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Champagne – Big Brand or Small Estate?

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The growth of Champagne sales in the uk over the past year has taken everyone in the trade by surprise, with an average of 1 bottle per second being opened across the British Isles in 2005. Coupled with this a 20% growth of pink Champagne sales and the UK has become the most valuable export market in the world for the Champenoise.

Champagne may only be called that if the grapes are grown within the Champagne district of France. This is around 1.5 hours North East of Paris, laying between the cities of Reims, Epernay and Ay.

There are only 3 grape varieties allowed in the cuvee or blend. Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier for red grapes and Chardonnay for white grapes. Each individual vineyard site within each village is awarded a grading between 81% and 100% in quality depending on its individual topography. The best sites with good sun and soil structure are awarded a higher grade and these are the sought after grapes at harvest time.

Not all grape growers make their own Champagne. Many sell the stock to the big houses under contract and this is where the rating system comes into play. For the best wines rated between 100% and 96%, these are called Grand Cru quality. For 96% to 93% these are awarded 1er Cru quality and below tis to 81% the rating is AC or Apellation Controlee.

The price for a Kilo of grapes is set by the central board and therefore if you sell your 97% rated grapes you get 97% of the kilo price. The system really works. You will read the blurb from big houses like Moet et Chandon or Veuve Clicquot raving about a high proportion of Grand Cru and 1er Cru grapes in their cuvee. The best examples of Non Vintage brands in my opinion are Louis Roederer, at about £29.00 per bottle, Taittinger at around £30.00 and Krug for a special occasion at around £75.00 Avoid the acidic sharp styles of Moet, Lanson and even Veuve Clicquot as they give little roundness on the palate.

But what about the grape growers who don’t sell their grapes, but make their own Champagnes? If you are able to find the best you are in for a real treat. On previous buying trips we have been stunned by the quality of some of the smaller brands, particularly in the mountains of Reims where the Pinot Noir grape gives full fruit and rounded yeasty flavours.

Champagne Marguet et Pere is one such find. Located in the heart of the grand cru village of Ambonnay,the next village to the most famous of all in Champagne, Bouzy. These wines are rich, ripe, full and long. Compare the value for a non vintage style, starting at around £15.00 per bottle with 100% rated grapes. It really doesnt get any better than this and their slightly eccentric wine-maker, Benoit Marguet Bonnerave is one of the outstanding new characters on the Champagne scene. He is a wise man. He has married well, into the Champagne Launois family in the village of Le Mesnil sur Oger, the best village in Champagne (100% rated) for the Chardonnay grape.

In comparison to the richer Pinot Noir dominated wines from Ambonnay, Launois Champagnes are light subtle delicate and aromatic, with the cuvee Caroline being my favourite.

My advice is really quite simple. If you can find a small estate 1er cru or Grand Cru quality champagne you will get great value and good drinking. If you care about the label and the image then stick to one of the better non vintage Champagnes such as Louis Roederer or Taittinger. They don’t waste money spraying it over motor cars and generally source exceptional fruit from their contract growers.

Article by Andrew Coghlan for Derbyshire Times “Elite” Magazine

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