A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. More detailed tasting notes on Purple Pages, many of them in Fizz collection late 2021.
Heavens, we need cheer and conviviality at the moment – and what more cheering and convivial than a glassful of bubbles?
This selection of highly recommended sparkling wines travels upwards in price from some serious bargains to champagnes from the most admired addresses that I think are showing best at the moment. One category of champagne is missing this year: those produced on a small scale on single estates, wines often known as ‘growers’ champagnes’ as opposed to those from the big houses. Growers have been stung by the official stringent limits on production from the 2020 harvest. Each year the authorities decree how much base wine for champagne may be made and the suspicion is that the much-reduced permitted maximum in lockdown year was driven by the need to regulate the big houses’ stocks. But it applied to even the most successful growers too and the tiny 2021 harvest reduced what’s in their cellars further. Planning ahead, they have therefore been limiting allocations to their generally loyal customer base and, unfortunately, I’ve been able to taste far, far fewer examples than usual.
Most of these wines are 12 or 12.5%, so I have cited alcohol levels only when very different from this. I have given prices for single bottles but don’t forget that, as with still wines, many retailers, notably Majestic and Laithwaites in the UK, offer substantial reductions to those prepared to buy at least six bottles, which may often be mixed.
Another tip for those who live in the UK. One of the best selections of champagnes is to be found, counterintuitively, at The Whisky Exchange. The Finest Bubble is also, and perhaps more predictably, focused on champagne, with many different vintages at its disposal, and can organise immediate delivery within London.
Cuvée Royale, Brut NV Crémant de Limoux
Great-value wine – even at full price – made by the traditional method also used in Champagne. Not searingly dry but certainly not sweet. It’s even quite persistent!
£9.49 (reduced from £12.75 from 1 to 29 December) Waitrose
Prestige, Brut NV Cava
Prosecco may have become far more popular than Cava but Cava is made much more intricately than Prosecco and this wine, from Freixenet, is an absolute steal (and very much better than M&S’s basic Cava at just £7). It is not bone dry but it’s no industrial product – it was aged on lees for 18 months – and leaves the palate suitably refreshed.
£10 Marks & Spencer
Lubanzi, Sparkling Rosé NV Swartland 11%
Lubanzi is an admirable South African project that does its best to protect its natural and social environment. This is pure fun and chock-full of flirtatious fruit sealed with a crown cap and labelled with a creative sense of humour. This would be so easy to love as an aperitif.
£13.49 MJ Wine Cellars or £3.95 per 25-cl can The Wine Society
Dom des Aubuisières, Brut NV Vouvray
Sparkling Vouvray is one of the wine world’s undervalued treasures and it can age superbly. Made in old oak, Bernard Fouquet’s blend of Chenin Blanc is mainly 2018 with 15% of 2017. Really appetising baked-apple nose with very fine bubbles and a gorgeous toasty hint of toffee on the finish. Not trying to be champagne.
£15.45 Haynes Hanson & Clark
Caveau des Jacobins NV Crémant du Jura
Made with the most delicate of touches from the same grapes as champagne but with a light alpine accent. Very refreshing and fine, though the label shrieks Jura so no-one will be fooled into thinking it’s champagne.
£17.99 Majestic Wine
Dom Taille aux Loups, Triple Zéro NV Montlouis
Jacky Blot is a genius and prides himself on coaxing a wine that is much drier than most champagnes from his ancient Chenin Blanc vines in the Loire Valley. This ages superbly well so it would be worth buying in quantity. Wine prices are not going down.
£21.95 Vin Cognito, Vinified Wine
Bolney, Blanc de Blancs NV England
I preferred this well-made, sophisticated wine from this well-established Sussex estate’s best plots of Chardonnay with its ripe, baked-apple notes to Waitrose’s Blanc de Noirs champagne (which is, admittedly, cheaper).
£24.99 (reduced from £29.99 in December) Waitrose
Domaine Mann, Brut Nature 2017 Crémant d’Alsace 13.5%
Sébastien Mann, latest generation at this biodynamic estate, interned at one of the most admired small Champagne houses Vouette & Sorbée and it shows. A blend of Auxerrois, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir was aged for 30 months on lees to result in some intense flavours and a level of real sophistication.
£26 The Sourcing Table
Delacourt, Blanc de Blancs Brut 2012 Champagne
100% Chardonnay from some of the best villages for the variety. The wine spent all of eight years on lees in the cellars of the Reims co-op. Admirably deep-flavoured for the price, presumably thanks to the quality of the 2012 vintage. Real tension before a tight-knit, dry finish. Very much a lively Blanc de Blancs aperitif style.
£28 Marks & Spencer
Nyetimber, Classic Cuvée NV England
It may seem strange to some, but this is a great price for the principal wine of England’s pioneer producer of wines that give Champagne a run for its money. Two-thirds of the Chardonnay-heavy blend was 2017, enriched by portions from 2015, 2014 and 2013. Nyetimber’s growing range of wines is made by a hugely talented Canadian couple whose output is irreproachable, though the top-of-the-range 1086 wines, at closer to £120 a bottle, seem overpriced to this taster.
£29.99 (reduced from £36.99 in December) Waitrose
Rathfinny, Rosé 2017 England
Established in 2010, this estate on the South Downs outside Brighton is one of English wine’s most ambitious and the quality of its produce seems to be rising as the vines age. This deep orange wine has a lot of personality – almost vermouth character with its lightly chewy herbiness, presumably imbued during its 24 months on lees.
£32.95 Wine Direct and many other retailers
Gallimard Père et Fils, Cuvée Prestige Brut 2015 Champagne
This is brilliant value for a champagne that already tastes quite evolved, with a very gentle mousse and a sort of caress of the palate. So easy to love! Although it’s probably not designed for the long term. Very persistent.
£34.95 The Whisky Exchange, also Highbury Vintners and Bottle Apostle
A R Lenoble, Intense Mag 16 Brut NV Champagne
A base of 2016, including quite a high proportion of fruit from grand cru and premier cru villages, has been deepened with 40% of wine from this family house’s réserve perpetuelle, a long-standing solera of older vintages. There’s a wide panoply of flavours – wild flowers? – on the palate and it’s not remotely austere.
£36.95 Thorne Wines and many other retailers
Fox & Fox, Inspiration Blanc de Gris 2014 England
An East Sussex wine made in the image of champagne but mainly from Pinot Gris, which seems to have delivered a huge amount of nutty flavour – or was it the more than four years on yeast lees? Real depth to a dry, emphatic wine that can stand up to even quite spicy food.
£39 Quercus Wines
Gramona, III Lustros 2012 Corpinnat
Corpinnat is the newish association of top-quality sparkling-wine producers that was formed to distinguish their wines from basic Cava. Gramona is an exceptional family-owned, biodynamic estate whose top wines, from Catalan grapes, are given prolonged ageing. Very fine and sophisticated.
£40 My Somm
Leclerc Briant, Réserve NV Champagne
Very distinctive champagne house concentrating (like Roederer) on organic and biodyamically grown grapes and all sorts of measures some may view as hocus pocus. Yet the results are obvious in the glass: massive life, complexity and tension. A name to watch.
£40 (reduced from £50 while stocks last) Berry Bros & Rudd
Ridgeview, Rosé de Noirs 2016 England
This Sussex family business makes this wine only in the best vintages for Pinot Noir. Aged for three years on yeast lees. 20% Pinot Meunier. Mid orangey-pink. Pure fruity aromas with some interesting suggestion of Campari flavours – a little like the Rathfinny 2017 rosé. Brisk and well balanced.
Louis Roederer, Collection 242 NV Champagne
Roederer’s non-vintage Brut Premier was always distinctly superior but has been succeeded by even better annually identified blends enriched by as much as 44% of wines older than the four-year-old one on which the blend was based. This is based on 2017, Roederer’s 242nd grape harvest. The 241, produced in much smaller quantities and based on 2016, is crisper with a stronger citrus element.
£49.99 Majestic Wine
Drappier, Grande Sendrée Brut 2010 Champagne
If you seek a fully mature champagne to serve with food, this single-vineyard wine (and it really does seem more of a wine than a champagne) would be a great choice. Extremely persistent.
Bruno Paillard, Assemblage 2012 Champagne
A blend from eight different crus and aged on lees for eight years. Tight-knit, dense and tense but with satisfying richness underneath. Great to enjoy a champagne that’s very refreshing but not austere. Nutty rather than fruity or mineral.
Pol Roger, Brut 2012 Champagne
Quite a rich nose and fairly rich on the palate too. An anti-Extra Brut? Nicely integrated with some lemon-syllabub notes. More of a food wine than an aperitif.
£67.20 Lawrence Smith & Son, £69.99 The Wine Press, £75 The Wine Society and many other retailers
Charles Heidsieck, Brut 2012 Champagne
A very savoury wine with some smoky reductive notes as well as one of lime cordial. An exciting combination of producer and vintage with an undertow and real potential. The back label promises it will drink well until 2035!
£69.12 iDealWine and other retailers
Bollinger, PN VZ 16 Brut NV Champagne
A very fine very pale pink wine in a series designed to be made from a single grape variety and a single village, in this case Pinot Noir from Verzenay. Wonderfully pure Pinot Noir character on the nose. Tight in texture yet playful in flavour. A worthy successor to the 2015.
£74 The Wine Society and many other retailers
Collet, Collection Privée Brut 2008 Champagne
Very distinctive and mature nose. Quite soft and interesting. A good blend of age on the nose and vibrant acidity on the palate that works. The merest hint of the sort of lactones you encounter in whisky. Interesting!
£74.95 The Whisky Exchange
Taittinger, Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2011 Champagne
2011 doesn’t have the greatest reputation in Champagne but the quality of this much-loved, all-Chardonnay wine suggests that Taittinger made a very careful selection of ingredients.
£144 The Champagne Company and many other retailers
Dom Pérignon 2012
My favourite current vintage of this wine whose quality belies the quantity made.
Around £150 from a wide range of retailers
Louis Roederer, Cristal 2012/2013 Champagne
A great pair of wines with the 2012 pungent and seductive, designed to express vines rather than winemaking, and the 2013 truly ethereal.
From £180 from many retailers
Krug, Grande Cuvée 162ème Édition NV Champagne
This house is hugely dedicated to the annual task of assembling their non-vintage blend. The current edition is the 169th but this one, based on 2006 but with ingredients going back to 1990, was looking truly beautiful and a complex work of art when tasted last year. Krug Grande Cuvée is often better value than their vintage-dated bottlings, though this one of course carries a premium because of its age.
£296 The Finest Bubble
Laurent Perrier, Grand Siècle No 23 NV Champagne
At last, this family house has decided to identify the different versions of its top, Chardonnay-heavy wine, which is always a blend of three different vintages designed to represent perfection and given at least 10 years’ ageing on lees. This deliciously refined champagne is composed of 2006, 2004 and 2002.
£376 per magnum The Finest Bubble