October 9, 2012, 1:03am
City A.M.’s wine industry expert
When you think about buying a bottle of Champagne, which names immediately spring to mind? Bollinger? Moet & Chandon? Brands like these carry a hefty price tag but whether their wines are better than the cheaper alternatives is up for debate. You can buy a bottle of Tesco-branded Champagne for under £20; a perfectly fresh and tasty wine from the Union Cooperative in Avize. This is the largest cooperative of local Champagne producers and they create wines for the likes of Tesco, Sainsbury’s and even some of the big Champagne brands. On the other hand, Avize is also home to a few independent Champagne houses, including Champagne de Sousa, whose wines sell upwards of £50. Are the independent and cooperative wines any different? Yes and no.
On a recent trip to the Champagne region of France, I stayed in the village of Dizy just outside Epernay. In Dizy, the hillsides are covered in a blanket of vines as far as the eye can see. Small headstones rest at the end of the rows of vines, telling you who the grapes belong to, and billboards sit either side of the roads advertising local Champagnes. I decided to visit one local producer to see if his wines could stack up against the well-known names. He told me that he sells 75 per cent of his grapes to one of the major Champagne houses and the rest he uses to produce his own wine. I suggested that if this is the case, surely the Champagne houses that buy his grapes would produce a wine that tastes very similar to his own. The short answer is: yes. While there will be subtle differences due to the individual blending, the wine would be very similar if not completely indistinguishable.
While it is very nice to have a bottle of the ’99 Vintage from Pol Roger chilling in the fridge for a special occasion (and I agree that such wines demand the price tag), finding a Champagne suitable as an everyday quaffer isn’t as daunting as it sounds and really shouldn’t be expensive. With a touch of trial and error, you will soon see some of the cheaper options are actually just as good if not better than the premium brands.