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7:00am Saturday 13th October 2012 in NewsXtra
Fancy a drink? Our drinks columnist Sam Wylie-Harris heads to Champagne at harvest time to enjoy some rich pickings, and highlights some new releases
A veritable harvest for champagne
One of life's glistening pleasures, champagne first made its sparkling debut in the 18th century, and as the French poet the Abbe de Chaulieu (1715) wrote upon first tasting the bubbles, "Hardly did it appear, than from my mouth it passed into my heart."
Celebrated the world over, our love and thirst for this liquid gold has crowned us the biggest consumer outside of France, and the delicate vines that produce this fine wine are planted on sunny, south-facing slopes in the Champagne-Ardenne region, 90 miles north-east of Paris.
To toast the 2012 harvest season, 120,000 grape pickers armed with nothing more than a pair of gloves, secateurs and a basket have descended on the four main growing areas: Montagne de Reims, Vallee de la Marne, Cote des Blancs and the Cotes des Bar, to pick the grapes by hand and kneel on its famous chalky soils.
Praying for ripeness and unbruised clusters of grapes, it takes one basket of heavily laden fruit to make two to three bottles of champagne, but champenois are facing the reality that the difficult weather during this year's growing season means yields will be significantly lower.
According to the Champagne Bureau, it's one of the smallest harvests in the past 20 years, with production down as much as 30% compared to 2011. However, the quality is expected to be as good as ever, if not better, so champagne lovers need not fear!
A name that's shone brighter than any other champagne house, Moet & Chandon has released its Grand Vintage 2004, which joins the much-storied and world's largest collection of champagnes across the ages.
A byword for luxury, vintages champagnes have excellent ageing ability, are made only from grapes from a single year's harvest (it's at the discretion of the House to declare an outstanding vintage), and must be aged for at least three years.
Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage 2004 (£41.99, Waitrose), the House's 70th vintage since 1842, has been aged for seven years and is made from the classic champagne blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier.
In tune with our demand for wines with more personality and character, the proportion of the grape varietals relies more on the quality of the fruit, rather than an accepted measure. This glorious 2004 expression is delicate with tropical fruity notes, a fresh, mineral finish, and more than enough charm to please the palate of an angel.
But tipplers who want an alternative to the biggest producer in the region should look towards the area's largest co-operative. Nicolas Feuillatte's rite of passage has taken the brand into 90 countries across the globe, and it now ranks as the third best-seller in the world and the top-selling champagne in France. Not bad, considering the House is 36 years young.
For a taste of success, try Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Grande Reserve (£29.99, Sainsbury's), a blend of 25% chardonnay, 40% pinot noir and 35% pinot meunier. From 125 crus (villages), the quality and diversity of the fruit helps create this pale yellow mosaic of a champagne. Soft and fresh with a creamy palate and pleasant gentle finish, it's an easy drinker and perfect aperitif.
Charles-Camille Heidsieck, aka Champagne Charlie, was the first champagne producer to channel his wines across the pond in 1851 and introduce Americans to the wonderful world of French fizz. The House continues to impress and its premium champagnes scooped 10 gold medals at this year's Decanter World Wine Awards, International Wine Challenge and International Wine & Spirits Competition.
And with a classy new look, and the date of bottling on the back label to give discerning drinkers an idea of the wine's age, Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve NV (£46.50, www.harperwells.com) also boasts a new blend. The number of crus has been cut from 120 to 60 for a more minerally and citrusy champagne blend of 34% chardonnay, 33% pinot noir and 33% pinot meunier, with rich citrus fruits, toasty nuances and a finish with long-lasting appeal.
For anyone who's slightly in the dark about the significance of the principal grape varieties in champagne, chardonnay is known for its lightness and freshness, pinot noir has a good body and ageing ability, and pinot meunier signifies fruitiness and youthful character.
Tucked away in the northernmost vineyards of Montagne de Reims, the Grand Cru village of Verzenay has been home to the House of Janisson et Fils since 1923 and Champagne Janisson & Fils Tradition NV (£20.83, www.goedhuis.com) is made from 30% chardonnay and 70% pinot noir and meunier grand cru. Elegant and harmonious with a floral nose, fine nutty notes and lovely body and weight, everything comes together in this delicious crowd pleaser.
Brilliant bubbles made from 100% pinot noir carry more weight than a traditional blend, taste richer, and can partner several dishes on a tasting menu, from lobster and scallops to a firm white fish.
For a stylish example that's broad and biscuity, try Andre Clouet Grande Reserve (£24.95, www.tanners-wines.co.uk). The ornate label hails from the best slopes of Bouzy and this very pale, sumptuous champagne has a brioche and almond nose with concentrated red fruit and a long, alluring minerally finish.
Champagne Jacquart is celebrating its 50th birthday and this leading co-operative draws on grapes from more than 60 crus across the main regions to create its finest wines. For a vintage blanc de blancs (made entirely from chardonnay, and the classic grape of the Cote des Blancs), try Champagne Jacquart Blanc de Blancs 2005 (£36, www.greatwesternwine.co.uk). Delicate and feminine with a blossomy nose, toasty characteristics and medium acidity on the nutty, floral finish, it's a great introduction to this prized style of champagne (it's an expensive grape variety) that will develop over the years.
:: Best buy
Cocktail hounds thirsty for more knowledge should pick up a copy of The Classic Cocktail Bible, published by Spruce (October 1), £7.99, available from all good books nationwide, with more than 200 recipes and insider knowledge on the art of creating the perfect cocktail.
:: Liquid news
Piece of art... Absolut vodka has delved into the paint box, grabbed a splash gun and created close to four million unique, eye-catching bottles. With each bottle individually numbered, there's every chance they could become a liquid asset. Absolut Unique limited edition (£21.50, 70cl, Harvey Nichols nationwide from October 1)