Quality and Value reassessed in Champagne
How quickly things change. In 2008, despite the near- collapse of the international banking system, Champagne at first looked recession-proof as business held up with consumers clinging to the consolation of the world's most glamorous wine to lift their mood. It could not last. In mid-2009 the resilient US economy may show the first teeny signs of recovery, but Europe, and much of Asia, is now stuck in deep recession with Champagne shipments likely fall by at least 30 per cent this year. Although there are obvious perils if the world's economies don't look brighter next year, the downturn this time could be a blessing in disguise - cooling a bull market that had previously shown signs of serious price inflation as Champagne growers pushed their vines to the very limits of production in an attempt to meet a world demand they couldn't satisfy in the long term.
Quality & value: two other names for Tarlant
They now have a breathing space, with stocks likely to last longer than at first feared; yields of wine will drop to more reasonable levels for optimal quality and prices should stabilise. As always in straitened times, there are real opportunities for the astute buyer to pick up some bargains in Champagne, a region blessed with a run of four good crops and one great harvest (2008) in the last five years. This should ensure the quality of non-vintage Champagne for the foreseeable future. And for the connoisseurs of well-aged 'Vintage', 2000 is a delicious, forward year for current drinking; 2002 is likely to prove one of the finest vintages since the Second World War in a magical mix of unctuous richness and astonishing finesse; and the record sized 2004 has an energy and precision, making it a Chardonnay year par excellence.
To find your way to the best values in Champagne, it helps to understand the structure of the trade. The grandes maisons, the great houses with resonating names like Krug, Veuve Clicquot, Lanson, Charles & Piper Heidsieck, own only about 14 per cent of the vineyards.So they have to buy the majority of their grapes from 15,500 growers, a significant number of whom belong to one of the powerful cooperatives. The growers, either in individual domains or collective groupings, usually have the whip hand. But in hard times like these, the vignoble and the négoce need each other. The present recession is a hairpin on the bumpy road to recovery, which needs to be skilfully negotiated if no one is to be left lying on the carriageway. The partnership between growers and houses, particularly in facilitating the flow of grapes from the vineyard to the winery, is currently healthy. But another contrasting reality is that there's a much wider choice of supply for the consumer in buying champagne. Growers and houses are rivals for the business of private individuals, now that Reims and Epernay have rapid rail, air and road links to Paris, the Channel ports and northern Europe. Does the freer market favour the big merchants or the small wine farmer selling direct from the cellar door?
Horses for courses. For those who like the flavours of a particular Champagne brand and prize a consistent house style, year after year, the best of the grandes maisons are the ones to stay with. They have the large stocks and the means to employ the best winemakers to deliver a dependable quality every time. These truly exceptional great houses are in fact a small select band. At the major annual Champagne tasting held in London's Whitehall each spring, this year's showing of non-vintage cuvees was largely based on the hot 2005 vintage, which though rich sometimes lacks the necessary freshness and dash essential to good NV champagne. Those famous houses that kept energy and precision in their Brut sans année are: Deutz, Louis Roederer, Laurent-Perrier and my favourite of all, Pol Roger.
Don't overlook smaller, less publicised merchant houses, which have less costly promotion budgets and give intrinsically better value for money - here I particularly liked this year's blends from Alain Thiénot, Joseph Perrier and Giraud-Hémart, especially the first-rate Esprit de Giraud, both white and rosé. Also the best cooperatives, who have a double life – supplying the juice for the grand houses' prestige cuvées, and marketing their own brands – can offer exceptional value for money. Three names stand out: the Union Champagne whose St Gall Blanc de Blancs, especially the 2002, is as good as anyone's but at a fraction of the price of grander names; the Le Mesnil coop whose 'Sublime' Vintage cuvée comes form the finest sites of this legendary Chardonnay grand cru yet costs just 30 euros at the cellar door; and Beaumont des Crayères whose Grande Réserve is the delicious pouring champagne of several Michelin-starred restaurants in London.
And so to the most distinctive wines of top growers the full length of Champagne from the glacial Massif St Thierry north of Reims down to the lovely trio of stone-built villages called les Riceys, touching the department of the Côte d'Or (21). These artisan producers along this 150-mile route may be country cousins but their champagnes rigorously selected are so full of natural character, reflecting their special plots of vines and terroirs, which are very bit as complex as those of Burgundy and Alsace, if less spoken about until now. This is a happy hunting ground of new effervescent flavours waiting to be discovered by the adventurous in their touring automobiles with large trunks. On the Montagne de Reims compare the majestic power of a north-facing Blanc de Pinot Noir from Verzenay with the richer fruit of another Pinot-based champagne from the southerly slopes of Bouzy and Mareuil-sur-Äy. Farther south, the Côte des Blancs is white grapes country, the home of great Chardonnay; brisk, mineral, incisive when young, but developing a toasty loveliness with age, akin to a great Meursault or Puligny - with bubbles! Two hours down the autoroute brings you to the Aube's Côte des Bar, Southern Champagne, where the sun feels warmer on your back and the pink champagnes are particularly rich and packed with warm summer sunshine. We are still in northern France, but somehow the Midi beckons. Salut!