Thursday 26 November 2009


On Tuesday I went to a Champagne tasting. It was arranged for London Food and Drink Bloggers and held at Bibendum Wine. The email came in, I read it and immediately I was intrigued: four champagne houses; a non-vintage, a rosé and a vintage from each. Importantly the word ‘free’ was in there. We had champagne from De Castellane, Lanson, Moët et Chandon and Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin.

I arrived not knowing much, to the point that one of the first things I said was completely incorrect (for some reason I thought that Champagne went through an initial fermentation in oak before moving to the bottles?! I don’t know why). Thankfully Andrew (who I’ve drunk wine with before) was there to help me out (he’s also a Beer Swapper!).

I learnt a few things about Champagne that I thought were interesting (hopefully I will recount them accurately). It uses three grape varieties: Chardonnay (white grape which adds finesse), Pinot Noir (red grape which adds body and structure) and Pinot Meunier (red grape which adds fruitiness). It’s fermented in stainless steel like wine but then undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle when sugar and yeast is added (like real ale) – this is what gives the fizz (like real ale!). It’s initially bottled with a crown cap and racked with the cap facing down, it‘s then moved and twisted regularly so that the yeast collects by the cap. After a while (years) the cap is popped, the yeast is removed and a cork is fitted (sometimes an extra dosage of sugar/sweetness is added). Unlike wine or strong beer which will evolve, Champagne aims to keep a constant taste from when it’s bottled to when it’s opened (although some change is inevitable if kept for a long time - in terms of drinking time, the rule of thumb is that however long is spends on yeast in the bottle, it should be opened within that time again, so if it was on yeast for three years then it’s best drunk within three years). And did you know that Morrisons have slashed their Champagne prices and are now selling them for a loss? This was a sore point with the producers.

I don’t drink a lot of champagne as it’s one of those things you open for a special occasion (I’ve got too many special occasion beers as it is). As I don’t drink much, I don’t know much about the taste other than fizzy and dry, moving into yeasty and biscuity. What I found while drinking them was, like when drinking lager, it’s the little differences that really stand out.

Move past that initial hit of fizz and it reveals itself as light, elegant, crisp, fruity, sharp. It took me a while to readjust the taste buds, but I got there. Some were sweeter than others, some drier. Some had fresh apple sweetness and tang, others had a bitter lemon dryness to them. Some were bready, others less so. The size of the bubbles also became perceptible as we moved around, with the bigger ones feeling clunky and unrefined.

The Lanson rosé had a berry hint but between fizz and dryness it was a void, the Moët rosé was a taste of summer strawberries, the Veuve Clicquot rosé was sweeter and picnic-perfect. The non-vintages had a simplicity to them all with the Veuve Clicquot being my favourite with a nose that made me want to stick my head in the glass. Taste-wise it had more complexity to the others. more body because of a higher percentage of Pinot Noir, a zippy freshness to it. And the vintages, which ranged from 1998-2003. The 2002 Veuve Clicquot smelt like brie and sour apples, which I was reticent to say just in case shouting ‘mmm, it’s cheesy’ is a major faux pas, but it turns out this is normal. Interestingly, this opened out in the glass and after a minute or so it became bready and sweeter. Personally, I liked the 1998 Lanson Vintage the most. It was exactly what I wanted and expected from Champagne and had a great come-get-me nose of brioche, yeast and bread then an intriguing pithy bitterness at the end. That was the flavour I was hoping for, the extra complexity I wanted (maybe it was this ‘extra’ that made it stand out to me, preferring more to less, maybe it was a familiar bitter finish that caught my attention).

It’s great drinking wine with people who know and understand it and I learn a lot from them. Wine challenges me to begin but it’s very interesting to come from a beer perspective into a wine tasting like this and ultimately it’s just people tasting and drinking different glasses of booze. Strangely, it’s the similarities to beer which I always manage to pick out – an aroma, a taste, some sourness, that yeasty sweetness which I love in some Belgians. I guess the question is would I buy any of these? The Lanson vintage was £37 (overall the prices ranged from £25-£40+). That money would buy me a lot of great beer. I suppose it’d be nice to have a few bottles of fizz lying around though, just in case.


  1. Im not a big fan of fizz but our lass loves the stuff (but don't all girls? little bit sexist i know)

    the main problem with buying emily champagne is she doesnt usually drink a full bottle then by the time she comes to drink the rest (if we are in on our own) it's gone flat..even with one of those fancy stopper things.

    So she occasionaly getts packs of the little bottles as a present but when you look a the price per bottle you can get some amazing beers for less...huge dilema until you see the smile on her face when she gets champagne presents lol

  2. I think champagne has too much mystique altogether. But then I have only ever drunk cheap champagne and any champagne buff wll tell you that that's crap and you'd get a far better sparkling wine from another region for the same money. On the other hand, I don't have the budget to regularly drop £60 on a bottle to find one I really like.

  3. Professor Pie-Tin26 November 2009 at 09:49

    Champagne is one of the world's greatest marketing con tricks following closely by Beaujolais Nouveau.
    A good Spanish cava is just as comparable as most champagnes and a fraction of the price.
    Anyone who pays serious money for a bottle of fizz needs their head examined.

  4. Mark,

    you should have stuck to your guns, althought the vast majority of Champagne is fermented in steel oak is still used. Krug do it for all their wines and Bolly for their vintage wines. Other boutique producers use it too Henri Giraud springs to mind.

    You have gone off course a bit with your desciption of dosage and the issue of flavour evolution and maturation. Pretty much every champagne will have some sugar in the dosage, Brut for example can range from 7-15g/l residual, and this sugar is vital for the develpment of the yeasty, toasty aromas you get in developed champagne. Although it is true to say most NV Champagne is best drunk young some can age well and Vintage Champagne is very capable of extended ageing and flavour development, the very best do so for decades.

    Professor Pie-Tin,

    Champagne has always marketed itself as a premium luxury good to simply look for a linear relationship between flavours and retail cost is never going to give a complete picture of the market. Looking at it another way does Brewdog Atlantic IPA actually offer a percetage increase in taste that is in line with the percentage increase in retail cost, possibly not, or is it being sold as a premium, probably, and if so is this a bad thing, probably not. It all rather depends on what you want to do with the brand and how consumers choose to interact with it and how they choose to apportion the very ellusive notion of value.

  5. Moggy, just buy the good stuff then you can enjoy it too!

    Barm, I have had English sparkling wines better than some of those I had Tuesday and they were much cheaper. My whole problem with getting into wine atm is expense - I can't afford the money to find out what I do/don't like!

    Prof., I agree with you on the marketing. It's a brand thing and just a 'champagne thing'. It's a premium product at a premium price. If people are happy to pay £100 a bottle then let them. I won't be.

    Nicholas, thanks for clearing that up. I expected to not get everything quite right - I was trying to drink, listen and take different notes all at the same time!! And I did wonder about them not aging. I thought it was strange that they wouldn't. This was just what the Moet guy told us.

  6. Professor Pie-Tin26 November 2009 at 13:28

    Nicholas King - I agree entirely, which is why I said a decent Spanish cava is just as good as champagne at a fraction of the cost.
    It's like buying own-brand and branded goods at a supermarket that are produced at the same factory but just have different labelling.
    Provided there's no difference in quality why pay much,much more for the brand.
    Unless you buy and drink champagne to impress someone, which I don't.
    Which is why I also think Brewdog is a triumph of marketing over ordinary beer.
    But, of course, there's a fool born every day.

  7. Mark,

    It makes complete sense that Moet should be saying this. Although Moet’s wines leaving champagne are consistent in their flavour there is no guarantee that the wines on the retailers’ shelves are all of the same age. This could mean that you could get a NV that is young and crisp and light or one that is older with bready and yeasty aromas. You have no way of knowing until you open the bottle. It is in Moet’s interest to keep as tight a reign on their supply chain as possible and encourage early consumption in order to reduce the risk of bottle variation which although is not a fault would confuse/disappoint the consumer whose default, once in a blue moon, champers is Moet. As Moet is the largest brand on the export market by far they are most at risk from this problem.

    Professor Pie Tin,

    Personally I think there are substantial qualitative differences between Cava and Champagne; for less expensive fizz I would tend to look in Oz, California and some English too where I will freely acknowledge you can get more bang for your buck but all too often without the same level of finesse or elegance of good champagne. Horses for Courses!

  8. Great to see you at a wine event my friend and glad you found it informative!

    Cant agree that cava anyway approaches champagne though; it just does come close! But some of those new world sparklers are jolly decent stuff.

    Now just waiting on you to organise a beer tasting for us novices so I can learn something too! ;-)