Looking for the best champagnes to buy over the festive period? Our wine expert shares her favourites, including rosé champagne, blancs de blancs and best-value buys.
Champagne smacks of celebration and special occasions. Only those wines made in the Champagne region of France may bear that name, and must be made by the traditional method whereby the wine goes through a secondary fermentation in the bottle, which is what creates the bubbles of carbon dioxide.
Quality and prices vary wildly – many cheap champagnes are overly acidic and grating, while some (especially supermarket own-brands) offer great value for money. At the top end, some are firmly aimed at the status symbol market (Jay Z’s blingtastic Ace of Spades champagne in a gold bottle will set you back round £245. It’s good, but it’s not that good) while the very best have a complexity and balance that are breathtaking, and whose high price tags seem more justifiable – Dom Pérignon only makes champagne in years when the wine is particularly good; their iconic 2008 is around £135 and unforgettably delicious.
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Best-value champagne: Nicolas Feuillatte Brut NV, £20, Tesco
NV stands for non vintage, which means wines made in different years are blended together before bottling. Nicolas Feuillatte is France’s best-selling champagne brand, and it’s easy to see why in this pocket-friendly fizz that balances bright fruit with biscuity richness and lively, firm bubbles.
Best non-vintage champagne: Gosset Grande Reserve Brut NV, £46.27, Amazon
Gosset is the oldest wine producer in Champagne, dating back to 1584 when the region was known for its red wines – its fizz wasn’t invented until the end of the 17th century. Reserve means the blend includes high-quality wines, reserved and aged in the cellar, to give richness and complexity to non-vintage champagne. This is intense with lovely layers of baked apple, toast, nuts and honey, held together with thrilling precision.
Best vintage champagne: Taittinger Brut Millesime Vintage 2012, £46.99, Waitrose
Vintage champagne is made from one specific year, and is only made when the wines are of particularly high quality, and they can reach stratospheric prices. Tattinger was James Bond’s champagne of choice – he was particularly fond of the 1945 vintage – and has appeared in several Bond films. Its Brut Reserve NV is widely available at around £35 but it’s really worth paying a little extra for the 2012 – a great vintage which has only recently been released. Intense candied citrus fruits, hazelnuts and a richness that makes it great with food. Also look out for champagne from the marvellous 2008 vintage, particularly supermarkets’ own-label brands, which generally offer great value for money.
Best blanc de blancs champagne: Berry Bros & Rudd Grand Cru NV by Le Mesnil, £33, Berry Bros & Rudd
The main grapes of champagne are pinot noir, pinot meunier (both are red) and chardonnay which are usually blended together in various proportions to make the finished wine. Blanc de blancs means only white grapes are used, nearly always chardonnay as in this really attractive fizz. Gorgeous creamy bubbles with chardonnay’s characteristic lemony freshness shining through.
Best zero-dosage champagne: Pol Roger Pure Extra Brut NV, £49.99, Waitrose
Most champagnes contain a little added sugar to balance their naturally high acidity. Brut is the commonest style, which means it contains a maximum of 12g sugar per litre (although these days most makers use a lot less than this) while zero dosage means there is no added sugar. Pol Roger was Winston Churchill’s favourite champagne and still makes some of the best on the market. This has razor-sharp acidity softened with notes of lemon curd and rose petals.
Best grower champagne: Chartogne-Taillet Cuvée Sainte Anne NV, £30, The Wine Society
Most champagne houses buy grapes from other growers to make their wines. Grower champagnes are made by those who only use their own grapes, so can keep a close eye on quality all the way from the vineyard to the bottle. Lacking the huge marketing budgets of big brands, they frequently offer great value for money and this is no exception. Fruity but with a bone-dry finish and fantastic balance.
Most unusual blend: Drappier Quattuor Blanc de Quatre Blancs, £75.50, The Champagne Company®
The rare grapes arbane and petit meslier, grown in tiny quantities and among the only six varieties allowed in champagne, are mixed here in equal quantities with chardonnay and pinot blanc by the world’s first carbon-neutral champagne house. This has outstanding poise and energy; aromatic but with a dramatic flinty finish. A real showstopper for champagne lovers.
Best rosé champagne: Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé, £57.85, 31 Dover
Billecart-Salmon is well known for its rosé champagnes, and this is a stunner. Seductive strawberries-and-cream aromas with a pleasingly savoury edge, it’s delicious as a special-occasion aperitif and also makes a brilliant match with sushi. Bear it in mind for Valentine’s Day or another romantic occasion!
Best-value rosé champagne: Devaux Oeil de Perdrix, £20.99, Majestic
Oeil de Perdrix means ‘partridge’s eye’ and is a term used in Champagne to refer to this particular shade of pink. Bursting with raspberry and pomegranate fruit, very fine bubbles and such a pretty label, this is hard to beat at the price.
The one from Ab Fab: Bollinger Special Cuvée Brut NV, £45, Amazon
“Bolly, sweetie?” Who could forget the central role this wine had in the hit TV series Absolutely Fabulous? Bollinger is still owned by the family who have been making wine here since 1829. This is carefully blended with wines up to 15 years old and has characteristic toasty notes along with firm, vibrant bubbles.
Best English sparkling wine: Hambledon Classic Cuvée, £29.95, Berry Bros & Rudd
Hambledon was the first commercial vineyard in the UK, planted in 1952 by an English diplomat who noticed the similarity of the soils here with those in Champagne. Today, it produces some of our very best fizz and this (cuvée means a specific blend, or batch, of wine) is always a winner. Toasty notes along with crisp apple fruit and a sharp, clean finish.
Cricket fans might like to know that the game we know today was born in the neighbouring village of Hambledon.
Best English sparkling rosé: Ridgeview Fitzrovia Rose, £35, Waitrose
This was served by the Queen to Barack Obama at a Buckingham Palace banquet, which is surely the highest of praises for this acclaimed winery in Sussex. Delicate salmon colour with crunchy redcurrant fruit, it goes as well with smoked salmon as it does with a bowl of strawberries.
Best champagne glasses
Champagne saucers, also known as coupes, were allegedly inspired by the shape of Marie Antoinette’s breasts and have enjoyed a recent revival among modish drinkers for their deliciously decadent, retro feel. These taper inwards at the top to retain bubbles and aromas; très chic.
Tall, thin and elegant, like the best-dressed guest at a wedding, flutes are the most commonly used glasses for sparkling wine. Riedel make some of the best glasses in the world; these are beautiful to look at and to hold.
Champagne purists these days prefer a normal wine glass shape to saucers (which often let the bubbles dissipate too quickly) and flutes (which retain bubbles well but don’t have space for aromas to develop). These are the crème de la crème: expensive, but they can be used for any wines, and are reassuringly dishwasher proof.