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Champagne or sparkling wine : a quick guide
So often when buying festive fizz we can be intimidated or baffled. Not so the French, who generally have a greater understanding of wine, be it the terminology, the wine-growing process or how to match wine with food. There are some people who argue that champagne is best without food, but equally the celebration may fade too quickly if that happens. So where in London can you purchase delicious French champagne or sparkling wine that will delight your guests this Christmas, while they ponder this delicate question as they eye the canapés?
Champagne and Crémants:
If the wine buying in the house falls to you and you are not totally sure what means what, here is a swift guide: only the area around Reims in France is allowed to call its wines champagne. Everywhere else the producer must use a different terminology. In the EU, "méthode champenoise" is reserved for champagne, but in France you could also use: "méthode traditionelle", "méthode classique" or "crémant" appellations. Equally, "crémant", a French sparkling wine, is now ony made in certain areas such as Alsace, Bordeaux, Bourgogne, and so on. This wine is so called because of its soft, creamy mousse. The use of chardonnay grapes tends to bring forth adjectives such as "toasty" and pinot noir, "biscuity", however there appears to be a lot of artistic license in the description of champagnes...so best to make up your own mind.
There are various champagne terms, for example cuvée, meaning blend and brut, meaning dry. Vintage years are equated with the higher price range, as they denote an especially good year, whereas there is a larger pool of less expensive champagne which is a mixture of wines from different years. "NV" on a bottle means: non-vintage, but this can still mean a delicious wine in the right hands.
The marketing departments of the well-known champagne houses have a built-in advantage due to the recognised brand factor. The French do not automatically assume that all champagne is good and that sparkling wine from other regions are less so, because they are sophisticated enough to look beyond the label.
What, you may ask, is the average price for a bottle of champagne or sparkling wine? This is rather like asking about the length of a piece of string, as the prices vary so much. There are less expensive, but still good champagnes and sparkling wines starting at pounds 15, and then the sky is the limit.
The environment to store champagne or cremant is key, it is best to keep the bottle in the dark at around 12 degres Celsius. Bottles can be kept for a few years but this is not critical because its aging has already taken place in the cellar, overseen by its creator.
If you are discerning you can discover something new and still not break the bank. The Nicolas wine shops, which are found in both central and outer London, stock a very good range of French champagnes and sparkling wines. The shop I visited in Smithfield at 90 Cowcross St, (phone number 020 7336 0281) had a good selection of champagnes, some of which had been reduced in price. The manager, Florent Tissino, selected some of his favourite champagnes and spoke with enthusiasm about his desire to send his customers away with a discovery that would please them.
As he says, champagne tasting is subjective, however his selection included Ruinart (pounds 21.99 a bottle against the usual price of pounds 25.99). This champagne has the correct bubble size, a good balance of acid and a very clean taste. Ruinart is one of the two oldest champagne houses and is better known in Italy and France than here in England. Florent also favours the Nicolas Feuillatte Cuvée Tradition, again reduced from pounds 19.49 to pounds 15.59. It is one of the younger champagne houses but is making strides. Good news for those of you who like rosé champagne - rosé is making a comeback! Nicolas stocks the Bruno Paillard at pounds 22.99 a bottle, again a younger champagne house this time using chardonnay grapes to produce a dry rosé. The Ruinart house also produces a pink champagne at pounds 27.99, which is really good and a well balanced wine.
Another French retailer who stocks a selection of champagnes is La Reserve. You can buy on-line from their well-organised website (address: www.la-reserve.co.uk) or alternatively buy from their retail outlets at Knightsbridge, Fulham, Hampstead, Soho or Battersea. They buy according to a philosophy of quality, value and individuality and favour the following champagne houses: Pol Roger, Gosset and Charles Leprince.
If you're in the market for a big case of champagne, their current special offer, a blend of 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay, is pounds 310 per case. This 1996 Pol Roger, according to the President of the company, is "...youthful, nutty, floral and with a yeasty nose...Serious grip on the finish, very long. Lovely acidity". At 20% off the shelf price, how can you resist?!
Champagnes are best drunk chilled but never very cold. The ideal temperature for a champagne is between 8 and 10 degrees Celsius, after 20 minutes in an ice bucket or 3 hours in a fridge. The freezer is not advisable.
To open : First of all, taking off the metal wirer, take the cork in your hand and gently twist the bottle whilst holding it by its bottom at a slight angle, the cork comes easily.
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