What better way to celebrate a brother-in-law's birthday than to choose an extremely glamorous fizz as this week's wine of the week?
Although I have to confess that is post-rationalisation. The real reason I want to bring this decidedly superior champagne to your attention is that I tasted 18 current non vintage cuvées of the most famous champagne houses last week blind – a rare treat – and Billecart-Salmon Brut Réserve was the most impressive for me. Thanks to the organiser's having cunningly decanted Krug from its distinctively elegant livery into a regular champagne bottle, swathed in silver foil like the rest, I even managed to taste this extremely expensive wine unencumbered by preconceptions. I did not enjoy the current Krug Grande Cuvée at this, let's hope early, stage of its evolution. For full tasting notes on these 18 champagnes and my order of preference, see Current NV champagnes – oct 05.
I had three clear favourites in this line-up, including Pol Roger NV and Charles Heidsieck Mis en Cave 2001, but the Billecart was just deeper-flavoured and seemed to show slightly more autolysis character resulting from the interaction between the wine and the lees of the second fermentation in bottle. The current blend really intrigues the taster rather than assaulting it as some of the frothier fizzes do, or scrubbing it as some of the younger blends do. This particular cuvée offers both delicacy and interest.
Billecart, perhaps partly by auto-suggestion because of the second half of its name, has a particularly and deservedly high reputation for its Brut Rosé which has been on allocation only for some time now. And I have raved about the even more highly priced Billecart Salmon Brut Blanc de Blancs here already. In fact I'm rather annoyed. I like to vary my choices, and I like to find a nice bargain for you. But I'm afraid in this case there is no way round it. If you want to savour Billecart's finesse, you have to pay for it as the UK importer anyway refuses to do any deals. Mind you, it's no more expensive than most famous NV champagnes, and cheaper than several which to my mind aren't nearly as rewarding.
Billecart Salmon is not a large champagne house but its reputation has been steadily built up in France and the UK so that it happily sails above the sea of champagnes which are sold on special offer – unfortunately. The best price I can find in the UK is £22.95 per single bottle from Lea & Sandeman shops around south and west London, which falls to £19.95 if you buy a whole case. If you're buying by the dozen, you'd be better off going to Uncorked of the City of London which sells single bottles at £23.99 but the price falls to just £18.80 a bottle if you buy by the dozen. I'm delighted to say that The Wine Press in my home town of Carlisle, Cumbria, just along from my father's old office, offers it at £24.50.
But according to www.winesearcher.com prices are very much keener among a handful of wine brokers in northern France who are offering it, by the case only I would imagine, at just 17 euros (£11.50-ish) a bottle, and Grands-Vins of Germany are also offering it at under 20 euros a bottle. These are presumably wholesale outfits offering deals on the grey market which official importers would dearly love to stamp out.
The wine is relatively easy to find in the US, at prices from under $30 a bottle which strikes me as bargain. Lucky you over there.
British bargain hunters who insist that their champagne has to come at a discount may be interested in Majestic's special offer of Veuve Clicquot NV (which showed pretty well in my tasting) at £19.99, reduced from £28.75 from today for the next two weeks only. Or they may wish to wait for the run-up to Christmas and see whether there are any particularly good deals on Pol Roger or Charles Heidsieck – as there usually are. Billecart, a family-owned house in which the Swiss Frey family of Ch La Lagune and Jaboulet fame, have a stake is unlikely to be on special offer at Tesco, I fear.