This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
For many wine lovers, especially those of us based in Britain, it is probably in June that we consume more of this extraordinarily sociable liquid than in any other month, even the super-celebratory one of December. Glyndebourne, Ascot, Aldeburgh, Wimbledon, weddings, university finals… all are celebrated on a cushion of carbon dioxide created deep below the surface of the towns and villages of the Champagne region encountered in wines of extremely varied quality.
There is fizz labelled champagne whose job is to satisfy the social rule that the Champenois have so successfully, and somewhat questionably, drummed in to us: that anything else is inferior. And then there is champagne as wine, a really satisfying drink that happens to have bubbles in it.
The most famous examples of this are of course the high profile de luxe champagnes, Dom Pérignon, Krug, Cristal and those bottlings developed by other houses in their slipstream. The current vintage of Dom is the dramatically direct and distinctly luxurious Dom Pérignon 1999 while Cristal is moving on to the decidedly embryonic 2000. The current vintage of Krug is the still rather uncommunicative 1995 but Krug's flagship is not its vintage-dated wine but its multi-vintage Krug Grande Cuvée, of which several examples tasted in 2006 seemed very disappointingly tart and dour to me. The blend currently available in the UK seems to be back on form however: complex, tightly-laced and with a particularly fine texture.
But such wines can easily cost a three-digit figure per bottle, while most basic non-vintage blends of champagne are now around £20-30 a bottle, with supermarket own label bottlings in the high teens of pounds, those slightly rustic Blanc de Noirs from the Aube département to the south generally being some of the least expensive.
In my view by far the best-value champagnes for wine lovers are the regular vintage-dated blends, a very distinct notch up from the bread and butter non-vintage produce. They tend to sell from around £25 a bottle although I recommend one under £20 below. The famous houses may ask for prices up to around £40 a bottle but there are many bargains, as increasingly in Champagne, from less famous producers, particularly the most conscientious growers (those whose which carry RM, for récoltant-manipulant, in small letters on the label, as opposed to NM for a négociant-manipulant who buys in grapes and wine).
We are also lucky enough to have some seriously lovely vintages to choose from at the moment. Let me start with the oldest you are likely to find on lists and shelves. With the exception of recently disgorged examples and the Krug referred to above, the 1995s seem to have reached their peak. Even the magical Charles Heidsieck, Blanc des Millénaires 1995 which has been tasting so superb for the last three or four years and is still, miraculously, in commercial circulation, is unliley to improve though the assertive grower's champagne Pierre Moncuit, Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 1995 must be one of the better buys at £27 from Les Bonnes Bouteilles (www.lesbonnesbouteilles.co.uk).
The exceptional champagne vintage of the 1990s was 1996, characterised as in Burgundy by extraordinarily high levels of acidity but also with great ripeness. After a slow start most of these are starting to be delicious to drink now, although in many cases it is worth drinking 1997s and even 1998s before them. Of examples tasted recently Bruno Paillard Assemblage 1996, disgorged in April 2006 (a useful nugget of information on the back label) was particularly outstanding and at £32.75 from Laithwaites is a better buy than many more established names. Its label is also a great deal easier on the eye than Moncuit's rather garish one.
Both Jacquesson 1996 and Bollinger RD 1996 should be well worth waiting for, with the Jacquesson much the more friendly in terms of price.
The 1997 vintage produced some rather vapid vintage champagnes but Laurent Perrier 1997 is looking particularly seductive now – and, such are the whims of fashion, is actually priced lower than Laurent Perrier's much more youthful but modish rosé champagne on restaurant wine lists such as that of The Ivy. Best place I can find to buy it retail in the UK is www.drinksdirect.co.uk at £32.95 although Jeroboams shops have it by the single bottle at £36.
There is a host of 1998 vintage champagnes around, many of them looking very delicious for current drinking, but this is rather a controversial vintage. Roederer, for example, decided against producing a Cristal 1998 on the basis that the fruit was just too obvious and upfront - not subtle enough for long term development (Dom P 1999 is shaping up better than the 1998). This may be true, but for current drinking in the luxury category I happily recommend Taittinger, Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 1998 and Henri Giraud, Futs de Chêne Aÿ Grand Cru 1998. Rather less expensive and already full of zest and class are Henriot 1998 and Pol Roger 1998 but I would wait awhile before broaching either the more austere Pol Roger Chardonnay 1998 or the very fine Billecart-Salmon, Cuvée Nicolas François Billecart 1998. Both should make delicious old bones.
The 1999s are in a very different style – soft and beguiling rather than brisk and fresh. In fact the acidity was so low that many of them taste sweeter than they really are. Some of the very best wines such as Salon for instance have yet to be released but obviously superior and more interesting than most is Gosset, Grand Millésime 1999 (£45 from Great Western Wines of Bath) while the Villers-Marmery grower's champagne A Margaine, Cuvée Special Club Blanc de Blancs 1999 is almost dangerously alluring, even slightly decayed, and René Geoffroy, Tête de Cuvée 1999 from another grower, in Cumières, (£32.90 Amphora Wines) has almost Bollinger-like substance. Bollinger Grande Année 1999 itself is, as usual, much sterner than its peers. I would keep it another two or three years.
The 2000s have less obvious personality. Perfectly straightforward, this vintage has perhaps not had enough time to imprint much character on the examples in current commercial circulation. Louis Roederer 2000 is as solid as one would expect of this producer with so many top vineyards at its disposal, but it is never cheap. Deutz 2000 is also looking good and among smaller producers Philipponnat, Cuvée '1522' 2000 from a Grand Cru vineyard is notably dry and energetic – positively bracing – while
Jacquesson, Dizy Corne Bautray 2000 is another, even more tightly-wound example of the tide of single vineyard bottlings starting emerge from the Champagne region to titillate the thoughtful champagne drinker as opposed to social swiller.
The even numbers are the ones to go for in the early years of this decade. Both 2002 and 2004 promise extremely well, although the most established producers are yet to release wines this young. I enjoyed the very competently made Roger Legros 2002 being sold by new specialist importer www.champagnewarehouse.com for just £19.99, but the quite exceptional grower's champagne is Larmandier-Bernier, Vieille Vigne de Cramant Grand Cru 2002 which is seriously underpriced at £27.50 from Vine Trail of Bristol. Part oak-aged, as an increasing proportion of serious champagne now is, this is from very old Chardonnay vines and is probably the single best value champagne listed here.
And lastly an oddity, 2003 by Bollinger, an exceptional release from an exceptional(ly low acid, high sugar) vintage. It tastes more like frothy pop than champagne but they may well be right to be drawing attention to this warning sign from nature.
Truly the range of vintage champagnes we now have available to us is wider and more exciting than ever before.
For international stockists see www.winesearcher.com. For tasting notes on hundreds of champagnes see purple pages.