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Jake Bennett-Day, co-owner of Vino Gusto in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, says it’s time to celebrate with Champagne or try unique and artisanal sparkling wine from independent shops like his

Throughout a year largely affected for many by a cost-of-living crisis, the thought of writing about posh Champagne has felt as socially acceptable as pickled onion flavoured Monster Munch before a trip to the dentist. But it’s the festive season, so you’ll just have to allow me this timely indulgence before January sees the return of Vin de Plonk for a few months at least. . .

I wish I could claim the poetic title of this article as my own. In reality, it is a quote attributed to French monk Dom Pierre Pérignon on what is claimed by the Champenois as the night he ‘invented’ Champagne in 1697 at the Benedictine abbey in Hautvillers, near Èpernay, Champagne. Generally regarded as the birthplace of bubbly.

Unfortunately, the quote is nothing more than apocryphal. It’s a lovely, evocative story, said to have been first used on a Champagne poster advertisement dating back to the 1880s. It’s more likely that Dom Pérignon was frantically trying to get the bubbles out of his then unintentional sparkling wine to mitigate the effects of refermentation – an issue for winemakers of that time. Certainly, Pérignon was instrumental in establishing some of the principles of what we know today as modern Champagne, but we now know that he was beaten to the stars (bubbles) by an Englishman 35 years earlier. In 1662, scientist Christopher Merrett documented in a paper presented to the newly-formed Royal Society, how English winemakers had been adding sugar to wines to give them a refreshing, sparkling quality. So, English wine can be regarded as old world after all!

Bottle of champagne and glasses over dark background
Bottle of champagne and glasses over dark background

Importantly, Merrett’s discovery was not of Champagne, but simply a sparkling wine. Anyone can make sparkling wine and use the traditional bottle fermented process (méthode champenoise) and the same grapes (mostly Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier), but they cannot call it ‘Champagne’ today unless the grapes are from the delimited region of Champagne, France.

I have heard on many occasions, highly accomplished sparkling wine makers outside of Champagne say that there is simply no better sparkling wine on the planet than good Champagne. Yes, of course, there can still be poorly made Champagne which is easily trumped by other sparkling wines both within France, Spain and the New World. But when Champagne hits the button, it is hard to argue with the conclusion made above.

Why is this so?

Gold champagne cork with the word champagne on it.
Gold champagne cork with the word champagne on it.

It’s a combination of several factors. Champagne climatically lives on the edge – it is a cool climate which just delivers the environment to ripen grapes and fruit flavours, whilst ensuring high levels of acidity are maintained – this is the perfect foundation for the production of quality sparkling wine. Additionally, the combination not only of the chalky-based soil, but its friability – a superb growing environment when combined with the climatic influences. All three of the key Champagne grape varieties are early ripening, which suits the environment and the use of them either solus or in blends – they simply make a great “front row”.

But arguably Champagne’s most important element is the art of blending – I cannot stress just how vital this aspect is – top non-vintage examples draw on reservoirs of astonishing older wines and villages, whilst vintage wines showcase both exceptional growing seasons but again subtle village and varietal sourcing. The level of blending experience, skill and inspiration is second to none in Champagne – top blenders are simply the Premier League equivalent of their art.

Champagne was something that existed in a wholly different world from mine, until I started working in wine. It was largely reserved for celebration, or for pretentious gifts with special glassware – either tall, thin flutes or wide, flat coupes that were supposedly modelled on the shape of Marie Antoinette’s breasts. Now, after almost a decade in wine, I’m very happy to campaign for the consumption of Champagne outside of celebration (it’s a brilliant food pairing option), and know that in reality both a flute or a coupe is a terrible vessel from which to enjoy Champagne. Sure, they look pretty, but aren’t particularly good at expressing a wine’s character. Listeners of the Vino Gusto podcast are likely tired of me talking about glassware, so I won’t labour the point here. . .

Champagne bottle in ice bucket
Champagne bottle in ice bucket

But with celebration in mind at this time of year, now is a good moment in time (I promise) to pop open that bottle of Champagne you’ve had sat in the kitchen cupboard for too long, or to wander into your local independent wine shop and pick up a bottle of the good stuff. The supermarkets will have a great range of ‘Grand Marques’ Champagne if you know your preferred style, but if you’re looking to try something unique, artisanal and truly delicious, a small wine boutique will have the required expertise to help you find something perfect for you. They’re not scary places – trust me, I’m a wine merchant. . .

It would be amiss of me to not mention the wine in our little shop, titled the same as this article. Come Quickly I’m Drinking The Stars by The Liberator is a favourite all year round at Vino Towers. The brainchild of world authority on South African wine, Richard Kelley MW, this traditional method sparkling wine from Naiper, South Africa, is a perfect Champagne alternative for celebrating on a school night to suit any bubblehead. A blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with five-and-a-half years aging before release makes a pure, rich and elegant style of wine which goes down nicely as an aperitif, or is equally delicious with southern fried chicken. Supposedly, when Richard tasted this sleeping wine after five years, he declared: “If Champagne is the stars, this is the Northern Lights. . .”.

Jake Bennett-Day is co-owner and director of Vino Gusto wine shop, 27 Hatter Street, Bury St Edmunds IP33 1NE

Call 01284 771831