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The Caterer

Secs appeal

27 March 2003 by
Secs appeal

Champagne sales are soaring. We drank more than 31 million bottles in the UK last year - 26.37% up on the previous year's figure. That means we drink more Champagne than any other country in the world (except France, of course). But it's all non-vintage, isn't it? Not according to the Champagne Information Bureau (CIB), which says that we drink the full range of Champagne - vintage, non-vintage, prestige cuvées and the rest. Or rather, most of the rest: we like our Champagne dry - brut makes up 93% of sales.

Wait a minute, though - don't we British have the sweetest tooth in Europe? That being so, why isn't demi-sec more popular over here? At the moment, it accounts for a little less than 2% of sales in the UK.

Admittedly, not that much of it is made (owing to lack of demand), and it's derided by some for not being as "serious" a drink - all that sugar (demi-sec has as much as 50g of sugar added per litre) can mask some of Champagne's more subtle nuances, they say. But aren't Champagne producers missing out on a trick here? There are still plenty of drinkers who find brut a little harsh on the stomach. "It's too tart," they moan, reaching instead for an Australian Chardonnay. However, this could be the key to turning the youth market on to Champagne.

So who does drink demi-sec? And when do they drink it? According to the CIB, the French drink it after a meal, as a celebratory toast, or with dessert. Taking France's lead, Caterer thought it would open up discussion about an unsung style of Champagne and pitch it against some puddings. And there could be nowhere better to try it out than in France - in pastry heaven, at the now three-Michelin-starred Le Cinq restaurant in the Four Seasons Georges V hotel, in Paris.

The puddings
Arnaud de Faletans is the man with the sweet tooth at Le Cinq. He has been the pastry chef there since November 2001, working under executive chef Philippe Legendre. De Faletans sent over three different puddings for us to try with the Champagnes: a classic cuisine grand-mère-style, intensely buttery frangipane tart; a banana cannelloni with cream and mango, chocolate mousse, passion fruit sauce and coconut macaroon; and pear with puff pastry and prunes, Jamaican pepper ice-cream.

The panel
Ask any French sommelier in the UK who was their inspiration, and Eric Beaumard's name crops up often. He has been in charge of the wine list and the restaurant at Le Cinq for three years now, looking after a team of four sommeliers, and a 48-strong front-of- house brigade. He has a mantelpiece crammed with awards, including Best Sommelier in Europe in 1994, and a silver trophy from the 1998 World's Best Sommelier championship.

His latest coup was training his number two, Enrico Bernardo, to win gold for his native country, Italy, in last year's Ruinart sommelier championships.

We were also joined by his number three, Thierry Hamon, and the UK's font of all food and wine matching knowledge, Fiona Beckett.

The wines
We asked Champagne suppliers to send us all the demi-sec available in the UK on-trade - we got nine wines in all. But before we get down to business, we need to understand a thing or two about demi-sec Champagne. It's not just called demi-sec - there's sec, rich and rich reserve, all falling under the demi-sec banner.

The first, sec, has the lowest dosage of the group (a solution of cane sugar and still Champagne which is added to the bottle after disgorgement), at 17-35g of sugar per litre. The other two, rich and rich reserve, are also demi-sec, but older wines are used in the blend. A Veuve Clicquot spokesperson says: "We wanted to create a wine that could be drunk throughout the meal." The main thing to remember, though, is that the sugar content determines the wine's style and sweetness.

Be warned - Beaumard, like many sommeliers, is not a great fan of demi-sec. "It's a drink for grandmothers," he says. "I like my Champagne brut." He emphasises the "brut", adding that he sells a staggering 60,000 bottles a year of it.

He does, though, concede that there is a place in his heart for Veuve Clicquot Rich Reserve 1995, which he lists at Le Cinq, though he prefers to pair it with Legendre's famous lobster, smoked in its shell and roasted, with chestnuts from the Corrèze region. "It's a great combination," he declares.

But would he spot it in our line-up? All the wines were tasted blind.

The verdict
This was not the easiest of tastings, all agreed. The sweetness en masse seemed to mask any obvious individuality. "You can hide defects with sugar," Beaumard muttered, darkly. That said, there were no "dogs", and all, without exception, were deemed well made. In fact, top marks went not to a rarefied Grandes Marques, but to a household name - Mercier, which showed a dominance of older wines in the blend, much to the panel's delight.

The much-lauded Veuve Clicquot Rich Reserve 1995 took a back seat, overshadowed by the showy, sweet fruit of the others, even though it was tasted second in the line-up alongside the other "sec" contender, Louis Roederer - which, incidentally, got the thumbs up from Hamon, who put it in his personal first place.

However, Veuve Clicquot need not be disheartened - its non-vintage demi-sec came in third place overall, after another mainstream producer, Champagne Lanson, grabbed second place. "Well-balanced, refined and elegant," Beaumard concluded. "It stood out from the others for being floral and aromatic," Beckett added.

So how did they pair up with the puddings? Beckett said: "In many ways, demi-sec has to be treated very much like a conventional dessert wine, with the same considerations to bear in mind, so your dessert must not be considerably sweeter than the Champagne. Demi-sec Champagne goes particularly well with the lighter end of the pudding spectrum - you wouldn't want to put a demi-sec with a warm chocolate fondant, say."

So we're talking in terms of light, airy pastries, mousses, soufflés and fruit puddings with a touch of tartness (apples and pears, red berries and passion fruit) - which is what we got at Le Cinq, more or less.

So, did the sommeliers come away still thinking demi-sec is a drink for old ladies?

"My mates just love it when I offer them Prosecco or Moscato d'Asti to drink round at my house, so I think they would love this, too," Hamon said.

"I think younger people who don't know so much about wine would definitely go for this style of Champagne," Beaumard conceded.

But he warned against serving demi-sec too young. "The sweetness tastes better when you've got a bit of age," he said.

"There's a bit of a naughty-but-nice appeal to demi-sec Champagne which is under-exploited," Beckett said. "Why don't hotels and restaurants serve it, for example, with afternoon tea?"

Now, there's an idea…

The Champagne

Winner Mercier demi-sec NV
£11.96, Moët Hennessy UK
020 7235 9411

Second Lanson, demi-sec NV
£11.71, Marne & Champagne Diffusion
020 7499 0070

Third Veuve Clicquot demi-sec NV
£15, Veuve Clicquot UK
020 7408 7430

Others tasted
Louis Roederer sec NV
Veuve Clicquot Rich Reserve 1995
Canard-Duchene demi-sec NV
Taittinger demi-sec NV
Nicholas Feuillatte demi-sec NV
Pol Roger demi-sec NV

All prices quoted are per bottle, excluding VAT

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