THE Champagne boom in Britain shows no sign of slowing. Shipments during 1997 rose by 10.65% to 22.3 million bottles, confirming the UK's position as the premier Champagne export market in the world. These headline figures will come as no surprise to a hospitality industry afloat on a sea of bubbles, but a closer reading of the fine print gives some fascinating insights into trends and preferred styles of Champagne in our market. For example, extra brut cuvées, bone-dry with minimal dosage, are up by 152% and the vintage share of shipments by 88%. These classic wines of course represent a small niche segment of the total Champagne market, but they find their natural home in restaurants where they make great partners for food and cost-saving alternatives to top-flight white Burgundies.
Truly dry Champagne is a British-inspired creation. Until the middle of the 19th century, all Champagnes were pretty sweet for reasons of commercial expediency and were given a strong shot of sugared liqueur to make the inherently acid wines drinkable within a year or two of the vintage. But following the lead of Perrier-Jouet in 1848, a few firms were reducing the dose of liqueur in their wines in response to a new trend, fostered by the British, towards a drier and more mature type of Champagne. Ayala and Bollinger both shipped their "very dry" 1865 vintage to England, though neither wine was naturally Brut (classically dry, with less than 12g of sugar per litre) by modern standards. The first truly dry Champagne was the Pommery 1874, which was the rage of London in 1878. Cut forward to 1998, and one of the most improved and fairly priced dry Champagnes on the market is Pommery's Brut Royal non-vintage. It is floral, incisive, with fine purity of fruit - and a very good buy at £14 a bottle (excluding VAT) from Percy Fox.
Deutz of Ay is a low-profile grande maison with a high reputation among insiders for its distinctive dry Champagnes. Since 1996, considerable investment in the company by the new owners, Louis Roederer, has allowed the management to pay top prices for the best grapes. At Deutz, the average rating of the grapes is 97% on the echelle des crus ("ladder of growths"), one of the highest in Champagne. The quality shows in the excellent Brut Classic, which, as its name implies, is a classic blend of up to 50 wines aged for at least 30 months on the cork. Round, full, yet elegant, with a nicely judged note of austerity, it makes a fine palate-sharpening aperitif and works well as a partner to bream or John Dory in any guise. The 1989 Blanc de Blancs is powerful and very dry in the uncompromising Deutz tradition; unlike many Champagnes from this super-ripe year, it still shows a rapier-like acidity making it a perfect foil for richly sauced lobster and turbot - a great white wine with a real Burgundy-like vinosity behind the bubbles.
Beyond the big names in Champagne with prices to match, there are some exciting discoveries to be unearthed among houses and growers small enough to concentrate on pure-flavoured bone-dry Champagnes tailor-made for the niche restaurant market. The family-owned boutique house of Jacquesson was until recently one of the best-kept secrets in the Champagne business. Assuming a higher but discreet profile, this little firm celebrated its bicentenary at an exquisite performance of Haydn's Creation (1798) in Eton College Chapel on 6 May, in collaboration with the Sargent Cancer Charity for children.
At a dinner and auction attended afterwards by the great and the good, £100,000 was raised for the charity, the generosity of the bids no doubt helped by the 1993 Jacquesson Blanc de Blancs which flowed throughout the evening. This hand-made Chardonnay Champagne, part-fermented in wood and sourced almost entirely from the family's own vineyards in Avize, is a masterpiece of delicate aromas and long persistent flavours, all achieved with a tiny dosage of just 3.5g of sugar per litre. Drinking this lovely wine with the freshest sea bass, prepared by London caterers The Admirable Crichton, was a great climax to a memorable evening. The Jacquesson Blanc de Blancs is very kindly priced for its superb quality.
The best Champagne values of all come from grower-Champagne makers, whose wines are now much in demand by fashionable restaurants in Paris. It is only a matter of time before restaurateurs in the UK latch on to these finds. A blue-chip source of clean-as-a-whistle Chardonnay Champagnes is Pierre Gimmonet et Fils. Growers in Cuis since the 18th century, the Gimmonets now own an important vineyard of 25 hectares in the best sites of the Côte des Blancs, including a plot of very old vines on the finest slopes of Cramant. Finesse marks this range of Blanc de Blancs, the wines keeping an extraordinary vigour for many years that bigger houses can only dream about. The secret of their vitality is that the wines undergo an extended ageing period "sur pointes" (the bottles stored neck-down) to ensure optimal freshness. Gimmonet Champagnes are ideal for matching with food. Particular wines to earmark are the invigorating Maxi-Brut (without dosage) and the mineral-rich and racy Cuvée Gastronome. Both are truly dry Champagnes that drink superbly with oysters. The top of the range Special Club Blanc de Blancs in the 1989 vintage still tastes incredibly young, which says a lot about the care with which it was made.
Another perfectionist grower-Champagne maker is Jean-Marie Tarlant, whose family has been tending vines at Oeuilly in the Marne Valley since 1689. Tarlant's originality is that he uses wood-fermentation of individual vineyard wines separately to give expression to their respective soils. The Blanc de Blancs is a Champagne of powerful presence and lingering flavours, the Brut Zero is wonderfully clean and incisive (a perfect wine for salmon tartare), while the Krug-like Cuvée Louis, fermented in new oaks, has a richness to match lightly hung woodcock. n
Michael Edwards's Pocket Book to Champagne and Sparkling Wines (Mitchell Beazley) will be published in the autumn.