A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
Blind tasting is extremely educational, but has a nasty habit of reducing the pleasure that wine is capable of giving. And if you happen to be hosting a fairly large, public blind tasting, the educational quotient is reduced as one attempts to keep things to time, while the pleasure quotient approaches zero.
This was a great shame in the case of a blind tasting of 2002 prestige champagnes a couple of months ago organised by specialist retailer The Finest Bubble. (The picture here of what we tasted was taken by Matt Martin.) This vintage is recognised as one of the most successful in Champagne in this century and is beginning to drink beautifully now, having successfully made the transition to grandiose, multi-layered middle age.
The particular 15 wines we tasted included the crème de la crème of champagnes, such stars of the champagne firmament as Salon, Krug, Dom Pérignon and Cristal, not to mention Bollinger RD, Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, Dom Ruinart, Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill, Gosset Celebris, Philipponat Clos des Goisses, Perrier Jouët Belle Epoque, Lanson Noble Cuvée and Pommery Cuvée Louise. All of these are the most expensive champagnes produced by each house - Dom Pérignon being the prestige cuvée associated with Moët & Chandon and Salon being the only product of that house and often thought to inhabit a quality stratosphere above all the rest.
The other two 2002s were the Blanc de Blancs from the highly regarded, if idiosyncratic, Jacques Selosse and a magnum of the regular 2002 from Pol Roger, which has always seemed to outperform its status as 'mere' vintage-dated champagne rather than having prestige cuvée status – so retailing at around £60 a bottle today rather than closer to the £200 asked for its prestige stablemate named after Sir Winston Churchill, one of Pol's great enthusiasts.
As we tasted the wines in pairs, the theoretically liveliest Blanc de Blancs made exclusively from Chardonnay first, we 50 tasters were asked to both rate the wines out of 20 and try to identify them. We knew what was to be tasted, but not the order, and 34 brave tasters of the 50 in the room voted on their smartphones so that we were able to keep a running total of how the wines fared and what those poured so far were.
One of the most interesting results (I will save you a bubble by bubble account) was that the Pol Roger 2002 was the fourth favourite wine overall and was preferred to its prestige cuvée counterpart Sir Winston Churchill. The magnum size may have played a part but this impressive result suggests that if you choose your vintage champagne carefully enough, there may be no need to shell out for a prestige cuvée.
The wines that notched up higher overall scores than the Pol 2002 were Bollinger RD, the vintage Krug and Taittinger Comtes de Champagne but it is worth pointing out that as we neared the end of the tasting, the chances of identifying the wines correctly dramatically increased – because so many possibilities had already been eliminated. And, since the late-disgorged (RD standing for récemment dégorgé) Bollinger and Krug are some of the fullest-bodied and most complex champagnes around, it was no surprise to find that whoever decided on the order of serving had left them until relatively late in the order of play.
Identification of wines with images as strong as these prestige cuvée champagnes was a fascinating exercise and it was interesting that the wine that was second most often identified correctly, by a total of 12 tasters, was the Jacques Selosse even though, as a Blanc de Blancs, it was served relatively early on when only two out of the 15 possibilities had been made public. This wine really stood out from the crowd, not least because its maker insists it is a wine not a champagne, and it did indeed look and taste rather like raisins macerated in old white burgundy. Not my tasse de thé, nor of the crowd.
The most amusing aspect of the tasting was the way it measured brand strength. Most of us had a clear idea of how each champagne should taste (even if we frequently got it wrong). The wine guessed correctly by the fewest tasters, for instance, was, oddly enough, the Krug 2002, usually highly distinctive. Only Nick Baker of The Finest Bubble got that one. And Pommery Cuvée Louise is clearly floating in the wilderness since whenever we couldn't match how a wine presented itself with one of the remaining possibilities, we tended to guess it was the Cuvée Louise.
Since Bollinger RD was the last wine poured in the final flight, of three this time with Louis Roederer's prestige cuvée Cristal and the super-flexible Cuvée Louise, it was hardly surprising that it was correctly guessed by 16 tasters. But the real disappointment in this flight was the rather loose and candified Cristal, the most expensive wine in the tasting. Even its importer was disappointed. I loved it when I tasted it on release but have previously been unimpressed with it blind, and when Roederer put on a vertical tasting of Cristal (a tough gig, that) they had to open three bottles of the 2002 before finding one in good shape.
What was interesting was that the smartphone scoring allowed The Finest Bubble to track the difference between how tasters scored wine Y when they wrongly thought it was X and how they scored what actually was X. Krug, Salon and Comtes de Champagne notched up the highest scores on the basis of expectation. The biggest gap between expectation and reality was for what people thought was the Salon and how the wine itself, a Blanc de Blancs, actually showed. I enjoyed the intensity, but there was considerable bottle variation and some astringency still on the finish. It certainly wasn't, as promised in its promotional literature, 'ravishing'. On the other hand, and on another occasion, Salon 1997 was one of the finest champagnes I have tasted recently.
All in all, I would recommend 2002 as the champagne vintage to drink now if you can. I gave all these 15 wines a high score of at least 17 out of 20 and my favourites, with 19, were Dom Pérignon, Bollinger RD and, yes, Pommery Cuvée Louise.
But of course champagnes with three-digit price tags are out of the question for most of us. I have tried to pick out the current bargains in the UK in my list of suggested buys in the list below. In general cheap supermarket champagne is to be avoided at all costs. But the Crémant de Jura continues to be one of the best buys on the high street – and it even looks good.
See my full tasting notes and find international stockists on Wine-searcher.com.
SPARKLING BEST BUYS
Philippe Michel 2013 Crémant du Jura
Miguel Torres Cordillera NV Curicó, Chile
£13.50 Taurus Wines, Telford Wines, Polygon Wine, Dronfield Wine World
Vincent Carême, Ancestrale Pétillant 2014 Vouvray
£21.95 Berry Bros & Rudd
Pascal Doquet, Horizon Blanc de Blanc NV Champagne
£24.20 Justerini & Brooks
Nyetimber, Classic Cuvée NV England
£25 Booths, special offer until Christmas Eve
Pierre Peters Extra Brut NV
£42 Berry Bros & Rudd
Arteis Rosé 2007