Which champagnes to buy for millennial celebrations

(originally published in the Financial Times in April 1999)

Champagne Charlies, those lounge lizards whose job it is to sell the most luxurious wine in the world, are already muttering about rationing the better champagnes in the run-up to millennium celebrations. This is alarmist talk, but there is sound sense in getting your hands on the remaining stocks of the quite exceptional 1989 and 1990 vintages now, while they are still available from retailers, many of whom are currently offering special deals on larger orders.

And if you fail to empty every single bottle during New Year's Eve and the first few hours of the year 2000 (surely the most fruitlessly discussed celebration yet known to man), you will not curse me. These wines should go on giving pleasure for years.

Dom Pérignon deserves its blue-chip status, and the 1990 vintage which has been on general, if limited, release, is particularly delicious, and is fast being superseded by the less glamorous 1992.

Stores which still had some stock of the voluptuous 1990 at £64.99 to £69.95 a bottle last week included Uncorked of London EC2, Martha's Vineyard in Barnet, Hertfordshire and Fortnum & Mason (F&M) and Harrods of SW1. Justerini & Brooks (J&B), whose champagne prices are otherwise pretty keen, still have several cases available at a market-wise £78 a bottle. Otherwise, you may have to resort to trawling brokers' lists or the shelves of your local off-licence (or even supermarket), for this is a wine that is undoubtedly being hoarded for sky-high release closer to the end of the year.

Some fine wine retailers can offer the more austere 1988 Dom P in magnum for around £140 and Unwins stores and Lay & Wheeler of Colchester have bottles of the 1985 vintage for just £79.50 and £79.95 respectively, which would be a real treat. (1985 Dom P is £87.50 from Selfridge's of London W1, which has Britain's widest range of superior champagne.)

In a recent comparative tasting, however, one of the most hedonistic wines (and I use that word deliberately) was the much more obscure, wonderfully complete, satisfying, thoroughly irresistible Gosset Grand Millésime 1989 (£36.99 from Uncorked of London EC2 and £39.50 from Lea & Sandeman of London SW10, W8 and SW13).

Different champagnes enjoy or suffer from different images in different countries. The Japanese, for instance, think Bollinger is a rather ordinary brand, while Perrier Joüet's flower-encrusted bottles are wildly more famous in the United States than elsewhere, thanks to that champagne house's North American owners Seagram. Also in the US, Louis Roederer's remarkably consistent Cristal occupies the same position as Dom Pérignon does in much of Europe – and is much easier to find.

In Belgium Laurent Perrier is seen as a supermarket champagne, even though this is a thoroughly dependable family-owned house whose top wine must be one of Champagne's best-value de luxe bottlings, if that is not an oxymoron. Laurent Perrier's multi-vintage luxury blend Grand Siècle, La Cuvée is consistently one of the most stunning wines, but is difficult to understand. It is always made up of a blend of three vintages, but these are not, infuriatingly, spelt out on the label.

The Grand Siècle blend on general release in Britain of the 1985, 1988 and 1990 vintages would make a truly vivacious treat worthy of the most glamorous celebration. And, unlike Laurent Perrier's regular 1990 vintage champagne (£31.95 at Lea & Sandeman), it gives the, probably erroneous, impression of having reached full maturity. Grand Siècle, La Cuvée is listed by Averys of Bristol at £49.90; Corney & Barrow of London W11 at £53.65 and Adnams of Southwold, The Wine Society of Stevenage and Drinks Direct (mail order 0800 232221) at £55. A wine described intriguingly as Grand Siècle, La Cuvée 1990 is also offered by aggressive champagne wholesalers House of Townend of Hull (01482 586582) at just £39.99 a bottle, for orders totalling at least 12 bottles of champagne.

American consumers are more likely to encounter a Grand Siècle made from a single vintage, which tends to be a less complex wine but at least you know where or, more precisely, when you are with it.

The house of Charles Heidsieck, a subsidiary of Rémy-Cointreau, is also one of the most dependable throughout its slightly complex range of champagnes. Charles Heidsieck 1990 has evolved much faster than most 1990s which is probably why it has been garlanded with praise. It is thoroughly charming already, with a relatively mature, satisfying scent and everything as it should be. Justerini & Brooks offer it at the thoroughly decent price of £29, while Farr Vintners of London SW1 (0171 821 2000) have a small quantity left at £270 plus VAT a dozen.

Lovers of all-Chardonnay champagnes should also seek out those bottles of Charles Heidsieck's luxurious Blanc des Millénaires 1985 still available in Wine Rack and Bottoms Up stores at the relatively bargain price of £34.99.

Louis Roederer 1990 is a lovely wine, with golden, molten flavours – a champagne to be drunk in quantity, and sought out from J & B at £40, Lea & Sandeman at £42, or £43.95 and £43.99 from Harrods and Uncorked respectively.

Some wine drinkers are strangely squeamish about drinking champagne with a meal, but next New Year's Eve will surely provide the ideal excuse – and there is no shortage of powerful champagnes on offer from the 1990 and 1989 vintages which should answer the concerns of those who find basic champagne too tart or gassy to consume over time.

One of the most impressive specimens in this weightier mould is Pol Roger 1990 (£33 J&B and about £35 from Lea & Sandeman, Uncorked, Majestic, Harvey Nichols and Harrods). My tasting notes include such phrases as 'takes no prisoners, well developed, herrumphing, Nicholas Soames,' this last reference to the full-bodied Conservative MP being particularly appropriate since Pol Roger's top champagne cuvée, which needs considerable time in bottle, is named after his ancestor Sir Winston Churchill.

Other champagnes worthy of the dinner table include the thoroughly substantial Bollinger Grande Année 1990 which is widely available and has a long life ahead of it. House of Townend are offering it at £32.49 as part of a 12- bottle order, while it costs between £39.95 and £45 from Nicolas, Lea & Sandeman, Drinks Direct, J&B, F&M, Harvey Nichols and Selfridge's in London as well as Oddbins and Majestic which offer good quantity discounts.

Even meatier is Alfred Gratien 1989, a thoroughly masculine, traditionally styled champagne that is available to members of The Wine Society of Stevenage (01438 740222 at £26 to members).

But probably best value in this heavier style is Gosset Grande Réserve, another of these enigmatic multi-vintage blends. It is not nearly as fine as Grand Siècle, being based on the 1991 vintage, but it is great value if bought by the case from Lea & Sandeman at £21.95 per handsome bottle (Harrods sell it at £32.95).

One particularly good price for a vintage-dated champagne is £26.99 for R de Ruinart 1992 at Wine Rack and Bottoms Up shops which have long had a special relationship with this, the most discreet member of the LVMH family of champagne houses. The wine is much more evolved than many a more ambitious 1990 but can offer more than a hint of almost Dom P-like layers of flavour.

Veuve Clicquot's taut, rather intellectually demanding Grande Dame 1990 'reduced' to £59.95 at Harrods, for example, would be a much better candidate for the cellar than R de Ruinart 1992.

The best price I can find for the definitively luxurious Krug Grande Cuvée is Farr Vintners if you want a dozen bottles (£50.92 each); Oddbins if you want seven for six (£56.99 each), or Thresher/Wine Rack/Bottoms Up/Martha's Vineyard if you want one for a particularly intimate celebration at £65.95.