Fantastic festive fizz worth a pop!

Round & About


Round & About’s resident wine columnist Giles Luckett gives his top ten choices for bubbles at this most wonderful time of the year

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” So the song goes, and while I wholeheartedly agree with Andy Williams on this, I do wonder if our reasons for thinking so are the same. For while he seemed focused on marshmallows toasting and kids “jingle belling” (1963’s equivalent of TikTok?), for me it’s all about the fizz.

The festive season gives me the excuse (like I need one!) to indulge my passion for sparkling wines. When I first started taking a serious interest in wine, this meant champagne. While there were non-French sparkling wines out there most were either brilliant but expensive (Californian), lovely but hard to find (New Zealand), or affordable, available, and avoidable at all costs (Lambrusco).

“The festive season gives me the excuse (like I need one!) to indulge my passion for sparkling wines.”

Roll forward 30 years, and the world of fizz is a better place. From Spain to South Africa, Australia to England, the US to France (yes, I was surprised) great, affordable sparkling wines now abound.

So, in my final column of 2022 for Round & About, I’ll run down my top ten festive fizzes, wines that are bound to put some sparkle in to your Christmas.

10. Tesco Rosé Cava – at the time of writing (and until mid-December if my inside source, OK our delivery driver) is to be believed, the Clubcard price and 25% off any six wines makes this £4.50 a bottle. At such a price I’m prepared to forgive the fact that this should be called “rosado” rather than rosé. Pedantry aside, this is an excellent bottle of affordable fizz. Pale pink, the nose offers red cherries, raspberry sherbet, and earth. On the palate its fresh, with strawberries leading the charge, quickly followed by cherries, boiled sweets and just a hint of salinity. Great fun, and amazing value.

9. Champagne Bruno Paillard “Dosage Zero” MV (Multi-Vintage) (Hedonism Wines £49.80) A wine I came to late in the year, from a producer I fell for early in my career. Bruno Paillard is an exceptional champagne house, one that has consistently wowed me with the quality of their wines, and their willingness to innovate.

The “Dosage Zero” element refers to the fact that this wine doesn’t receive a shot of sugar before bottling, which is the case for almost all champagnes. This is a bold move as dosage can balance out a wine and add creaminess to the mouthfeel. Paillard have achieved a similar effect by using 50% reserve wines from previous years, and by giving it extended ageing of three-to-four years prior to release.

The result is a striking, fascinatingly complex wine with a style that is all its own. The nose is piercing and intense, with notes of white berries, citrus, and yeast. The palate is at first clean, and lively, but soon a creaminess joins the pear, grape, grapefruit, and chalky tones, so that by the time the finish hits you get a taste of brioche with lime marmalade. Bravo, Bruno!

8. The Wine Society’s Celebration Cremant de Loire 2019 (£12.95) – a vintage fizz for under £20, yes please. Cremant de Loire is one of the world’s oldest sparkling wines and is traditionally made from Chenin Blanc, though a proportion of Chardonnay is also often included these days. Cremant’s have slightly less C02 than Champagne, and this and the choice of grapes can give them a richer, more luxurious mouthfeel. Produced by leading producer Gratien Meyer, the bouquet is complex and subtle, with notes of yellow plums, apples, and honeysuckle. In the mouth it’s well-fruited, but elegant and stylish, the white fruits balanced by a clean acidity and a ripe note of yeast.

7. CVNE Cava (Majestic £9.99 when you buy any six wines) – CVNE is one of my favourite producers. They make a huge range of wines including the Rioja Reserva (Sainsbury’s £12), which is never out of my cellar, up to world-class fine wines such as the Contino Viña del Olivo (Waitrose £66) a wine I would urge any lover of Rioja to try. Their Cava is a new wine, to me, and it didn’t disappoint. Rich, creamy, and full of autumn fruits, there’s serious depth and complexity on show here, with highlights of citrus and white currant, balanced by honey and yeast. Another class act from CVNE.

6. Balfour Hush Heath Estate 2018 Blanc de Blancs – English sparkling wine has enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame, and is now rightly said to rival the world’s best. I’ve enjoyed several excellent examples this year, and many have come from Balfour. We toasted the Jubilee with a bottle of their joyous Hush Heath Estate Rosé (Waitrose £33.99 on offer, down from £39.99), and two of their wines make this list.

The Hush Heath Estate 2018 Blanc de Blancs ( £45) is a serious, refined, elegant wine. The citrusy nose is tinted with coconut and lime leaves, while the palate offers apples, melon, biscuity yeast, and touch of peachy ripeness on the finish.

5. Balfour Hush Heath Estate 2018 Blanc de Noirs ( £45) provided a fascinating contrast. Still young, I let this breathe for a couple of hours, and it opened with a shot of pure raspberry fruit before robust tones of brambles, red apples, minerals and pears come through. This impressive wine will age well, I suspect, though it’s hard to resist now, and would be glorious with smoked salmon.

If you feel like pushing the boat out, Balfour have just released their Archive Collection 2008 ( £120). Showing the remarkable ageing potential of English fizz, it’s on my must-taste list for 2023.

4. Taittinger 2015 (John Lewis £60) – my second champagne is an absolute pearl of a wine, 2015 was an exceptional vintage and Taittinger have taken full advantage of this. Typically stylish, the nose combines grapes, white flowers, peaches and yeast. In the mouth flavours of white berries, peach stones, black grapes, vanilla, and minerals effortlessly flow together, to give a silken, seamless experience. It’s a beautiful wine, one the despite its delicacy has the capacity to age and develop.

3. Gosset Grande Reserve (Waitrose £50) – there are many wonderful things about Gosset’s wines. They are made to exacting standards in the pursuit of perfection, they are stylish, strikingly powerful and intense, yet have such charm. The Grande Reserve is incredibly precise, the nose wonderfully delineated with notes of red berries, citrus, yeast, and dried pears. On the palate it seizes your attention with an intense attack of red and white berries, followed by rich, creamy tones of peaches, vanilla, mirabelles and minerals. Try this with smoked fish and white meats.

2. Graham Beck Vintage Rosé – I’ve been an admirer of Graham Beck’s wines for decades. The Graham Beck Brut (Majestic £11.99) has been our house fizz for years and yet every time I open a bottle I exclaim “Such a good wine.”

The vintage rosé takes their efforts to a whole new level. This is a sublime, a fizz that’s fit to grace anyone’s festive table. Deep pink with amber highlights, the nose is a blend of strawberries, cherries, and a hint of minty citrus. The palate is broad, rich, and offers a range of red berries, cherries, lime, and orange zest. The best value rosé sparkler in the UK? Probably.

1. Taittinger Prelude (John Lewis £55) – and so we come to not only my wine of choice for Christmas, but my wine of the year. I had this for the first time in 2020 and I’ve used any excuse to open a bottle since. Made from grapes from Grand Cru vineyards and given a luxurious six years of bottle ageing (double the usual amount for a non-vintage wine), this is a remarkable wine. The nose is a mellow mix of yellow skinned fruits suffused with vanilla, and a lovely savoury tone. The palate is succulent, packed with fruit and has Taittinger’s signature peaches in syrup tone to finish. This is a wine that fascinates and delights in equal measure, and will certainly make for a happy Christmas in my house.

Well, that’s it for 2022 from me. I hope you will try some of these wines and that you will have a fine Christmas.

All together now, it’s the most wonderful time of the year…

Celebration of Champagne with Giles Luckett

Round & About


Round & About’s resident wine columnist gives his top picks of Champagne which are worth a pop!

Hello. I’ve just returned from my latest foray into the wonderful world of wine, this time a visit to one of my favourite regions, Champagne. To many champagne is a by-word for celebration; the wine with which to mark life’s highlights. While I wouldn’t disagree with this sentiment, that is to overlook champagne’s place as one of the great wines, one that can be enjoyed with food or as a celebration in itself.

In my latest column for Round and About, I’ll give you a brief guide to this fascinating region, its styles, and run down of my top ten champagnes. So, without further ado, let’s talk chalk.

Champagne: Beauty isn’t skin deep

Take a former inland sea, a hill with delusions of grandeur, trillions of dead fish, a good supply of trees, and place them in cool, north-western France, and what do you get? You get the world’s greatest sparkling wine region, Champagne. 

Beneath a thin layer of largely poor soils, lies meters of ancient chalk. It’s this chalk that allows grapes to ripen in what would otherwise be (pre-climate change) an inhospitable place for vines. By leaching heat and storing water, the vast chalk deposits that underlay the region, Champagne manages to get chardonnay alongside the black grapes of pinot noir and pinot meunier to ripen and produce its wondrous wines.

For many of the top champagne houses – names such as Taittinger, Ruinart, Moet & Chandon, and Gosset – the chalk plays another vital role in the creation of these singular wines: ageing.

In the 5th century Roman settlers planted vines here. The name Champagne derives from the Latin’ campania’ in reference to the rolling hills of Campanula near Rome which the area resembles. When they arrived, they discovered very little in the way of building materials on the surface and so they started to dig. They soon discovered the vast deposits of chalk which they excavated to build cities such as Reims and Epernay, leaving behind huge subterranean caves – the ‘crayeres’ as they are now known – in their wake.

Today, many of these are used to house champagne while it slowly matures. Given the crayeres impressive depth – some go down over 30 metres – they provide the continuously cool, vibration-free environment the wines need as they develop.

Time is an essential element in the production of champagne. Even non-vintage wines, those blended from several harvests, received at least 18 months of bottle ageing prior to release, and vintage wines, ones from a single year, needing at least 3 years. And when it comes to rare cuvee de prestige wines such as Taittinger’s sublime Comte de Champagne or Gosset’s Celebris, a decade or more of ageing may be required.

Champagne’s Grapes and Styles

Given the wine itself is white or rosé, it may come as a surprise to you that most wines are made with black and white grapes. Around 75% of champagne’s grapes are black, the rest being made up of chardonnay.

As the juice of almost all grapes is white when pressed, the colour comes from contact with skins, and while there are seven authorised varieties in Champagne, the three most important vines are:

Chardonnay – which produces mineral-rich wines with wonderfully pure fruit, fragrance, and aromas

Pinot Noir – an aristocratic red grape that gives acidity, backbone, depth, and body to the wines

Pinot Meunier – rarely seen elsewhere, pinot meunier adds fruitiness and roundness to the finished blend

In terms of styles, that is largely in the hands of the winemaker and even wines produced from similar blends – the ‘cepage’ – can deliver markedly different wines. Try a bottle of Taittinger’s Prelude with its ripe, peaches in syrup fruit, subtle yeasty undertow, and generous weight beside Gosset’s equally long-aged Grande Reserve and you’d be forgiven for thinking the wines were made in different regions. The Grande Reserve is high-toned and fresh, with a piercing citrus flavour that’s softened by a rich seam of red berries and creamy yeast.

In terms of labels, the following are the styles you are most likely to see:

Brut – this is a dry wine which has a limit to the amount of sugar that gets added to the wines – the ‘dosage’. In the case of a Brut wine, this is less than 12g of residual sugar per litre. Brut is a movable feast, however, and some Houses have residual sugar levels that are close to the limit while others, such as Gosset, tend to be far lower

Demi-Sec – this is an off-dry champagne that is often served as an aperitif or with deserts

Blanc de Blanc – white wine made from white grapes; this is invariably 100% chardonnay. Most of these wines are good for early drinking while the fruit is young and bright, but given the structure of Champagne’s chardonnay, some blanc de blanc can age wonderfully. Taittinger’s Comte de Champagne is routinely aged for a decade before release and will reward another decade or more of cellarage. I’ve enjoyed venerable bottles of Ruinart’s R de Ruinart Blanc de Blanc, and my recent encounter with the sublime Gosset Blanc de Blancs show it’s a wine that has time on its side

Blanc de Noir – made exclusively from black grapes, blanc de noir is an odd category. Much of the cheap (and let’s face it, nasty) supermarket champagne is blanc de noir and is made almost exclusively from pinot meunier with the aim of being drunk young. At the other end of the scale, you have wines such as Bollinger’s Vielle Vignes Francaise or Krug Clos d’Ambonnay which combine extraordinary power, depth, and concentration and are amongst Champagne’s most revered (and expensive) wines

Rosé – in Champagne this is invariably bone dry and can be made in one of two ways. The first is to allow the grape to come into contact with the black grape skins and bleed its colour into it the must – the ‘saignee’ method. The alternative is to add around 15% of red wine to the white

Champagne’s Best 10 Wines

The following is my top ten and is based on a combination of excellence, value, and availability. It would be easy for me to reel of the off top ten greatest champagnes I’ve ever had, and some of them are included on this list. But unless you work in the trade or have a bank balance the size of Moet’s marketing budget, listing the likes of Krug’s Clos de Mesnil 1982 (£3,300) isn’t that helpful. 

Now, the following represents ten wines that show champagne’s diversity, styles, and that its brilliance doesn’t have to be reserved for special occasions:

Taittinger Comtes de Champagne (£150 Waitrose) – Comtes is an astonishing wine. 100% chardonnay – so a blanc de blanc – logic would suggest that it wouldn’t stand up to a decade of aging before release, let alone that it would cellar well for years to come. Equally how does a chardonnay have such intensity, complexity and depth of flavour? Comte’s nose is flowers and white berries with a whiff of creamy yeast.  On the palate it begins as a gentle vanilla mousse, but this soon builds as tones of apple, preaches in syrup, minerals and brioche flood in. Yes, it’s expensive, but in terms of quality phenomenal and is well-priced when viewed against its peers.

Gosset Grand Rosé (Ocado £60) – Gosset’s wines are intense, precise, capable of seemingly endless ageing, and wonderfully sophisticated. Their Grand Rosé is pale pink, with a nose that combines fresh summer berries, pear drops, and yeast. In the mouth it’s clean, tangy and fresh with an underlying richness and power. This is a wine for the mind as well as the mouth, and I would urge any wine lover to try it. 

Vilmart Grands Reserve (The Champagne Company £35) – Vilmart is a small, high-quality house that takes a Burgundian approach to making wine. Visit winemaker Laurent Champs and you’ll find a small, pristine cellar that’s lined with new oak barrels. Oak ageing is at the heart of what Vilmart does, and it imparts a richness and weight to their wines, giving a creamy mouthfeel without smothering the fine red and white berry fruits.

Taittinger Prelude (The Champagne Company £48.50) – while the Taittinger Prestige Rosé (Majestic £44.99) was named as the ‘Best Rosé’ by Good Food Magazine in 2022, the Prelude is probably my favourite Taittinger. Such is my ardour for this glorious wine, that at my recent visit I passed up a second glass of Comte de Champagne 2012 (lovely, but so young) in favour of this. Prelude is aged for six years prior to release, and this gives the Grand Cru chardonnay and pinot noir fruit time to mellow and soften. Mid-gold, the nose is a complex blend of yellow autumn fruits, honey and citrus. In the mouth it’s weighty and ripe, but with that signature Taittinger elegance. 

Roederer Brut Premier (£35 Majestic) – I first encountered this while working at Harrods as part of a tasting that included every champagne in the shop – over 100 wines. This was a standout for me and remains one of my favourites. The ripe, peach, apricot, and citrus nose gives way to rich, weighty, brioche and red berry palate that oozes class and refinement.

Alfred Gratien (£38 Vinatis) – Alfred Gratien is one of a few Houses that still age their wines in oak – other notable Houses include Krug and Bollinger. The barrels in question are old and the idea isn’t to add a vanilla flavour, but to allow micro-oxygenation (apparently) that imparts a richness and roundness to the wines. Richness is certainly a key trait. These are super-ripe, luxurious, sumptuous wines with a baked apple tone that’s balanced by minerals and a touch of salinity. 

Adnams Selection Rosé (Adnams £33.99) – there’s a lot to be said for own-label or buyers’ own brand champagnes. In many cases these wines are from prestigious Houses who create bottlings for merchants. This is definitely one of the best I’ve ever had. It’s made by Blin, an excellent, but not that well-known House, and gives you a lot of wine for your money. Deeply pink, the nose is an enticing blend of red berries, citrus, and brioche. The palate is broad, rich, and satisfying but with enough freshness to keep it balanced.

Billecart Salmon Rosé (Laithwaites £60) – I first bought ‘Billy Rosé’ as we call it as it had a pretty bottle, and pretty is a good way to describe the wine. The pretty in pink colour is flecked with amber highlights, while the nose is a complex, fragrant blend of black fruits, rose petals, and yellow plums. The palate is soft, silky and loaded with strawberries and raspberries, minerals and a lovely yeasty finish. This is a great champagne to serve with lamb, salmon, and chicken.

Pol Roger Brut Reserve (Waitrose £39) –Pol Roger was Winston Churchill’s favourite champagne, and their cuvee de prestige is named in his honour. This is a traditional style of wine that never disappoints.  The nose combines intense berry fruit with brioche and white flowers.  The palate is taut, refined, and gives the sense of everything being where it should be giving a perfect balance to a rounded, yet clean tasting wine.

Dom Perignon (£160 Sainsbury’s) – despite its vast production and rising price, this remains an excellent wine. Best drunk a few years after release, Dom Perignon is a charmer of a wine. Its appeal lies in its complexity, which is admirable, and it offers a classic ‘biscuity’ nose that combines berry fruit with yeast and honey. The palate is typically rich and rounded, with noticeable flavours of Mirabelle plum, raspberries, peaches, and offers a long, complex finish.

Until next time…

Well, I hope that’s whetted your appetites for all things Champagne. Next time I’ll look at some reds that will make the long autumn evenings seem just a little too short.



Wines for autumn with Giles Luckett

Round & About


Round & About’s resident wine columnist gives his top picks for the new season – mellow wines for the mellow season!

Hello. As a wine lover, I’ve always liked autumn as a season. Unlike winter or summer, where the weather and food tend to prescribe reds or whites, autumn, with its early warmth and latter chill, offers a much broader palate to work with.

As Keats put it, doubtless, after a glass of wine (or something altogether stronger knowing what the Romantics were like), this is the ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ and the following suggestions make for the perfect accompaniment to this golden transition.

First up is a white from Portugal, The Lisboa Valley Selection (The Wine Society £7.95). Portuguese reds have been a favourite of the wine trade for some time now, but the whites have never quite caught people’s attention. I tried this for the first time last year, and it’s become a regular in our house. Offering an intriguing combination of freshness – grapefruit, green apples, and watermelon – with a balancing richness – peaches and dried pears – it has a tang of Atlantic salt to the finish. Marvellous with seafood, it’s also lovely on its own.

As Keats put it, doubtless, after a glass of wine (or something altogether stronger knowing what the Romantics were like), this is the ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’

Next is a wine from Sicily, a wine-producing island that has seen its fortunes soar in the last decade or so as winemakers have got to grips with the natural gifts they have been afforded. My recommendation is the Nostru Catarratto Lucido (Kwoff £12.49). This organic wine is made from the rare (I certainly had to look it up) Catarratto grape. Mid-gold in colour, it offers a complex nose of jasmine cut with almonds and peach stones. The palate is fresh and tangy with plenty of gooseberries and white currants, but this soon deepens as greengages, peaches, and apricots come in at the end.

And for my last white, we have one from another region whose fame lies with its reds. Abruzzo sits east of Rome, where its coast borders the Adriatic. Its Montepulciano is a great source of inexpensive, often highly drinkable reds, such as Tesco’s Finest Montepulciano (£7).

Whites are thinner on the ground, but wines such as the Contessa Abruzzo Pecorino (£9.95) are well worth seeking out. Pecorino gives fragrant wines with plenty of citrus freshness that also offer riper notes of apricots, Mirabelle plums, nuts, and dried herbs. The Contessa is an excellent example of this, and I found it went well with creamy cheese pasta – one that was loaded with pecorino cheese, funnily enough.

There will now be a short interval for a glass of Champagne.

I’m a huge fan of Champagne. Good as sparkling wines are, even the best cannot match the complexity, elegance, and depth of the greatest sparkling wine on Earth. While I am a fan of many houses, the one I keep coming back to is Taittinger. Across the range, their wines are the epitome of style, and their Prelude (John Lewis £55) is arguably the best sub-£100 Champagne on the market. But it’s to the Taittinger Brut Reserve (Tesco £39) I’d like to give a nod to. This is a show-stopping wine. Mid-gold, the tiny, even bubbles (‘bead’ if you want to get technical), lift notes of spring flowers, red apples, citrus, and yeast. In the mouth, it’s gentle yet persistent, and at its core is a glorious note of peaches in syrup that is offset by taut acidity and creamy yeastiness.

And so to the reds.

You can’t talk about wines that boast mellow fruitfulness and not mention Rioja. Rioja’s reputation is at an all-time high. A succession of good vintages coupled with innovation and investment from leading producers has made the wines of this fantastic region world-beaters.

One that’s been turning my head lately is the Cune Reserva 2017 (Majestic £12.99), and it’s autumn bottled. The nose is a smoky, rich mix of red and blackberries with highlights of citrus fruits and spices. The medium-bodied palate is loaded with crushed black fruits, vanilla, cranberries, and liquorice, and finishes with a fresh, fruits of the forest in cream flourish. Magnificent now with hearty tomato dishes or red meats, it will improve over the next three to five years.

South African wine has undergone a reinvention to match Australia’s over the past couple of decades. Their traditional ‘big is better’ approach has been replaced by the pursuit of perfection done their way. Like Australia, South Africa has a hugely diverse mix of soils and microclimates that lend themselves to the creation of truly fine wines. One of these is the Neil Ellis Cabernet Sauvignon (Cellar Door Wines £19.95). Cabernet Sauvignon is often said to be the king of red grapes, one that is capable of producing aristocratic wines that combine elegance, power, and longevity. The Neil Ellis shows these characteristics to the hilt. Inky black, the nose is an inviting mix of blackcurrants, prunes, and mint, while the palate offers a powerful mix of cassis, raspberries, chocolate, and a whiff of cigar smoke. I had this with a cheeseboard – and it was excellent – but with a fine steak or mushroom risotto, I think it would be even better.

And finally, a claret. I don’t recommend red Bordeaux that much these days because the good wines tend to be horribly expensive, and the cheap ones are just horrible. Stalwarts like Château Talbot – a wine I used to buy for under £30 – will now set you back over £60 a bottle. Great vintages, hysterical scores from critics, and wine investors have sent prices skyward and left drinkers out in the cold.

It was with deep joy then that I recently tasted the 2016 Caronne St. Gemme (Majestic Wines £16.99). The Nony family has worked wonders with this excellent estate, and the winemaker claims that the 2016 is the best wine he’s ever made. Classical nose of blackcurrants, smoke, cigars, and grilled meats, the medium-bodied palate is choc-full of plums, currants, blackberries, and chocolate, that lead to a long, well-integrated, satisfying finish. Just starting to open up, it will be fascinating to see how this develops.

Until next time...

Well, I hope that’s whetted your appetite. Next time out, I’ll look at some affordable fizz.