ONE of life’s glistening pleasures, champagne first made its sparkling debut in the 18th century, and as the French poet the Abbe de Chaulieu (1715) wrote upon first tasting the bubbles: “Hardly did it appear, than from my mouth it passed into my heart.”
Celebrated the world over, our love for this liquid gold has crowned us the biggest consumer outside of France.
To toast the 2012 harvest season, 120,000 grape pickers have descended on the four main growing areas in the Champagne-Ardenne region: Montagne de Reims, Vallee de la Marne, Cote des Blancs and the Cotes des Bar, to pick the grapes by hand.
Praying for ripeness and unbruised clusters of grapes, it takes one basket of heavily laden fruit to make two to three bottles of champagne, but champenois are facing the reality that the difficult weather during this year’s growing season means yields will be significantly lower.
According to the Champagne Bureau, it’s one of the smallest harvests in the past 20 years, with production down as much as 30% compared to 2011. However, the quality is expected to be as good as ever, if not better, so champagne lovers need not fear!
A name that’s shone brighter than any other champagne house, Moet & Chandon has released its Grand Vintage 2004, which joins the world’s largest collection of champagnes.
Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage 2004 (£41.99, Waitrose), the House’s 70th vintage since 1842, has been aged for seven years and is made from the classic champagne blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier.
In tune with our demand for wines with more character, the proportion of the grape varietals relies more on the quality of the fruit, rather than an accepted measure. This glorious 2004 expression is delicate with tropical fruity notes, a fresh, mineral finish, and enough charm to please an angel’s palate.
But tipplers who want an alternative should look towards the area’s largest co-operative. Nicolas Feuillatte’s rite of passage has taken the brand into 90 countries, and it now ranks as the third best-seller in the world and the top-selling champagne in France. Try Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Grande Reserve (£29.99, Sainsbury’s), a blend of 25% chardonnay, 40% pinot noir and 35% pinot meunier. From 125 crus (villages), the quality and diversity of the fruit helps create this pale yellow mosaic of a champagne. Soft and fresh with a creamy palate and pleasant gentle finish, it’s a perfect aperitif.
Charles-Camille Heidsieck, aka Champagne Charlie, was the first champagne producer to channel his wines across the pond in 1851 and introduce Americans to the world of French fizz.
And with a classy new look, and the date of bottling on the back label to give discerning drinkers an idea of the wine’s age, Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve NV (£46.50, www.harperwells.com) also boasts a new blend. The number of crus has been cut from 120 to 60 for a more minerally and citrusy champagne blend of 34% chardonnay, 33% pinot noir and 33% pinot meunier, with rich citrus fruits, toasty nuances and a finish with long-lasting appeal.
Tucked away in the northernmost vineyards of Montagne de Reims, the Grand Cru village of Verzenay has been home to the House of Janisson et Fils since 1923 and Champagne Janisson & Fils Tradition NV (£20.83, www.goedhuis.com) is made from 30% chardonnay and 70% pinot noir and meunier grand cru. Elegant and harmonious with a floral nose, fine nutty notes and lovely body, everything comes together in this delicious crowd pleaser.
Brilliant bubbles made from 100% pinot noir carry more weight than a traditional blend, taste richer, and can partner several dishes, from lobster and scallops to a firm white fish.
For a stylish example that’s broad and biscuity, try Andre Clouet Grande Reserve (£24.95, www.tanners-wines.co.uk).
Jane Clare returns next week.