|The Christmas lights go up on Regent St, the department stores start playing Ding Dong Merrily on High, and the messages from friends, former colleagues, neighbours and readers start rolling in on my phone. What, everyone wants to know, is the best cheap champagne this year? Not the most delicious, never the most blow-you-away. Always, even from Masters of the Hedge Fund Universe, the best cheapest.
I bet you’ve wondered too. After all, who doesn’t love a bargain? So my answers go out. And the feedback trickles in. Those who have bought my top recommendation like it a lot. They send pictures. I get pleased emails with capital letter SUPERLATIVES from their (less wine-interested) partners. For British readers, recommendation No 1 is Waitrose Champagne Blanc de Noirs Brut NV, which is made by Maison Alexandre Bonnet. It’s absolutely superb this year; I will be buying some, it costs £26.99 when not on promotion.
No one bothers with recommendation No 2, the toasty and very elegant Les Pionniers Brut NV, a Co-op own-label, £21.50 at full price. Predictably, quite a lot say (a touch sheepishly) they’ve gone for the £15 discount store champagne they mentioned they might buy when they first got in touch. As I originally said to them: it is very good for the price, but it’s not how I’d spend my own money. The other two are so much more of a treat.
It's always like this with champagne, isn’t it? Wine drinkers are notorious for their lack of brand loyalty. A pre-pandemic survey by the Wine & Spirit Trade Association found that five percent of wine drinkers were fully loyal to the brands they drink (compared to 16 percent of spirit consumers).
But when it comes to champagne, people buy cheap or they do buy brands, often a grande marque whose aura does a lot of the celebratory heavy lifting, whose taste is a known quantity so can be imagined and anticipated and the expectation fulfilled as the glass meets the lips. My phone-friends are wanting both: a cheap brand they know.
And yet, there is shift. For some time, sommeliers have been trying to interest restaurant-goers in sparkling wines they might not have heard of – grower champagnes, less well-known brands, even English sparkling wines. Finally, people are beginning to pay attention. Charlotte Page, the head sommelier at Joël Robuchon, says the secret to switching people on to new champagnes is quantity of choice: give them a list packed with names they’ve never heard of and instead of picking the usual comfort name, ‘They ask for the sommelier’s guidance’. Voilà, the focus moves to taste and flavour. People are sitting in the restaurant noticing and loving what’s in their glass.
At Bossa in Mayfair, head sommelier Lais Aoki goes even further. ‘Curious customers are now interested in non-conventional grapes such as Pinot Blanc and Arbane …or they are connoisseurs who already know which producers have cuvées focused on plots.’
It’s clear that, just as some seek out a fragrance they won’t smell on a dozen others as they walk down a crowded street, for more confident (and, often, affluent, champagne and sparkling wine drinkers) boutique – or, simply, a name that others might not know – has increasing cachet.
At Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir Aux Quat’ Saisons, a superb English sparkling from the nearby Hundred Hills vineyard is the house pour. The much-loved Pig group of hotels showcases a vast array of English sparkling wines for guests to discover, rather than opting for the well-worn formula of well-known (and more expensive) champagne brands interspersed with cheap ones that are only cheap because they’re not very good.
And the attitude is beginning to filter through to the choices people make about drinking at home. Look carefully at lesser-known champagnes and, indeed, English sparkling wines, and you can find all sorts of gorgeous bottles with a quality-price-ratio that hits a serious sweet spot.
In winter, I love the taste of cherry skins and smell of the outdoors that you find in blanc de noirs; Champagne Gonet-Médeville Blanc de Noirs Brut 1er Cru NV is excellent (imported into the UK by Lea & Sandeman, currently on offer at £44.95). If the elegance of blanc de blancs is more your style, the Champagne Larmandier-Bernier wines are truly thrilling.
Of course, there’s a retail dopamine hit associated with scoring the cheapest bottle but that’s not the buzz I’m looking for with my Christmas champagne. I want to fall at least a little bit in love with what’s actually in my glass.