It's that time of year again. The nights are drawing in, New Year's fast approaching, and any excuse to get sloshed on expensive plonk seems like a good one. Avoid the inevitable hangover that two-for-one supermarket fizz will bring and invest in some of the best champagnes on the market right now.
"Champagne is intrinsically associated with celebration," says Max Merkulovs, head sommelier at the Michelin-starred Galvin at Windows restaurant on Park Lane. "It's bubbly, light, and wonderfully easy to drink. It's also a nuanced, subtle drink with an almost overwhelming range of varieties".
"A current trend is 'grower champagnes' which take a more artisanal approach," says Ben Murray, manager at the formidably well-stocked Hedonism Wines in London's Mayfair. "These estates grow the grapes themselves, as opposed to buying them. They take care of the winemaking process from beginning to end." The techincal details of good champagne remain consistent: "Look at t he mousseux, or frothiness. There should be a constant stream of bubbles." But its flavour can vary enormously: "It can range from incredibly light, almost aperitif-y, with lemon zest through to the much richer, more decadent end of the spectrum, with smoky notes of mineral and spice," Murray says.
Herewith, our edit of the nine champagnes we'll be drinking this month.
Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve NV The new expression of Charles Heidsieck's Brut Reserve NV has been greeted with much acclaim (and multiple gold medals) since being released in September 2011. "There's a marked citrus flavour on both the nose and the palate," says Merkulovs. "It is mid-weight, clean, pure and frank, with a decent maturity for an NV blend." Guaranteed to be a crowd-pleaser.
Dom Pérignon 2004
"This latest release from the house [Moët et Chandon] is surprisingly approachable and will mature beautifully for another 30 years – if you've the patience," says Murray. "Fresh, crisp, with crunchy green apples and nectarines along with lots of stony minerality, it's the perfect aperitif for any very special celebration."
Krug Clos du Mesnil 2000
"One of the greatest champagnes ever; the perfect balance of power and finesse," says Murray. "Made from chardonnay grapes in a tiny single vineyard, it shows mind-boggling complexity of fruits, flowers and minerality, plus a very long aging potential."
BILLECART-SALMON Cuvée Elisabeth Salmon 2002
Produced with the addition of a small amount of red wine, rose champagnes are popular at this time of year. Billecart Salmon's 2002 vintage is the marque's prestige rosé, thanks to the sunny summer in 2002, which lasted until September's harvest of pinot and chardonnay grapes. "It has a deep complexity, a savoury quality that takes this out of the flavour spectrum where most pink champagnes reside," says Merkulovs. Simply, it's the best champagne rosé on the market.
Charles Heidsieck Reserve Rosé
"Fruity, aromatic; it will add magic to any occasion," says Murray. "Dried roses and wild strawberries lead the palate, ending with warm baking spices and gingerbread in a long finish. Smooth and elegant, it's perfect for autumn evenings."
Ruinart Blanc de Blancs NV
Established in 1729, Ruinart is the oldest of the champagne houses. "Blanc de blancs" may sound like the name of a French TV game show, but means the grapes used are 100 per cent chardonnay. The result? A light champagne which works alone or with oysters or sashimi. "The Ruinart has an open, expressive nose full of dried white fruits," says Merkulovs. "The blanc de blancs style is gentle and creamy, but there is lots of substance underneath."
Moët et Chandon Dom Perignon OENOTHÈQUE 1992
There's a reason Dom Perignon is considered the best wine in the world. It's an exclusive vintage champagne, meaning if the vineyard has a weak year, they don't produce anything. "The nose conjures up light aniseed and fresh almonds," says Merkulovs. "The palate is beautifully firm, but gives way to airy and delicate flavours and a distinctive toasty aroma." Save it for a special occasion.
Krug Grande Cuvée NV
Though young compared to some champagne houses (it was founded in 1843), Krug is well-regarded and renowned for its range of Grande Cuvées. As ever the "NV" stands for "non-vintage", but Krug prefer the term "multi-vintage" as each release features a blend of up to 50 wines from a range of 30 separate crus, with various reserve vintages blended in. "Quite an elegant nose here," says Merkulovs. "Firm and yet gentle at the same time."
Bollinger Special Cuvée
"Rich, generous with very fine mousseux; ripe pears, brioche and toasted cashews on the palate," says Murray. "Bollinger keep the wine on the lees [yeast deposits that occur during fermentation] for an unusually long time, which lends it a wonderful creamy character. Some of the best value fizz."