Forever blowing bubbles

01 January 2000
Forever blowing bubbles

The Champagne habit is back. The Blairs and the Clintons toast the New Dawn with Bollinger and Billecart-Salmon (and Budvar large in between). Bubble sales are booming. Figures published in March reveal that annual Champagne shipments to the UK rose by 18.4% to 20.1 million bottles, re-establishing Britain's position as the premier Champagne export market.

All this is grist to the mill for wine speculators. The less scrupulous of these companies have been claiming that big profits can be made by buying Champagne "futures" as a hedge against a projected shortage and soaring prices in 1999.

This bullish forecast shows a poor grasp of the nature of the Champagne business and the realities of the world market. Current sales in the UK are one ray of sunshine in an unsettled sky. The French domestic Champagne market, which normally accounts for annual sales of 87 million bottles, is stagnant and Germany's market has lost ground as both countries take the strain of economic convergence.

Two other factors should cool heads. Champagne is simply not a speculative commodity in the way that fine claret is. Prestige cuvées such as Krug, Dom Pérignon and Roederer Cristal apart, bubbly is difficult to sell at auction and prices fetched are often modest. Crucially, there is absolutely no shortage of non-vintage Champagne, nor is there likely to be over the next three years.

Good times

The good times in Champagne are gradually returning. Stock levels in 1997 are very healthy (the equivalent of four years' sales), and blocked wines from 1992, 1993 and 1994, representing in each vintage as much as 35% of an annual crop, are still there to be used as a safeguard against any notional overheating of the market. Even in the most surreal scenario, where the world's Champagne drinkers consume an entire year's stock (246 million bottles!) on New Year's Eve 1999, there would be still be plenty of wine to spare.

Vintage Champagnes are another matter. Like all fine wines in limited supply, the best cuvées from mature vintages sell out quickly, and now is the time to make your selections of those that will have enough bottle-age to taste à point on the special night. Great vintage Champagnes such as Grands Crus Chablis are generally drunk far too young; it usually takes at least 10 years for them to show their paces and most will not reach their peak in less than 13, 15 or even 17 years.

This is particularly true of top-flight, pure Chardonnay Champagnes from Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, the greatest white wine village of the Côte des Blancs. Corney & Barrow, the City of London wine merchant, has recently released the 1983 vintage of Salon Le Mésnil, a superbly concentrated Blanc de Blancs - aromatic and elegant but with the power to see it sailing through into the 21st century. Alain Robert, a perfectionist grower, is also offering his Mésnil Selection, a really mature cuvée of magnificently evolved Chardonnay flavours.

The 1985 vintage may well come to be seen as one of the two greatest years in Champagne since World War II, the other being 1964. The wines have an extraordinary intensity of fruit flavours that were the result of a very small crop and low yields. Most have disappeared already from national agents' lists, but you will still find some wonderful wines in fine wine specialists' brochures. Top wines include Krug and Bollinger RD, of course, but the spectacular bargain of the current offerings is the 1985 Cuvée Orpale Blanc de Blancs from the Union Champagne in Avize, a wine of rich toasty character and vinosity for just £18.50 a bottle including VAT.

Fresh and aromatic in their prime, the 1986s have been useful transitional Champagnes, though several are now starting to fade. The 1986 Cuvée des Roys from the underrated house of Duval-Leroy is, however, exceptional. Dominated by the best Chardonnays from Chouilly, Cramant and Avize, it has a burgeoning honeyed character and great length of flavour - an ideal Millennium Champagne.

The trio of 1988, 1989 and 1990 constitute that rarity, a run of three highly regarded Champagne vintages. Of the three, 1988 is the most classic in the sense of having a certain minerally austerity and the best capacity for ageing. The finest 1988s - such as the exquisitely elegant Pol Roger Cuvée Special PR, the taut, fine-drawn Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, the complex wood-fermented Jacquesson Signature and the beautifully defined Billecart-Salmon Grande Cuvée - should be kept until late 1999 for optimum enjoyment. In the meantime, drink the ripe, rich and sensuous 1989s. Bollinger Grande Année is an absolute charmer, Veuve Cliquot Vintage Réserve a model of Pinot-led richness and harmony, and Bruno Paillard Millesime is all subtle persistence of flavour.

The jury is still out on the 1990 vintage. Several of the best houses have not released their wines yet, but this has not stopped trade and press pundits from praising them to the skies. Constructive scepticism may be in order. The 1990 harvest was one of the largest Champagne crops on record, the summer very hot, and the level of acidity in the grapes, especially Chardonnay, quite low.

The most gifted chefs des caves such as Richard Geoffrey (Dom Pérignon), Daniel Thibault (Charles Heidsieck) and Michael Pansu (Roederer Cristal) have met the challenges of this extraordinary year and produced 1990 masterpieces. Others, who did not keep the acidity structure in their champagne up to a safe sustaining level, may have produced a vintage that will be over the hill well before the Millennium.

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