Grape expectations: Champagne
Champagne kicked off as a still wine. Then, in the mid-1700s, London cafe society discovered that if you added a spoonful of sugar it would create the magic bubbles on demand. The sweet version caught on and by the turn of the 18th century the winemakers were doing the work for you.
The Champagne house of Gosset was founded as a still-wine producer in 1584 and is the oldest Champagne house still in operation today. Ruinart, Taittinger, Moet et Chandon and Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin were all in business by 1772.
Champagne comes from a region of that name in northern France. In 1927, the boundaries were legally defined and split into five districts: the Aube, Cote des Blancs, Cote de Sezanne, Montagne de Reims, and Vallee de la Marne, a total of 33,500 hectares of vineyards, 5,000 growers who make their own wine and another 14,000 growers who sell their grapes. Small wonder that you keep coming across Champagnes with names you've never heard of.
The grapes involved are chardonnay, plus two red grapes, pinot noir and pinot meunier. Most of the Champagne is a blend of wines across several years in order to achieve a house style and a consistency of product. Nothing wrong with that.
Vintage Champagnes are wines from a single year, for which winemakers often reserve the pick of the crop. If you get the chance to drink a Champagne of the 1996 vintage, go for it; I'm sure you'll glimpse the difference.
Prestige cuvees are luxury goods, designed to showcase the house that makes them and attract monied folk.
Champagne is getting cheaper -- a combination of over-production and less money in circulation has driven down the price, aided by ruthless bargaining by supermarket buyers. In my predictions for 2011 I said the €18 bottle is almost upon us and, hey presto! Lidl have one for €17.99. Haven't tried it yet, but the Premier Cru from the same producer, Bisinger, is real value for money at €22 (above). The splendid Beaumont des Crayeres range (O'Brien's) kick off at around €25. Superquinn have a Champagne, Louis d'Or at €20. I can personally attest to the quality of this one -- it's the non-vintage of a decent producer re-badged.
They also have Mumm at €25. Dunnes and Tesco likewise have decent drinking for buttons money. This Valentine's Day, make it the real deal -- Champagne.