Is it outrageous to observe that today consumption is more conspicuous in Britain than in any other comparable country? I am lucky enough to travel a great deal and I cannot think of anywhere else with quite so many ostentatiously expensive cars with personalised number plates and/or chauffeurs per head of population. Nor have I come across anywhere else whose cities sport quite such a concentration of bars, clubs and restaurants heaving with free-spending (and occasionally heaving) humanity for so many nights of the week. Much to our own surprise, and contrary to national stereotype, we British have become a nation of hedonists.
There is no more revealing a measure of this than the fact that we continue to draw away from the pack in our status as the world's most insistent importer of champagne. We have hardly ever been challenged in this position and last year's total of 36.4 million bottles of the most luxuriously celebratory wine sent to Britain was considerably in excess of the 20.7 million imported by the far more populous, and one might imagine more prosperous, United States - and our champagne consumption is increasing at a faster rate than the Americans' is too.
One of the most telling statistics is that demand for large bottles and superior, vintage-dated champagne in the UK grew spectacularly last year, the latter by more than seven per cent. As record bonuses were celebrated earlier this year, London ran out of several of the most sought-after names in champagne.
Recognising this, Champagne officials chose to highlight vintage champagne (along with demi sec and the fashionable rosé) in their annual generic tasting last week, one that they gingerly described as 'arguably the world's largest Champagne tasting event'.
It was a rather frustrating affair for those wine writers invited for a special 'preview' from 10 until noon only to find that many bottles advertised in the tasting booklet were missing and others were left blithely unopened on the tasting table, ignored by the gaggles of chattering champagne salesmen and producers round the table. Oh poor you, having to open your own champagne, I hear you snigger. Of course we wine commentators are thoroughly spoilt, but we were meant to be tasting 80 vintage champagnes during that period, so we didn't have much time left over for unwrapping foils, untwisting muzzles and easing champagne bottles off their corks – corks which proved to have tainted the wine in too many instances for my liking.
In the event, 10 of the 80 promised wines failed to materialise, such depleted brands as Krug and Billecart Salmon did not participate at all, and the sample bottles of Moët & Chandon 1999, Perrier Jouët 1998 and Mumm 1996 were unaccountably drained rapidly (by employees of the multinationals which own them?) and in the last instance never replaced.
These prima donna-like quibbles aside, the tasting did provide an invaluable opportunity to study the wide range of champagne vintages currently on offer. Most of the wines shown were regular vintage-dated offerings rather than the de luxe prestige cuvées such as Dom Pérignon or Cristal but the one of the five 1995s shown, Charles Heidsieck's Blanc de Blancs, Cuvée des Millénaires 1995 qualifies as that house's prestige cuvée and was the finest wine on show by quite a margin. This is clearly a wine at the peak of its powers, as most 1995s are now, but should provide lovely, complex drinking with the welcoming breadth of flavour that 1995 can offer for the next three or four years. The other fine 1995 was, like many of the most successful 1995s, another all-Chardonnay blend, Pierre Moncuit 1995 Blanc de Blancs from a family enterprise in Le Mesnil whose wines always seem underpriced to me.
Many houses can still offer vintage champagnes from the much more unusual 1996 vintage which combines record ripeness with record acidity. Quite how these two elements are battling it out in the ageing process varies from producer to producer. The wines are generally characterised by a distinctive rather lemony acidity and very good attack, though wines such as the 1996 from Lanson, whose champagnes are usually naturally high in acidity anyway, still seem terribly austere, and 1996s from Devaux, De Venoge and Duval Leroy's already already seem dangerously short of fruit. Perhaps it's a D thing. Particularly impressive 1996s were the fine-boned Jacquesson, Avize Grand Cru 1996, the bone-dry and quite evolved Bruno Paillard 1996 and the well-balanced and ready Piper Heidsieck 1996.
None of the subsequent vintages are quite as distinctive as 1996, which in the more successful cases should almost certainly be drunk after the 1999s. The relatively few 1997s shown at the tasting were pretty good and in character not so different from the attractive 1998s – perhaps very slightly sturdier and more solid. Bollinger Grande Année 1997 seemed a long way from maturity – much more than two years more youthful than the glorious Bollinger Grande Année 1995 - but Alfred Gratien 1997 and Laurent Perrier 1997 were both very respectable already.
The second most common vintage currently on sale is 1998 and very attractive it can be too, as Dom Pérignon 1998 has eloquently demonstrated. My favourite 1998s from last week's tasting were the pungent Deutz 1998, smoky Henriot 1998, the standout bargain Jacquart Mosaïque 1998 (just £14.99 at Majestic until the end of next month), A Margaine Blanc de Blancs 1998 which is another bargain at £25 from The Flying Corkscrew of Leighton Buzzard, the modest but successful Michel Gonet Blanc de Blancs 1998 and the well-constituted Pol Roger 1998.
But really these 1998s can wait while you drink up the many 1999s on the market, made in a year when late rain reduced acidity to almost dangerously low levels. Some of the 1999s are very attractive but are terribly soft and can taste almost sweet, so lacking are they in champagne's usually vital spark of bracing tartness. The outstanding 1999 I tasted was Louis Roederer 1999 which is already approachable, like all 1999s, but for once seemed to have some hidden depths too. Three growers' 1999s stood out, for very different reasons. Camille Savès Grand Cru 1999 from a grower in Bouzy betrays more than usual astringence, but perhaps that is not such a bad policy in a year with so little acidity to distract from all that rich fruit. The Vertus grower's Veuve Fourny Premier Cru 1999 also had useful structure and real flirtatiousness, while the highly distinctive Launois Blanc de Blancs 1999 made in Le Mesnil was so low in acid it almost managed to taste porty.
Other 1999s which seemed more successful than most included the notably delicate J Dumangin Premier Cru 1999, the impressively tight-knit Gosset 1999 and the massively rich Veuve Clicquot 1999.
Tasting a fair number of 2000 vintage champagnes made me wonder whether this really is a vintage year, despite the marketing attraction of those three zeroes. Too many of the wines tasted like regular non-vintage blends and only Larmandier-Bernier Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs 2000, subtle and well made as ever, had much to say for itself.
As for the one and only 2001 on show, Brice Bouzy Grand Cru 2001, I am almost speechless. To attempt to sell a wine from Champagne's worst vintage in living memory takes some nerve. I initially assumed that the strictest of selection must have made this the exception that proved the rule. I was wrong.
We vintage champagne-lovers have the promising vintages of 2002 and 2004 to look forward to however, after we have drunk the 1999s, 1998s and 1996s (in that order). The heatwave summer of 2003 was too hot to produce champagne of vintage quality and, alas, my rule of five breaks down in Champagne where the 2005 Pinots in particular were a sorry lot spoilt by rain.
One thing worried me overall about this selection of wines, mainly selling at £25-45 a bottle: I marked every wine out of 20 as a vintage quality champagne, and of the 70 wines I tasted, I gave precisely one mark of 18.5, to the Chas Heidsieck, and an 18- to the Roederer. Everything else was 17.5 or below, and remarkably few of the wines seemed to me to have a long life ahead of them. Perhaps I was just in a bad mood about those baleful, unopened bottles and their blessed salesmen.
For stockists see www.winesearcher.com and for full tasting notes, scores and suggested drinking dates for all 70 wines see Vintage champagnes tasted - mainly 1998s and 1999s