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Champagne: Don't Be Fooled By Big Discounts On Big Brands - Look For Better Value Still...

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, and it’s time for too-good-to-be-true Champagne offers to start appearing in the national retailers.  All such deals depend on the customer not knowing enough about the product itself so that they simply default to making their buying decision on the only factor that is easily understandable – price!  The lower the price and the bigger the apparent saving the more likely it is that Joe Customer will take the bait, and the reassurance of a familiar brand is included in the hope of confirming that this is surely a cracking deal.  Hmmmm.....
However, if you buy a bottle of one of the big brand Champagnes at full price (£35-£45 or thereabouts) we reckon you’ll be paying about £10 a bottle more than you should be for the quality of the stuff in the bottle.  We base this on two things: 1.In the tasting we’ve done, the quality of the Champagnes we are able to sell for £25-£35 a bottle has consistently been much higher than the more expensive big brands, and 2. all the big brands have huge marketing departments to support (that’s where your extra tenner goes in case you’d not worked it out) and the small chaps we buy from don’t have to support this expensive marketing.  All that’s happening when the prices of the big Champagne brands are reduced by £10 or so is that they are temporarily suspending their demand for you to pay for their advertising.
Like all wines, Champagne can be too cheap, where you pay so little that all you get is the name on the label, but poor quality fizz inside the bottle.  We don’t go anywhere near such stuff, and if your budget for Christmas fizz is lower than £20 a bottle you’d be better off spending it on top quality fizz that isn’t Champagne – good Prosecco or Cava for instance.  Once you’re through the £20 mark though the Champagne starts to get interesting.  Charles Chevallier Brut d’Honeur nv at £21.85 is super value (just try and find a brand you’ve heard of for that price).  It’s fresh, yeasty and made in the classic tradition of the champagne houses of Aÿ, principally from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with some Pinot Meunier and matured in cool chalk cellars for 5 years before release.
Move up the scale a bit and we have Rasselet Brut nv from the village of Oeuilly in the Marne Valley.  Halves, bottles, magnums and jeroboams are all available as well as a delicious rose and a demi-sec too, with the 75cl bottles priced in the region of £27.  We have dealt with Joel Rasselet for longer than we can remember and he has never let us down.  His Champagnes are super value – better in fact than any of the brands – and we are the only UK importer. 

Joel & Edwige Rasselet

At the same price is Veuve Fourny Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs, a 100% Chardonnay Champagne, fully organic with a lighter, crisper style.  At the top of the heap we have a stunning pair from Vilmart who are also 100% organic with grapes drawn from 100% Premier Cru sites.  The Vilmart Grand Cellier d’Or is barrique fermented and aged, and a blend of 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir.  The Vilmart Coeur de Cuvee comes only from their best juice (80% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir) and spends its first year in barrique.  It is the highest quality champagne, with fantastic richness and concentration.  These aren’t cheap of course, but you get what you pay for.

Vines overlooking the village of Hautvillers in the heart of the Champagne region.

 However, this year’s star looks like being Lallier Grand Cru Vintage Brut 2005.  The grapes that make this come from 100% Grand Cru vineyard sites and are a blend of 55% Pinot Noir from Ay and 45% Chardonnay from the Cote de Blancs.  Lallier Grand Cru Vintage Brut 2005 is aged for 48-72 months and kept a further 5 months after disgorging.  We regard it as one of the best 2005 vintage champagnes produced by anyone anywhere:  It is rich and fine with toasty characteristics yet still fresh and invigorating.  You simply have to try it – and you’ll get your chance…

Williamson & Son outside Lallier's cellars in Ay.

 Lallier are situated at the heart of the historic village of Ay and have some of the oldest cellars there, dating back to the 18th century.  In 2004 Francis Tribault purchased the house from Rene James Lallier and developed their speciality of producing champagnes sourced only from Grand Cru and Premier Cru classified vineyards.  They have several more familiar champagne houses as their neighbours yet outshine all of them.  Francis Tribaut’s artisan approach to winemaking, using only natural yeasts and low dosage, allows the purity and richness of each Grand Cru terroir to shine through, creating distinctive and original wines.  We are pleased to offer the Lallier Grand Cru Vintage Brut 2005 at £42.50 a bottle, though with some help from Lallier themselves we are able to reduce this price to £39.50 per bottle until 31st December 2012.  It will also be available to taste at our Christmas Winetasting on 22nd November in Ipswich.  If the £20 mark is more your thing though then we’d steer you back to the Charles Chevallier Brut d’Honeur at £21.85 we mentioned earlier.  It’s also made by Lallier incidentally, though doesn’t come exclusively from Premier and Grand Cru vineyards that the Lallier label is reserved for.

Lallier's vines high on the slopes above Hautvillers
 So when you see the supposedly cracking deals offered on Champagne, just take a minute, engage your "common sense chip" and wonder, for a moment, whether what you're thinking of buying is the right product at the right price, or whether you're in danger of being fooled by a big discount on a familiar name.  After all, if they can afford to sell it to you at Christmastime at £10 a bottle cheaper than normal, why isn't the regular price £10 lower?  Could it be because the price isn't actually £10 lower at Christmastime, but rather it is £10 too high for the rest of the year?


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