The need for a bit of celebratory cheer has never been greater. And what better way to celebrate than with a glass of champagne.
But why champagne? Some may argue that other sparkling wines are just as good and a lot cheaper. But let’s just look at what you’re paying for and what you get.
They’ve been making champagne in France since the monk Dom Pérignon was said to have accidentally invented it back in the early 1700s. But putting the history and heritage to one side, there’s also the fact that champagne production is one of the most complex, time-consuming and labour-intensive methods of making wine there is.
The wine is blended, fermented, fermented again in the bottle with the addition of sugar and yeast, matured for at least 12 months, riddled (ie, the bottles are rotated and shaken so that the lees settle in the neck of the bottle), disgorged (the bottle necks are frozen and the lees removed), topped-up with wine and sugar and finally corked and labelled. After all that what you end up with a wonderfully fizzy, toasty, fruity glass of wine that should bring a smile to anyone’s face.
Prices for champagne vary. You can pay less than £15 or more than £100. But what you’re getting is not just a drink, it’s a glassful of tradition, a sparkle of history and a taste of France like no other.
How we tested
We sipped, swirled and sampled a wide variety of champagnes from a range of retailers in an attempt to bring you a list of the absolute best. We considered budget as a main factor while also trying to find different bottles that would suit a variety of tastebuds.
The best champagnes for 2021 are:
- Best overall – Leon Launois brut NV, 12%, 75cl: £21.95, Slurp.co.uk
- Best for an aperitif – Taittinger prélude NV, 12%, 75cl: £45, Vinatis.co.uk
- Best supermarket champagne – Veuve Monsigny Brut, 12%, 75cl: £13.49, Aldi.co.uk
- Best heritage bottle – Ruinart Blanc de Blancs NV, 12.5%, 75cl: £62.95, Amazon.co.uk
- Best luxury bottle – Dom Pérignon vintage 2010, 12.5%, 75c: £160, Thewhiskeyexchange.com
- Best Royal-approved champagne – Bollinger special cuvée NV, 12%, 75cl: £45, Sainsburys.co.uk
- Best celebratory bottle – Laithwaite Champagne Cuvée Anniversaire Brut Premier Cru 50th 2002, 12%, 75cl: £49.99, Laithwaites.co.uk
- Best for pinot enthusiasts – Tarlant Réserve NV, 12%, 75cl: £27.43, Laywheeler.com
- Best summer tipple – Legras Blanc de Blancs Brut Grand Cru NV, 12%, 75cl: £44.99, Selfridges.com
Leon Launois brut NV, 12%, 75cl
Launois was bought by the small, family-run Mignon champagne house in 2003, preserving a historic estate in the heart of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, famous for its Grand Cru vineyards. A blend of pinot noir (60 per cent), chardonnay (20 per cent) and pinot meunier, it benefits from the sprightliness and vibrancy provided by the chardonnay and the juicy overtones of the pinot noir. Fruit-led with ripe white peach and plump damson notes, it’s everything a classic champagne should be.
Taittinger prélude NV, 12%, 75cl
Best: For an aperitif
A great name in the champagne hierarchy, Taittinger has been producing the fizzy stuff since the 1730s. It’s still family run with Pierre Emmanuel Taittinger at the helm along with his son, Clovis and daughter, Vitalie. Tattinger’s prélude is a golden yellow blend of equal amounts of chardonnay and pinot noir, all from Grand Cru sites. It has an irresistible tang of citrus on the nose, along with stone fruits and touch of cinnamon plus that welcome toasted flavour. The finish is long and slightly mineral based. Enjoy it as a superb aperitif or as an accompaniment to grilled white meat dishes.
Veuve Monsigny Brut, 12%, 75cl
Best: Supermarket champagne
Perhaps the least expensive champagne in this round-up, but up there among the best, Aldi’s bestselling bubbly has been winning more awards than Dame Judi Dench in recent years and it’s not hard to see why. Produced by champagne house Philizot and Fils, it’s a succulent blend of pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay, scented with the smell of ripe green apples and soft fruit. Add in that inimitable taste of toasted brioche and enough bubbles to suit everybody and you have a champagne that’s as good as bottles costing twice as much.
Ruinart Blanc de Blancs NV, 12.5%, 75cl
Best: Heritage bottle
A superb blanc de blanc from the world’s oldest champagne house. The monk Dom Thierry Ruinart was the first person to realise that champagne had to be aged properly and Ruinart’s chalk cellars underneath the city of Rheims have Unesco World Heritage status.
As with all blanc de blancs, this is made exclusively from the chardonnay grape, resulting in a champagne which is light, clean and incredibly elegant. Fruity and eminently drinkable, its citrus and green apple flavours are subtle yet lasting. It’s also available from Selfridges (£69.99, Selfridges.com) with an eco-friendly “second skin” that offers the bottle UV protection.
Dom Pérignon vintage 2010, 12.5%, 75c
Best: Luxury bottle
Newly released, this is a vintage champagne from a fraught and perilous year. Dom Pérignon chef de cave, Vincent Chaperon, explained: “We were expecting the freshness we had seen in previous years… but suddenly, in mid-August, everything changed.” The equivalent of two months rain fell in just two days and then botrytis, the disease that rots the grape, hit. “We suddenly realised we would have to make huge sacrifices… it became a race against the clock.”
The grapes the botrytis had spared were meticulously sorted and an unexpected bonus was discovered. “We found the grapes we saved were absolutely glorious. They showed richness, concentration and balance and were actually the best in 30 years.” So out of the teeth of disaster comes a vintage champagne that's incredibly rewarding with a huge hit of rich and tropical fruit, golden citrus notes and a long and satisfying finish. Costly, it’s true, but quality this rare and satisfying comes at a price.
Bollinger special cuvée NV, 12%, 75cl
Best: Royal-approved champagne
Another big player in the world of champagne, Bollinger proudly bears the royal warrant on its label and it’s said HM enjoys a sip or two during the Christmas festivities. Special cuvée is Bollinger’s flagship bottle, with more than 85 per cent of the blend coming from Premier and Grand Cru vineyards in the Champagne area.
Apple and pear flavours combine with floral and spice notes and undertones of walnuts and honey to make a rich, delightful and long-lasting drink. Apart from being a royal favourite, it’s also James Bond’s champagne of choice, although it’s best to have it not shaken or stirred, just lightly chilled.
Laithwaite Champagne Cuvée Anniversaire Brut Premier Cru 50th 2002, 12%, 75cl
Best: Celebratory bottle
A Premier Cru champagne released to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of wine merchants Laithwaite’s. French grower Paul Georg was the man tasked with the job of finding the right champagne to celebrate the success story of Tony and Barbara Laithwaite who have built their company into one of the UK’s most successful wine retailers. And he didn’t disappoint.
Produced from 100 per cent chardonnay grapes, a secondary fermentation in bottle was followed by five years’ ageing on its lees. The end result is a vintage champagne that is rich, elegant and creamy with notes of plump Italian lemons and a toasty, honeyed finish. If you’ve also got a special anniversary coming up this year, this is the one to celebrate it with.
Tarlant Réserve NV, 12%, 75cl
Best: For pinot enthusiasts
If you want a family with strong links to the Champagne area, look no further than the Tarlants who have been tending vineyards there since 1687. Now with the 12th generation at the helm, they’re producing a champagne that’s one third chardonnay grapes, one third pinot meunier and one third pinot noir.
Full-bodied, ripe and pleasurable, its appeal bubbles up through the glass, with eating apple and pear flavours allied to notes of toasted brioche and roasted hazelnuts. Attractively priced, it would be an ideal choice for starting the Christmas festivities later this year.
Legras Blanc de Blancs Brut Grand Cru NV, 12%, 75cl
Best: Summer tipple
A blanc de blanc from another long-established champagne family based in the village of Chouilly, just east of Épernay in the Côte des Blancs sub-region of Champagne. Made solely from chardonnay grapes from Grand Crus vineyards, this pale golden champagne can bring a touch of summer delight to any table, with its fresh and zesty citrus-led flavours and enjoyable minerality. Great value at this price.
Why is champagne so expensive?
Champagne involves the most complex, time-consuming and labour-intensive method of making wine there is, meaning it’s no surprise the drink is more costly.
Firstly, grapes used for champagne are harvested by hand because many blends are made from black grapes and it’s important to ensure the fruit’s dark skins don’t contaminate the clear white juice inside the grapes. Unlike still wines, champagne goes through up to three processes before it reaches the shelves, adding further cost to production.
The sparkling wine also has to be laid horizontal in a dark cellar for anywhere between 15 months and sometimes up to 10 years while still wines, in comparison, can be sold almost immediately.
Champagne terminology explained
Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs
The term blanc de blancs simply translates to “white of white”, meaning the tipple is made from just white grapes, while blanc de noirs means “white of black” which describes champagnes made from the juice of black-skinned grapes.
Champagnes produced by big houses or maisons are combinations of grapes grown all over the region and this final blend is called cuvée.
Champagnes of this type are grown and produced at the same vineyard, making it highly specific to a certain wine growing region.
Vintage and non-vintage
Vintage champagne is labelled as having been made from a particular year’s harvest and must mature for at least three years while non-vintage is usually a blend of various years and can take around half the time to mature.
The verdict: Champagnes
Our best buy is the Leon Launois brut NV. Fresh, ripe and balanced it’s everything you expect from a great champagne.
At £160, a vintage Dom Pérignon is perhaps a once in a lifetime buy, but it’s one that will never be forgotten. At the other end of scale, Aldi’s Veuve Monsigny brut is a good quality champagne at an affordable price.
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