Champagne is the least understood wine of them all. The market is dominated by a handful of major producers who blend the majority of their output in order to create a house style year in year out. Despite this, very few are easily identifiable by the non-initiated save for their labels or bottle shape.
The trouble is that the majority of champagne is consumed standing in a noisy room while you raise your voice to make yourself heard – when was the last time you had a memorable drink of anything on your feet? The whole point of champagne in this context is to enjoy yourself, regardless of whether it is served at the wrong temperature, too young or in an inappropriate glass. Most of the time, champagne is served far too cold, which kills any flavour or aftertaste. If you have the patience to wait until it has had time to mellow in the glass, you will be amazed at how the flavours emerge.
When it comes to drinking it with food, I have always been quite sceptical, but I’m open to having my mind changed. To that end, I went to Le Cinq at the George V in Paris, where Christian Le Squer, the three-star Michelin chef, recently took over. One of his signature dishes was created specifically to be accompanied by old champagne — Dover sole cooked in milk and smothered in slices of white truffles from Alba. We ate this luscious work of art with Krug 1989, served in large balloon-shaped Burgundy glasses. I will never again say champagne doesn’t go with food: it was a revelation to see how the fish and truffles teased out lingering flavours from this quarter-of-a-century-old champagne.
It is not easy to find the best smaller producers. Champagne houses spend small fortunes promoting their brands, so it is easy to presume that, say, Dom Perignon is sans pareil. After all, Prince Charles and Lady Diana served magnums of the ’61 at their wedding. Owners Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy refuse to reveal how much of this ultimate luxury product is produced, but those in the know say it is in the millions of bottles.
Just before the last millennium, I helped buy six-figure amounts of vintage champagne for a music producer who was banking on the price rising markedly when the centuries changed (which it did). I was invited to stay at Chateau de Saran, the headquarters of Dom Perignon and Moët et Chandon near Epernay. There was a tasting dinner with only champagne for each course and, of course, lots of old and rare bottles of Dom Perignon, their grandest marque. (I must confess it is not a champagne that has ever impressed me. It is too fruit-driven, even grapey, compared to others, such as Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne or the even greater Salon, once described as Batard-Montrachet with bubbles.)
The evening was enlivened by the presence of Andrew Parker Bowles, who was happily shearing off the tops of bottles with a sword by the time the final course arrived. The next day, a magnum of 1964 Moët was wheeled out — this is the lowliest vintage brand of the house, so not much was expected. It actually blew me away and remains the greatest champagne I have ever tasted. It had pronounced toasty, brioche flavours almost verging on the caramelised. Yet it costs a fraction of the older Dom Perignon bottles we had drunk earlier.
The best way to explore great champagne from small producers is to visit Adrien Butko, head sommelier at Texture, the Michelin-starred restaurant off Portman Square in London. He serves around 150 different champagnes, many by the glass. He previously worked at Les Crayeres, the finest restaurant in Reims. It is only through exposure like this that you can appreciate the variety available at similar prices to the industrially produced ones. I asked him to prepare a champagne lunch, including tricky dishes like pigeon, confining himself to champagne from relatively obscure family-run houses. The highlight was a Chartogne-Taillet 2008 with yellow-fin tuna tartar. Again, the food brought out another level of complexity and lingering minerality — and this for a champagne that retails around £35 a bottle. There was also success with the Anjou Pigeon – a non-vintage Rose from Veuve Fourny. It had the spine to deal with the intensity of this sought-after bird and cleanse your palate for the next mouthful.