Celebration of Champagne with Giles Luckett

Round & About

Reviews

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.

Cheers!

Giles

Wines for autumn with Giles Luckett

Round & About

Reviews

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.

Cheers!

Giles

Bear Necessities

Round & About

Reviews

Ella Reeves enjoys a summer highlight at the newly renovated historic gastropub The Bear & Ragged Staff in Appleton Road, Cumnor.

Head Chef of the restaurant at The Bear & Ragged Staff
The specials in restaurant of The Bear & Ragged Staff

The Bear and Ragged Staff is a charming gastropub in the village of Cumnor, retaining many of its original Tudor features. I knew we were in for a treat, as my Great Uncle Tom, who lives in the area and has excellent taste, goes there a couple of times a week.

It was the ideal location for a clement summer evening, with a well-kept display of flowers welcoming visitors on arrival. And boy, did we need welcoming. In retrospect, it would have been lovely to have taken a cycle ride to the Bear and Ragged Staff. Or, you could stay in one of the nine lovely rooms on the premises. My clumsy mistake meant we got on the wrong bus, which led to a traumatic journey, but we were put at ease when we were met by the lovely and professional staff.

We started with a drink on the south-facing terrace before dinner. I was keen to try the cocktail menu, and chose a cosmopolitan, which was perfectly balanced on sweetness and sharpness from the lime. My partner, partial to a good rosé, ordered a pinot blush, which went down a treat. Sometimes, it’s the little details that count: lavender and rosemary in little plant pots on the tables. I also noted the biodegradable straws, a good sign of a forward-thinking, sustainable establishment.

The restaurant was managed like a well-oiled machine. The staff were knowledgeable about the menu, answering each question and attending to each request with discreet elegance.

I love a good eatery with a menu dilemma… The kind of place where everything sounds so delicious that you just cannot choose and have to “panic order”. We were not rushed by the ever-patient and charming staff, but our hungry tums and salivating mouths necessitated twe order without delay.

I always wonder if it is fair to review the specials, but I have it on good knowledge that the selection is on par each evening. I was torn between the special starter of blue cheese croquettes with pickled shallots and toasted pine nut salad, and buffalo mozzarella, heritage tomato and basil salad. My decision was made when my partner agreed to let me sample his croquettes.

Digging into the crispy exterior, the blue cheese oozed onto the tangy salad leaves, set off by the gentle crunch of the pine nuts. It was described by my partner as the “best starter ever” and I knew he was genuine as it is rare he would eat his greens with such enthusiasm. I had to agree when I was allowed to sample – just a bit though, that’s shallot!

I dug into my starter and was transported back to my recent visit to Venice, where the caprese salad became my favourite dish to order at any restaurant.  The Laverstoke mozzarella – sourced from the first farm to produce authentic mozzarella in the UK – was every bit as creamy as it should be, complimented by the basil-infused dressing and stylishly multi coloured tomatoes, sweet and plump enough to rival their Italian counterparts.

It was beautifully paired with a sauvignon blanc that was every bit as crisp, fresh and lemony as it should be – just the way I like it.

Then, the mains. Oh, the mains! We both opted for duck, and were impressed by the creative talent of the chef to create two very different dishes.

My choice was the special, a roasted duck breast, served beautifully tender and pink, with crunchy pancetta, hispi cabbage, and a perfectly seasoned ‘jus’. I come from the sort of family where you would set your relatives in a state of panic by setting out a full roast and not bringing the gravy until last, so it took a great deal of self-control to resist licking my plate clean. My partner’s duck Bolognese was a welcome twist on a classic, with crispy duck crumb adding depth through the texture contrast.

Feeling that we were reaching capacity, we opted for a light finish of a trio of Jude’s free-range ice creams (him), and an espresso martini (me). I am known for being fussy about all my drinks (to say the least) and the espresso martini is no exception: it must have the perfect balance of sweetness. They nailed it.

Call The Bear & Ragged Staff on 01865 862329 or visit www.bearandraggedstaff.com