Friday, 21 October 2011

Rugby World Cup Final Wine: New Zealand vs France


New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc first hit the headlines in 1977 – ten years before the All-Blacks won the inaugural Rugby World Cup, a trophy that has since inexplicably eluded them.

Yet, as with rugby, New Zealand has taken something from the Old World and somehow made it better in every way. 

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is unarguably a modern classic – a brilliant evolution, revolution, of an Old World variety. Like New Zealand rugby it’s sharp and clean and consistent and its complex flavours are so overwhelming and powerful that at times you just don’t know what’s hit you.

Time was we couldn't get enough of the stuff, but as with so much in life, familiarity breeds contempt. Not another NZSB. Not another haka. Not another brilliant outside half. Nicky Allen, Grant Fox, Dan Carter. Enough already.

Maybe we’ve had too much of a good thing. A few years back UK supermarkets would carry a single entry level Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc. Then there were two. We learned to look out for the Marlborough variety, and we usually found the original pioneer, Montana. Now we see three or four, not just labelled Marlborough but also Wairau Valley.  

There have been a couple of sniffy articles in the press. Even Cloudy Bay has not been immune. Soon the fashionistas will jump on this bandwagon too. The snobs that ganged up to form the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) club will be circling round New Zealand's finest export – Dame Kiri Te Kenawa and Hayley Westernra not withstanding – with the same opportunistic glint in their eyes, looking for the chance to sneer, to be seen to be the champion of the next big thing.

My advice is to have nothing to do with it.

Oz Clarke, whose palate is the envy of many a Master of Wine, has suggested New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is the best in the world. It probably is.

Even everyday easy drinking examples can open up with fragrant herbaceous scents, offer weight on the palate and be fruit packed with zingy and zesty lemons and limes.

As you climb the premium ladder the flavours intensify with fresh green capsicums, elderflowers, rich gooseberries, guava, mango, and ripe, heady and pungent asparagus. It is delicious stuff.

New Zealand took something subtle and tricky and unpredictable and made it powerful and distinctive and unbeatable.

Now I can’t remember if I’m talking about the grape or the sport.

They’ve ploughed their own furrow throughout this Rugby World Cup, the French. Coach Marc Lievremont has baffled everybody with his team selections then the same teams have baffled their fans with their performances – falling short against the All-blacks – who they meet again in the final – scraping through after losing against Tonga, then disposing of England with alacrity before a dismal display against brave Wales saw France saved by Wales’ poor goal kicking. Not to mention the referee. Oh, I did.

They plough their own furrow in the vineyards too. The wine shelves of my ‘local’ French supermarket tell the story, devoid as they are of almost any external influence in the form of foreign wine. Yes, okay, there’s the odd bottle of Rioja and Chianti – bizarrely even a Chilean Merlot. But nothing sparkling at all. No Prosecco nor Sekt. Rien. Pas une saucisse.

 A section of shelving is dedicated solely to the 'other' French sparkling wines, the cremant, mousseaux, blanquette et clairette but even these are kept well away from the Champagne.

With good reason. Because the French appellation system ensures even cheap non-vintage Champagne comes with its own guarantee of quality, almost every week you can find it on special offer somewhere and everybody is your friend when you've got some.
You must've experienced that?

You offer somebody a drink and they say 'no thanks' and proffer one of the usual explanations: I'm driving, I'm pregnant, I'm on antibiotics. 

Then, when you enquire of the greater gathering whether it's Champagne all round? suddenly your teetotallers are sidling up to you as you fill flute after flute with the French fizzy stuff: 

Actually I think it's Clive's turn to drive today 

and 

Well one won't hurt and some research did suggest light drinking in pregnancy could in fact be good for boys in the womb and I've got a feeling from the kicks this is an alpha male probably

or 

It's not really the antibiotics per se, just doctor's orders 

accompanied by a knowing wink from your dodgy uncle.

Your best bet is to buy it in France of course. Typically at around the £10-a-bottle mark 'everyday' (if only) Champagne can be found on the shelves of all French supermarkets but if that's not possible just keep an eye on UK stores by signing up for their email offers as they have the buying power when there's a glut. And there often is.  No need to be embarrassed either. 

I have no qualms whatsoever about filling a trolley with NV Champagne and nothing else, and nor have my erstwhile wine merchant colleagues. On one occasion when word got around of a heavily discounted household name on offer at the local supermarket the shop manager had to limit sales to five cases per person such was the rush of wine trade insiders and restaurateurs eager either to fill their boots. 

What they knew was that even such huge volume, big brand, non-vintage Champagne has one unheralded quality that earns it its place in many a cellar.

It gets better with age.

So much so that in just a couple of years or three it acquires qualities comparable with vintage Champagne. Which means that when you do encounter a genuine bargain half-price offer you can afford to indulge yourself secure in the knowledge that you don't have to hurry to enjoy it by drinking it with every meal, marking obscure saints days or even share it with friends. 

Just keep it, open a bottle when you fancy it. Compare it with your tasting notes from 18 months ago. Have fun with the changing flavours and texture, the increased elegance then eventually the inevitable drift towards maderisation through oxidation.

New Zealand’s All Blacks have already beaten France’s Les Bleus during this Rugby World Cup and no beaten side has ever gone on to take the trophy.

New Zealand 30 France 13

Friday, 14 October 2011

Rugby World Cup Semi Final Wine: France vs Wales


They’ve ploughed their own furrow throughout this Rugby World Cup, the French. Coach Marc Lievremont has baffled everybody with his team selections then the same teams have baffled their fans with their performances – falling short against the All-blacks – who they could meet again in the final – scraping through after losing against Tonga, then disposing of England with alacrity.

They plough their own furrow in the vineyards too. The wine shelves of my ‘local’ French supermarket tell the story, devoid as they are of almost any external influence in the form of foreign wine.

Yes, okay, there’s the odd bottle of Rioja and Chianti – bizarrely even a Chilean Merlot. But nothing sparkling at all. Pas une saucisse. No Prosecco nor Sekt. Rien. Pas une saucisse.

 A section of shelving is dedicated solely to the 'other' French sparkling wines, the cremant, mousseaux, blanquette et clairette but even these are kept well away from the Champagne.

With good reason. Because the French appellation system ensures even cheap non-vintage Champagne comes with its own guarantee of quality, almost every week you can find it on special offer somewhere and everybody is your friend when you've got some.

You must've experienced that?

You offer somebody a drink, meaning alcohol, and they say 'no thanks' and they proffer one of the usual excuses and explanations: I'm driving, I'm pregnant, I'm on antibiotics. 

Then when you enquire of the greater gathering whether it's Champagne all round? suddenly your teetotallers are sidling up to you as you fill flute after flute with the French fizzy stuff: 

Actually I think it's Clive's turn to drive today 

and 

Well one won't hurt and some research did suggest light drinking in pregnancy could in fact be good for boys in the womb and I've got a feeling from the kicks this is an alpha male probably

or 

It's not really the antibiotics per se, just doctor's orders 

accompanied by a knowing and conspiratorial wink from your dodgy uncle, or sometime 'uncle'.

Your best bet is to buy it in France of course, typically at around the £10-a-bottle mark 'everyday' (if only) Champagne can be found on the shelves of all French supermarkets but if that's not possible just keep an eye on the UK supermarkets by signing up for their email offers as they have the buying power when there's a glut. And there often is. 

No need to be embarrassed either. 

I have no qualms whatsoever about filling a trolley with NV Champagne and nothing else, and nor have my erstwhile wine merchant colleagues. 

On one occasion when word got around of a heavily discounted household name on offer at the local supermarket the shop manager urgently had to introduce a limit of five cases per person such was the rush of wine trade insiders and restaurateurs eager either to fill their boots or just cash in. 

What the former knew, wine buyers, traders and winemakers amongst them, was that even such huge volume, big brand non-vintage Champagne has one unheralded quality that earns it its place in many a cellar.

It gets better with age.

So much so that in just a couple of years or three it acquires qualities comparable with vintage Champagne.

Which means that when you do encounter a genuine bargain half-price offer you can afford to indulge yourself secure in the knowledge that you don't have to hurry to enjoy it by drinking it with every meal, marking obscure saints days or even share it with friends. 

Just keep it, open a bottle when you fancy it. Compare it with your tasting notes from 18 months ago. Have fun with the changing flavours and texture, the increased elegance then eventually the inevitable drift towards maderisation through oxidation.

Of course you could drink it to celebrate a French win in the rugby. But not against Wales.

Because the Wales team is the form team. Momentum is with them.

And they may have a surprise, literally in store, for us all.

Check out UK supermarkets Tesco and Waitrose online and you stumble across something remarkable. Each of them stocks Welsh wine.

Because they also make wine, the Welsh. Oh yes they do.

Sadly, Tesco only offers the one, Ty-Hafod Welsh Table Wine, a blend of Huxelrebe, Madeleine Angevine and Seyval Blanc, from the banks of the River Monnow just outside the town of Monmouth and only just inside the Welsh border with England.

It’s a beautiful place, the Monnow Valley, and I’ve often cast a fly over a trout down there but I never suspected I could be indulging another of my passions with a glass or two of locally made Welsh wine on the riverbank. 

It’s a lovely apple-y glassful too and just the thing to cut through the earthiness of a freshly caught brown trout.

Waitrose is another story.

They offer three – yes three, count’em – Welsh wines. The Monnow Valley Madeleine Angevine 2007, Glyndwr Red 2010 – an oak-matured blend of Rondo, Regent and Triomphe d'Alsace grapes from vines up to 25 years old, and a Glyndwr Sparkling Rosé Brut 2006.

These latter two originate from the some 6,000 vines that make up Wales’ oldest established vineyard grown on the traditional double Guyot system originally developed in the late 1800s and most popular in Burgundy.

So if the Welsh have cause to celebrate on Saturday night how better to do so than with a delightful pink sparkler blended from Rondo and Seyval Blanc with its typical biscuity nose and delicate red summer fruits.




Sunday, 9 October 2011

Rugby World Cup Semi Final Wine: Australia vs New Zealand


They say that when you fly to Australia from Europe you have to put your watch back. Twenty years.

If only that were true.

Because that would take us back to a time when Australia was famous - notorious might be the better word – for one of the world's most definitive wine styles. 

Big – I mean massive – bawdy, blowsy, blow-your-mind Chardonnay. 

You know what I'm talking about. 

100% Chardonnay grapes roasted on the vine under the burning Southern sky sun then pounded for fruit to the very inch of their leathery skins. Fermented in vast stainless steel tanks, steeped with resiny oak staves or oak chips and finally transferred into fat yellow green Burgundy bottles with synthetic stoppers, under every shade of green – olive, emerald, jade – or yellow plastic closures, from gold to sulphur to lemon.

But for all that variety what we were looking for in the contents of the bottle wasn't variety. It was sameness. Predictability. Reliability. We knew exactly what we wanted. 

We wanted to see that dense golden amber bright yellow shining liquid in a goblet - preferably one that took a third of a bottle or more. Its cloying stickiness should betray the weight of punchy alcohol on the sides of the glass. 

Take a mighty whiff of that ripe creamy butter-rich smell. And it is a smell. Not a bouquet or a fragrance. You'll find few hints or scents or subtle aromas here. This is wine foreplay Aussie style – Brace yourself Sheila

A blast of vanilla is the first thing that hits you. At 14% alcohol it won't be the last either.

It's not like vanilla from the pod or vanilla essence but like thick freezing milkshake vanilla-ice-cream chemical-vanilla. And that's how to serve it too: teeth-on-edge headache-inducing ice-cream cold like a tinny, but opening out as the sun moves across the sky and your glass is no longer under the sunshade.

Because it's not a cold weather drink this Aussie Chardonnay. It's meant for glugging under blue skies, from the cooler at picnics, Summer days on the river or on the beach,  impromptu barbecues, lazy wedding afternoons and early evenings when jackets are carried over shoulders and when straps fall off them.

Drink in its waxy malolactic weight, its heady pineapple taste, all that rich sumptuous buttery tropical fruit with added acid sharpness and long long alcoholic finish. WOW. Pour another (big) glass. 

After a couple of decades – some say Australia's first commercial Chardonnay appeared as late as 1973 – the preponderance of this style of over-oaked super powerful kick-in-the-head Aussie Chardonnay eventually gave way to the ABC brigade - the Anything But Chardonnay fashionistas who wanted to be seen to be drinking something different. Mostly they chose Pinot Grigio. Good luck to them.

But when you're faced with a choice of the perfect representation of Australia, think back to the Summer Olympics closing ceremony of 2000 in Sydney. 

We don't remember pop princess Kylie Minogue (bless 'er) covering Dancing Queen. We don't remember one-hit-wonders Men at Work with their one-hit-wonder Down Under. 

What we remember is the diminutive figure of 73-year-old country singer Slim Dusty standing trackside at Stadium Australia in his trademark 'old grey Farrell' hat, guitar slung over his shoulder, voice breaking as he began to sing,

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong

Under the shade of a coolabah tree,

And he sang as he watched and waited 'til his billy boiled

"You'll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me"

with a record-breaking stadium crowd of 114,714 roaring their approval through the chorus.

That's what I'm talking about. 

Sip on your ABC if you like, but while the the nation might have chosen Advance Australia Fair as its national anthem in 1984 and The Millennium Games were seen by much of the world as a coming-of-age for the country, the closing ceremony showed that Australia is at its best when it is big and bold and brash and puffed up and proud of what it has built. 

So if your preference is for white wines that truly represent their human terroir, look no further than those that mirror the style of Australia in the 1990s when Chardonnay was the Sir Les Patterson of white wine – a proper drink for proper drinking – not a girl's name. 

New Zealand’s most celebrated wine couldn’t be more different.

New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc first hit the headlines in 1977 – ten years before the All-Blacks won the inaugural Rugby World Cup, a trophy that has since inexplicably eluded them.

Yet, as with rugby, New Zealand has taken something from the Old World and somehow made it better in every way. 

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is unarguably a modern classic – a brilliant evolution, revolution, of an Old World variety. Like New Zealand rugby it’s sharp and clean and consistent and its complex flavours are so overwhelming and powerful that at times you just don’t know what’s hit you.

Time was we couldn't get enough of the stuff, but as with so much in life, and as with Australian Chardonnay, familiarity breeds contempt. Not another NZSB. Not another haka. Not another brilliant outside half. Nicky Allen, Grant Fox, Dan Carter. Enough already.

Maybe we’ve had too much of a good thing. A few years back UK supermarkets would carry a single entry level Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc. Then there were two. We learned to look out for the Marlborough variety, and we usually found the original pioneer, Montana. Now we see three or four, not just labelled Marlborough but also Wairau Valley.  

There have been a couple of sniffy articles in the press. Even Cloudy Bay has not been immune. Soon the fashionistas will jump on this bandwagon too. The snobs that ganged up to form the ABC club will be circling round New Zealand's finest export – Dame Kiri Te Kenawa and Hayley Westernra not withstanding – with the same opportunistic glint in their eyes, looking for the chance to sneer, to be seen to be the champion of the next big thing.

My advice is to have nothing to do with it.

Oz Clarke, whose palate is the envy of many a Master of Wine, has suggested New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is the best in the world. It probably is.

Even everyday easy drinking examples can open up with fragrant herbaceous scents, offer weight on the palate and be fruit packed with zingy and zesty lemons and limes.

As you climb the premium ladder the flavours intensify with fresh green capsicums, elderflowers, rich gooseberries, guava, mango, and ripe, heady and pungent asparagus. It is delicious stuff.

New Zealand took something subtle and tricky and unpredictable and made it powerful and distinctive and unbeatable.

Now I can’t remember if I’m talking about the grape or the sport.

Australia lost to Ireland in their group game and no beaten team has ever won the Rugby World Cup.

A draw at full time. Say, Australia 23 New Zealand 23

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Rugby World Cup Quarter Final Wine: Australia vs South Africa


The third Rugby World Cup quarter final, featuring Australia vs South Africa, throws together two of the genuine heavyweights of the rugby union world. Both twice former winners of the trophy. And both home to definitive wine styles as direct and distinctive as Quade Cooper and as punchily powerful as returning Springbok captain John Smit.

They say that when you fly to Australia from Europe you have to put your watch back. Twenty years.

If only that were true.

Because that would take us back to a time when Australia was famous - notorious might be the better word - for one of the world's most definitive wine styles. 

Big - I mean massive - bawdy, blowsy, blow-your-mind Chardonnay. 

You know what I'm talking about. 

100% Chardonnay grapes roasted on the vine under the burning Southern sky sun then pounded for fruit to the very inch of their leathery skins. Fermented in vast stainless steel tanks, steeped with resiny oak staves or oak chips and finally transferred into fat yellow green Burgundy bottles with synthetic stoppers, under every shade of green - olive, emerald, jade - or yellow plastic closures, from gold to sulphur to lemon.

But for all that variety what we were looking for in the contents of the bottle wasn't variety. It was sameness. Predictability. Reliability. We knew exactly what we wanted. 

We wanted to see that dense golden amber bright yellow shining liquid in a goblet - preferably one that took a third of a bottle or more. Its cloying stickiness should betray the weight of punchy alcohol on the sides of the glass. 

Take a mighty whiff of that ripe creamy butter-rich smell. And it is a smell. Not a bouquet or a fragrance. You'll find few hints or scents or subtle aromas here. This is wine foreplay Aussie style - Brace yourself Sheila

A blast of vanilla is the first thing that hits you. At 14% alcohol it won't be the last either.

It's not like vanilla from the pod or vanilla essence but like thick freezing milkshake vanilla-ice-cream chemical-vanilla. And that's how to serve it too: teeth-on-edge headache-inducing ice-cream cold like a tinny, but opening out as the sun moves across the sky and your glass is no longer under the sunshade.

Because it's not a cold weather drink this Aussie Chardonnay. It's meant for glugging under blue skies, from the cooler at picnics, Summer days on the river or on the beach,  impromptu barbecues, lazy wedding afternoons and early evenings when jackets are carried over shoulders and when straps fall off them.

Drink in its waxy malolactic weight, its heady pineapple taste, all that rich sumptuous buttery tropical fruit with added acid sharpness and long long alcoholic finish. WOW. Pour another (big) glass. 

After a couple of decades - some say Australia's first commercial Chardonnay appeared as late as 1973 - the preponderance of this style of over-oaked super powerful kick-in-the-head Aussie Chardonnay eventually gave way to the ABC brigade - the Anything But Chardonnay fashionistas who wanted to be seen to be drinking something different. Mostly they chose Pinot Grigio. Good luck to them.

But when you're faced with a choice of the perfect representation of Australia, think back to the Summer Olympics closing ceremony of 2000 in Sydney. 

We don't remember pop princess Kylie Minogue (bless 'er) covering Dancing Queen. We don't remember one-hit-wonders Men at Work with their one-hit-wonder Down Under. 

What we remember is the diminutive figure of 73-year-old country singer Slim Dusty standing trackside at Stadium Australia in his trademark 'old grey Farrell' hat, guitar slung over his shoulder, voice breaking as he began to sing,

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong

Under the shade of a coolabah tree,

And he sang as he watched and waited 'til his billy boiled

"You'll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me"

with a record-breaking stadium crowd of 114,714 roaring their approval through the chorus.

That's what I'm talking about. 

Sip on your ABC if you like, but while the the nation might have chosen Advance Australia Fair as its national anthem in 1984 and The Millennium Games were seen by much of the world as a coming-of-age for the country, the closing ceremony showed that Australia is at its best when it is big and bold and brash and puffed up and proud of what it has built. 

So if your preference is for a white wine that truly represents its human terroir, look no further than those that mirror the style of Australia in the 1990s when Chardonnay was the Sir Les Patterson of white wine - a proper drink for proper drinking - not a girl's name. 

By contrast, South African Pinotage is as distinctively different a red wine as you can ever imagine.

A cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault its conception as the answer to South Africa's demanding scrub and contrasting weather has been realised in a wine that divides opinion almost like no other.

It's ruby red to deep brown depending on age, strong examples cloying to the sides of the glass. It comes banana-scented or ripe with burning rubber on the nose. It's typically rough in texture, deeply plum and damson on the palate, toasty tough and mouth-puckeringly tannic. Gluggable, if you can get it down.

It's oenological Marmite - you either love it or hate it. 

That virtually nobody else really grows it - except maybe as a novelty - tells you as much as you need to know.

Like most freaks and weirdos, it is found in California. Rumour has it Chile, New Zealand and of course Australia (they'll try anything once) are experimenting with it. Like Dr Jekyll I presume, creating monsters?

Look out for Beyerskloof at one end of the quality spectrum and Citrusdal at the other. Remember too that the more you pay, the less typical it is, the less characteristic. Smoother, even silky, with less burnt rubber, and, truth be told, less South Africa.

Australia may start as odds-on favourites so 25/1 for a draw at full time looks more attractive than an even money win for South Africa.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Rugby World Cup Quarter Final Wine: England vs France


It's not really a vine-growing nation, England, being half a degree north of the typical wine-growing latitudes between 30 and 51 degrees (N). England only makes two million bottles itself.

To put that into context, the nation is the world's largest importer, bringing in 1.6 billion bottles of wine.

Almost uniquely amongst winemaking countries the English buy and drink very little of their own wine. Viticulture is labour intensive and this makes English wines very expensive to make and, like all alcohol, wine is also very heavily taxed so that too acts as a deterrent to local would-be buyers. 

What's more, winemaking in England has historically therefore been very much the preserve of enthusiasts, many of whom were hobbyists not dependant on the income from their wine sales for a livelihood.

Consequently distribution of wine made in England is really poor.

Very few wine merchants or supermarkets (by far the biggest retailers of wine in England) even stock English wines: most are sold at the wineries, many of which are also forced by circumstance to be managed as visitor and tourist attractions.

However.

There is one wine style at which England excels. Really excels. And it’s French.

Champagne. 

It can't be called Champagne of course, but to all intents and purposes that's what it is. 

Crafted from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, it's made from the same three grape varieties using the same méthode traditionnelle – traditional method – as Champagne. And the grapes are even grown on the same layer of chalk soil that extends geologically beneath our feet all the way from England to Champagne.

To name it correctly, English Sparkling Wine, is now world class. 

Surely there isn't a better nor more patriotic way to toast success at a game invented at, and named after, an English public school than with a drink whose possibilities owe so much to the English. 

For it was the English who brought together the scientific understanding of sparkling wine and the durability of glassware that could withstand the pressure inside a sparkling wine bottle. The English are also credited with the re-discovery of a piece of cork as the perfect bottle stopper.

Top of my list of English Sparkling Wine producers, and virtually on my own doorstep, is RidgeView Winery, high up on the rolling South Downs of the English county of Sussex. 

The wine names themselves are redolent of Englishness: Bloomsbury, Cavendish, Fitzrovia, Knightsbridge and Belgravia.

Bottles can be found in the food halls of London's top department stores Harrods and Fortnum & Mason and on the shelves of leading wine merchants like Berry Bros & Rudd plus England's upmarket supermarket chain, Waitrose.

RidgeView offers all the styles. Grosvenor is a 100% Chardonnay Blanc de Blanc; Fitzrovia a Brut Rosé. 

South Ridge Cuvée Merret  is named after Christopher Merret, the Englishman who in 1662 published one of the first known scientific papers on the production of sparkling wine. 

As I write, The Sunday Times Wine Club, itself something of an English wine institution, has Cuvée Merret 2008 on offer at just £16.99 a bottle, which prices this vintage English Sparkling wine right alongside non-vintage Champagne, when you order half a dozen. Probably enough for a modest celebratory lunch or dinner. If England win.

That's a big If. Because while in winemaking, England has mastered the Champagne flair of the French, on the rugby pitch France has mastered the game made in England.

Which is odd.

Year on year the English may never drink a bottle of their own sparkling wine, but in France the French will drink virtually nothing but their own. 

The wine shelves of my ‘local’ French supermarket tell the story, devoid of any imported sparkling wine. A section is dedicated solely to the 'other' French sparkling wines, the cremant, mousseaux, blanquette and clairette but even these are kept well away from the Champagne

Now I'm actually quite a fan of cheap Champagne. The cheapest. Bargain bin. Non-vintage of course.

The French appellation system ensures even cheap non-vintage Champagne comes with its own guarantee of quality, almost every week you can find it on special offer somewhere and everybody is your friend when you've got some.

You must've experienced that?

You offer somebody a drink, meaning alcohol, and they say 'no thanks' and they proffer one of the usual excuses and explanations: I'm driving, I'm pregnant, I'm on antibiotics. 

Then when you enquire of the greater gathering whether it's Champagne all round? suddenly your teetotallers are sidling up to you as you fill flute after flute with the French fizzy stuff: 

Actually I think it's Clive's turn to drive today 

and 

Well one won't hurt and some research did suggest light drinking in pregnancy could in fact be good for boys in the womb and I've got a feeling from the kicks this is an alpha male probably

or 

It's not really the antibiotics per se, just doctor's orders 

accompanied by a knowing and conspiratorial wink from your dodgy uncle, or sometime 'uncle'.

Your best bet is to buy it in France of course, typically at around the £10-a-bottle mark 'everyday' (if only) Champagne can be found on the shelves of all French supermarkets but if that's not possible just keep an eye on the UK supermarkets by signing up for their email offers as they have the buying power when there's a glut. And there often is. 

No need to be embarrassed either. 

I have no qualms whatsoever about filling a trolley with NV Champagne and nothing else and nor have my erstwhile wine merchant colleagues. 

On one occasion when word got around of a heavily discounted household name on offer at the local supermarket the shop manager urgently had to introduce a limit of five cases per person such was the rush of wine trade insiders and restaurateurs eager either to fill their boots or just cash in. 

What the former knew, wine buyers, traders and winemakers amongst them, was that even such huge volume, big brand non-vintage Champagne has one unheralded quality that earns it its place in many a cellar.

It gets better with age.

So much so that in just a couple of years or three it acquires qualities comparable with vintage Champagne.

Which means that when you do encounter a genuine bargain half-price offer you can afford to indulge yourself secure in the knowledge that you don't have to hurry to enjoy it by drinking it with every meal, marking obscure saints days or even share it with friends. 

Just keep it, open a bottle when you fancy it. Compare it with your tasting notes from 18 months ago. Have fun with the changing flavours and texture, the increased elegance then eventually the inevitable drift towards maderisation through oxidation.

Of course you could drink it to celebrate a French win in the rugby. But not right now.

England 24 France 16

© 2011 John Alexander

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