Sometimes a special occasion calls for a drop of the real stuff. But where to get the best quality without breaking the bank? Andy Howard MW guides us through
79 wines tasted Smaller growers showed particularly well, and our panel found plenty of quality and character
The TerM ‘value’ Champagne might seem a bit of an oxymoron or, for seasoned wine tasters, something to dread. Sadly, ‘cheap’ Champagne can often mean overly acidic, lean and simple wines. So it was with some trepidation that the tasting panel considered a range of 79 different contenders which shared just their appellation and a retail price point of £40 or under.
Champagne remains the leading sparkling wine category worldwide and despite the growth of Prosecco, and recent challenges from its domestic rivals in the crémant category, this situation is unlikely to change any time soon. In March 2018, annual figures released by the Comité Champagne showed Champagne accounted for 36% of the value of worldwide sparkling wine sales in 2017, with a presence in more than 190 countries. Total shipments amounted to 307 million bottles, with over a billion bottles currently stored in the region.
What prompted a significant amount of press coverage was the fact that volumes shipped to the uK had fallen to 27.8m bottles – a decline of 11% and the first time in over 15 years that exports were less than 30m bottles. Was this a reaction to a reduction in discounted Champagne as a result of the pound’s weakness; the growth of alternatives such as Prosecco; or even the development of the english sparkling wine industry?
It is difficult to categorise exactly what wine lovers should be expecting in this sub-£40 category. Drinkers can expect to find value-oriented, own-label wines sourced by supermarkets or online retailers, as well as Champagnes from both smaller growers and some of the larger houses – still the main volume driver for worldwide sales. The region also benefits from a network of strong cooperatives, which can usually be relied on for the production of high-quality, good-value wines.
The lower price tiers are dominated by blends, with the classic mix of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier accounting for 80% of the wines in this tasting. hardly surprising, as blending different varieties gives winemakers more options. While vintage Champagne is a different beast, the quality of recent vintages is significant as this drives the character of base wines. Both 2010 and 2011 were poor, but in recent years quality has been high, which bodes well for the Nv category.
Stylistically, the best Champagnes in this price bracket should offer a fine, lasting mousse, crisp (but not excessive) acidity, finesse and purity of flavour. Some wines may show the development of autolytic characters as a result of longer ageing on lees and, in a few cases, some element of maturation in wood. In most cases, drinkers should anticipate elegant, bright, fresh sparkling wines, full of verve and ready to enjoy now.