There’s nothing quite like a glass of the bubbly stuff. But for many of us, our wallets don’t stretch to the luxury brands of Champagne.
So how are we meant to know a good bottle from a terrible one? And is the most expensive always the best?
We asked the experts for their advice – and found five bottles of bubbly that don’t carry a hefty price tag.
First: the Champagne facts
By its very nature, Champagne can only come from the Champagne region in France (hence its exclusivity), and this delicious sparkle can be made from three grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier.
The most popular Champagne is a classic blend of all three, and Champagnes that have a higher proportion of black grapes (Pinot noir and Meunier) will be fuller in body and more aromatic than a Blanc de Blancs (made entirely from Chardonnay).
Just like a white or red wine, the balance and depth of flavour will ultimately determine your drinking pleasure and – if you let your taste buds do the talking – which Champagne house you’d love to ‘pop’ into.
Go for a lesser-known Champagne house
“When we think of Champagne, we tend to think of the Grand Marques – the big-name houses that need no introduction, like Veuve Clicquot, Moet & Chandon, Laurent Perrier and Perrier-Jouet,” says Stephen Williams, founder of AWC Fine Wine.
“The benefit of opting for one of these is the consistency of quality and style. You know what you’re going to get, and the skill of the cellar master is to consistently achieve a signature style, enabling consumers to find and stick to a favourite. Mine include Pol Roger, Billecart Salmon (whose rosé is quite sublime) and, of the really big brands, Bollinger.”
At the other end of the scale are the 20,000 small growers who between them own 88% of all Champagne’s vineyards. Most sell their grapes to the big names – but there are a growing number preferring to make the wines themselves.
“These are the handcrafted Champagnes that combine finesse and flavour, reflecting the origins of the grapes that are often lost in the big blends,” says Williams. “Top names to track down include Franck Bonville, Vilmart, Pierre Gimonnet, Pierre Peters and Geoffroy.”
Vilmart in particular is a name to watch out for in supermarkets.
Should I go for vintage Champagne or non-vintage?
Vintage Champagne is grapes harvested from a single year, while non-vintage is a blend from multiple years. Supermarket own-brand Champagne can offer outstanding quality and value.
“The majority of Champagnes on the market are non vintage (NV), but it might be worth choosing a vintage Champagne for a special occasion,” says Gerard Basset, founder of Hotel TerraVina.
“Most Champagne houses will produce one or more vintage cuvées positioned between their NV and prestige cuvée. These vintages cuvées can offer great enjoyment, with often more character than the non-vintage – and they’re great value for money when compared with a prestige cuvée.
“At the moment, a lot of houses offer the 2004 or 2005 vintages, which are lovely to drink – but if you can find a 2002, you could be in for a real treat,” advises Basset.
Charles Metcalfe, co-Chairman of the International Wine Challenge agrees: "Vintage Champagne can be a great choice. It's always a top selection, made in limited quantities, and has to spend longer ageing in the producer's cellar.
“It's more expensive than non-vintage, but not nearly as expensive as the top, famous names, such as Dom Perignon and Roederer Cristal.”
For more information, check out the International Wine Challenge website.
What are your top tips for choosing a cheap Champagne? Share them in the Comments box below.