweeter, easy-to-drink side, with quite a precise finish. 88/100. £19.99, though no UK stockists are given for now.

Champagne Mumm Demi-Sec NV
It's always good to be able to recommend a Demi-Sec, or 'half dry' Champagne for those who prefer a slightly rounder, sweeter style or who want a Champagne to match to fruit desserts. This, with 44g/l of residual sugar, pours a golden colour with very good bubbles. The nose is biscuity and lemony, with a hint of baked peaches or apples. On the palate this has delightful roundness and gentle sweetness: the mousse is full and soft, and the nectarine and lightly honeyed softness is easy to drink, whilst maintaining good acidity through to the finish. Delightful. 90/100. £26.99, Waitrose. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com.

Champagne G.H Martel Brut Prestige NV
G.H. Martel is a large, family owned firm (indeed the 7th biggest house in Champagne) and their wines are quite widely available. This 70% Pinot Noirblend has lots of tiny bubbles. The nose is biscuity but fresh, with notes of almond and bruised apple. On the palate it is a powerful, mouth-filling Champagne, with a crisp, frothy mousse but plenty of breadth and fruit. It's a rock solid, very tasty and honest fizz, but note the full price of £29.99 looks way too high at the moment. It's on offer in Sainsbury's until early January at £19.99 for example, but Tesco.com have it for just £12.81 per bottle when bought by the half-case.

Champagne Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut NV
Grand Brut is a Chardonnay-dominant wine with a pale colour and plenty of steadily streaming, tiny bubbles. The nose is fruity and bright, though there's a little hint of honey and nutty richness. In the mouth the mousse is quite broad and generous, and though there is a core of clean, lemon and green apple crispness to this wine, that more warming, peachy and honeyed tone comes through again too. It's a fairly subtle Champagne this, but strikes a lovely balance between easy drinkability and a bit of decisive precision. 90/100. £31.49, Oddbins, Waitrose, Majestic. Best promotional price appears to be Majestic at £23.99 when you buy two. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com

   

Champagne Guy Larmandier Cramant Prestige 2002
Berry Bros' buyer Simon Field MW was very excited by a new range of grower Champagnes, from around 10 different growers, that he unveiled recently. This one is a beauty from the 2002 vintage (in Champagne it was a terrific year whilst the south of France was washed out). A Blanc de Blancs, it has a very fine and nutty nose with little floral nuances. Fantastic grip and keen, fine fruit with a crisp mousse. Tingling zip and concentration. Lovely, bright style but some creamy depth too. 92/100. £34.95, Berry Bros & Rudd.

Champagne Roederer Brut Premier NV
One of the most polished and elegant of the bigger (nut not huge) houses, Roederer's NV is ultra-reliable, so don't hesitate to buy this one if you see an attractive deal. It has a pale golden colour that streams with miniscule bubbles, and a nose rich in nutty, toasty tones set against pristine orchard fruits; all Cox's Pippin and crunchy pear. On the palate it is a sumptuous style of NV this, tasting mature and deep, yet with dazzling acidity. A star. 93/100. £34.99, Waitrose, Majestic, Selfridges, Fortnum & Mason. Best seasonal deal prices appear to be Majestic: buy two @ £24.99 each, and Booths @ £25.99. A bargain.

Champagne Bollinger Special Cuvée NV
Those who missed out on Morrison's extraordinary promotion of this wine last month can console themseleves with Majestic's current 'buy two' price of £26.65, which represents brilliant value for such a consistently delicious Champagne. All of the fruit comes from Bollinger's own vineyards, with 80% from vineyards designated as Grand Cru. Over 50% of the blend is 'reserve wine'. It has that immediate breadth and sense of honeyed, nutty richness overlying the precise, focused apple fruit. On the palate Bollinger delivers a pretty mouth-filling, decadent experience with richness and depth, but never losing the clarity or balance. 93/100. £37.00 RRP, see all stockists on wine-searcher.com

Champagne Jacquart Brut Mosaïque Millésime 2002
From the superb 2002 vintage and - if your quick - almost half price in Majestic on a deal, this pours a light- to medium gold colour, with a good stream of small bubbles. The nose has a discreet note of nutty autolysis, some sour lemon fruit and a touch of bruised apple in a classic Champagne profile. On the palate there's a pretty straightforward rush of lemony fruit and acidity and quite a fine mousse. At the moment this wine really isn't showing a huge amount of complexity, but it does have breadth, fruit and structure. At full price I'd give it a miss, but if you can buy at the offer price it's worth tucking a couple away. 89/100. £37.49, on offer at £19.99 when you buy two, Majestic.

Champagne Mumm Champagne de Cramant NV
This Blanc de Blanc is a small production Champagne from vineyards in the Grand Cru Cramant. Mumm bottle this as a 'Crémant', at a slightly lower pressure. It is basically a vintage wine, not made in every year, and this release is a 2002 base with reserve wine from 1998. The aromas are very clear and bright, with some floral notes and juicy citrus. Creamier notes sit just behind. In the mouth the mousse is fine and soft, adding more creamy texture to fresh, taut, Chardonnay fruit with plenty of lemony precision and grapefruit tang, but just a teasing hint of richness. 91/100. £43.00 Waitrose, Ocado, Harrods, though use wine-searcher to find it at around £38. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com.

Champagne Taittinger Nocturne Sec NV
Meaning 'dry', Sec Champagnes are actually a little sweeter and richer than Brut, in this case Taittinger's Nocturne has 20g/l of residual sugar - about twice that of a Brut Champagne. There's a really attractive, nettly, yeasty richness on the nose, backed up bruised apple fruit and a hint of minerality. On the palate this has a deeply layered quality, with orange and peach flavours, a cushioning mousse and a quite steely core of cool, apple acidity that does not give away the 20g/l of sugar very obviously. Another really nice and fairly sumptuous style here. 91/100. £45.00, but target price is nearer £40. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com.

   

Champagne Jacquart Brut de Nominée NV
This cuvée from Jacquart is a 50/50 blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It has quite a rich, golden yellow colour and a fine mousse with lots of tiny bubbles. Aromas are delicate and discreet, with some bready notes and floral hints. In the mouth this Champagne is all about reserved, but powerful elegance. There's a lot of concentration here, but the fruit is tight and citrussy, with lemon and grapefruit notes, and just enough sweetness to soften the edges. Long, stylish, if fairly simple and far too expensive. 90/100. £60.00, Harrods and see all stockists on wine-searcher.com where you should find it for under £50.

Champagne Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque 2002
To drink the brand new release of the deluxe cuvée from Perrier-Jouët is of course to do so criminally young, especially when it is from the stunning 2002 vintage. In its gorgeous hand-painted bottle, Belle-Epoque is a blend of Grand Cru Chardonnay (mostly from Cramant) and Pinot Noir (mostly from Mailly) aged for almost seven years before release. It has an immediate elegance, with light, almost floral-touched lemon aromatics, but then a core of much more seductive, honeyed fruit character comes through, persisting into the mouth with its creamy, silky mousse and extremely long, absolutely crisp finish. A beautiful wine this, with consierable ageing potential if you can resist it now. 95/100. £102.99, Oddbins, Majestic. Best price at the moment is probably Majestic on a two for £75 each deal. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com