Can you save money by travelling to Champagne to buy your fizz? Not always, says Giles Fallowfield, but you can visit the great houses, and discover new names.
First of all let’s dismantle a myth. It isn’t necessarily cheaper to buy Champagne from the major houses in Reims or Epernay than it is to buy the same wine in Britain.
It’s true that there’s no duty on sparkling wine in France (while we pay £1.65 on each bottle), so Champagne bought there should cost less. But, in practice, competition between retailers in Britain, especially the supermarkets, is so fierce that there are still plenty of fizz bargains around. Plus if you shop carefully you won’t ever have to pay the full retail price.
You may have read about the small harvest in Champagne last year and that heavily discounted Champagne in the UK market would dry up as a result this summer. That clearly is nonsense.
As I write, Sainsbury’s supermarkets are selling single bottles of Lanson Black Label – the second largest brand in Britain – for £13.32, a price cut of £6.67, on which you get a further 5% discount if you buy six bottles or more.
Somerfield has also sliced the price of Jacquart’s Brut Tradition to just £9.99. And if you want to buy a very well made vintage rosé Champagne, when you purchase a dozen bottles of Jacquart’s 1998 rosé at Oddbins, they give you another six free. The offer will run until December.
Travelling to Champagne, even to buy several cases of the major brands, makes dubious economic sense and some producers don’t even sell their wine at the cellar door.
In the case of celebrated houses like Louis Roederer, Bollinger and Krug, this is because all their wine is on allocation and can only be bought through their agents and network of retailers. Others, like Laurent-Perrier, simply don’t have the facilities to receive visitors, even if they do have wine to sell.
Don’t be put off though. It’s a lot of fun and it is possible to buy some fantastic wines you can’t easily source in the UK by visiting smaller producers and individual growers, particularly those in the less well-known parts of the appellation like the Côte des Bar.
This area, to the southeast of the well-preserved medieval city of Troyes, is the ancient capital of Champagne and a great, inexpensive and friendly base for forays into wine country, which begins just a few kilometres beyond the city walls.
The Côte des Bar boasts top flight producers like Drappier in Urville, and several co-ops including Chassenay d’Arce in Ville sur Arce and Union Auboise in Bar-sur-Seine, where the Veuve a Devaux brand is produced. There are also numerous individual growers. Good growers to buy from, most of whom will also show you around if you call ahead, include: Serge Mathieu in Avirey-Lingey; Jacques Defrance and Guy de Forez in Les Riceys; Richard Cheurlin in Celles-sur-Ource; René Jolly in Landreville and Cristian Senez in Fontette, where there’s a stock of incredibly reasonably priced older vintage champagnes.
The Big Names
If you’ve never visited the region before, you’ll probably prefer to start with somewhere rather grander. For that you need to head to Reims or Epernay. In Reins and Epernay, some of the major houses have impressive tours, the best of which not only explain the whole process of making Champagne but also give an insight into the particular style of an individual house.
The cellars in Reims, many of which were constructed out of crayères (chalk pits) dug originally by the Romans, are particularly spectacular. The oldest cellars in Reims still run in line to the southern side of the city and the houses of Ruinart, Pommery, Veuve Clicquot and Taittinger are all in this area, grouped around the Place du General Gouraud.
Reims welcomes visitors but booking is essential at Pommery and Ruinart, and advisable for groups or those wanting English-speaking guides.
There are many similarities between them so it is unlikely that you’ll want to visit them all, although each has its own individual charm and attractions: Ruinart as the oldest Champagne house, Pommery for its vast scale and impressive staircase to the cellars, Taittinger for the sculptures carved in the chalky cellar walls, Veuve Clicquot for its extra panache. An added incentive at Clicquot is the availability of high quality, difficult to source, older vintages at very reasonable prices (see box).
You have to travel to Epernay’s swanky Avenue de Champagne to find the cellars that attract the largest numbers of tourists. Mercier, partly because it’s geared up to cater for large groups, has around 140,000 through its doors annually.
LVMH stablemate Moët & Chandon is a bit classier, sells better wine and has the largest cellars, with a labyrinth of 28km of tunnels – the oldest of these date back to 1743 when the company was founded.
For something completely different, as well as some interesting and unusual wines, pop along to Leclerc Briant. Here you can try your luck at opening fizz with a sabre. Meanwhile at Pol Roger there’s no tour but there is serious vintage champagne to buy.
But you don’t have to make the three hour drive to Champagne; there are several UK retailers just across the Channel with good deals on offer.
Among the best is Majestic, with its three Wine & Beer World stores at Calais, Coquelles and Cherbourg. Prices for its De Telmont Grande Réserve start at £7.99 and the drinkable Brossault Brut, made by C&P Heidsieck, is only £1 more.
Also try the Wine Society’s Hesdin Showroom – across the square from the Town Hall – about a 75-minute drive from Calais. It sells its Exhibition Vintage Champagne, 1992 (made by the excellent Epernay-based house Alfred Gratien) at £29 a bottle, while lovers of mature vintage Champagne can get their hands on Alfred Gratien’s super 1983 for £39.
Ultimately, though, the beauty of making the journey to Champagne to see a grower or smaller producer is that you are quite likely to end up tasting wine with the man or woman who makes it – definitely the best way of learning about Champagne.