Which champagne should one buy? There are so many brands out there and the range of prices is vast. What is quite bizarre is that it is now cheaper to buy champagne in London than in Paris, even though duty is lower in France and the district is less than 100 miles from the capital. Whatever may be said about our supermarkets, they certainly keep the price down. Some of them also sell, under their own labels, top quality bubbles. Sainsbury Blanc De Noirs at just under £17 is deep and full of flavour. Tesco do an own label non-vintage which is similarly priced and is a constant award winner. Their 2002 finest vintage is but a fiver more and has real class.
Vast sums are spent on marketing and some buyers are embarrassed about buying anything but a named brand. If you must, then the ones we find consistently good are Piper Heidseick, Lanson, Taittinger and Billecart Salmon. You can spend lots on Moet et Chandon but we wouldn’t. You will see some promotions offering champagne for a tenner. Avoid these unless you are in Aldi which manages to sell a reasonable one for just that. These cheap bottles are just that, cheap and unpleasant.
If you want bubbly that is not from Champagne consider prosecco. Tesco sell Bisol which is superb under their own finest label for about £9. Waitrose Prosecco is cheaper and perfectly drinkable. It is a terrible waste to make Bellinis with good champagne. Use prosecco; they do at Harry’s Bar in Venice.
The wine gems
Buying wine is less risky. However, there is one unavoidable fact: duty on wine is fixed at £1.69 a bottle. The cheaper that bottle the less proportionately is spent on the content. So, buy a bottle for a fiver and you will spend perhaps a tenth of the price on what is inside the glass. Margins, VAT and other overheads take the balance, Tim Atkin, who now writes for the Times on wine, points out that were you to spend £9 on a bottle you would be getting £3.50 worth of content, a massive improvement. That is not to say that this should be your minimum spend.
Value is to be had primarily because the big retailers use wine promotions to get customers in. Even without deals there are some gems to be had. Waitrose is now selling wines under its own label which are the product of a collaboration with a named and respected producer in each case. For example, they sell an Australian shiraz made by St Hallett. If your idea of great wine is a huge mouthful of berries then this is for you. The same company make Old Block which is in the same vein but retails at over £20 a bottle compared to about £9 for the lovely Waitrose sibling. Sainsbury also sell an own label shiraz from the same producer.
For out and out value, red and white, Chile delivers everytime. Cono Sur and Castillo del Diablo are two reliable, ubiquitous brands selling at about £6 a bottle.
France produces the greatest wine in the world, but at a price. There is nothing to compare to Puligny Montrachet from Burgundy or Chateau Rayas. However, on an everyday front there are bargains. 2007 Cote Du Rhone is still about and is a lovely peppery glug of a drink. The Asda Extra Special is delicious and a fiver. Waitrose do their own everyday claret and even their very cheapest French red at £3.75 is perfectly acceptable.
The respected International Wine And Spirit Competition awards bronze, silver and gold medals each year. A bottle carrying a silver or gold label from IWSC has credibility. Do be beware though of retailers who proudly display on the shelf details of such an award but for a different vintage. Ensure it is the same bottle that is on the shelf. Often, the bottle will have a sticker attached so you know it is the right one.
Majestic has recently reduced the minimum purchase from 12 to 6 bottles so one feels less guilty shopping there. Their staff are bright and they do have interesting odd parcels of wine. On my last visit there were some superb Spanish reds and even bottles from the last century! There are always promotions on and it is not difficult to get decent wine for about £6 a bottle.
Finally, Jancis Robinson MW suggests a wine of the week each Tuesday on the part of her website which is free, and she often spots a corker.
Dominic Regan, Professor of Law, City
University, London. Seán Jones, 11 KBW. Thanks to Ellenor Brooks for organising tastings.