There's no better sign of celebration than a good bottle of bubbly. The perfect celebratory tipple, a glass of champagne makes an ideal aperitif, as the crowd-pleasing party fizz can be easily matched to foods.
But whether it's the wallet-friendly supermarket option, or the seriously spenny stuff, choosing the right bottle can be a headache – and that’s before you start thinking about cuvee, grape variety and vintage versus non-vintage (NV).
We asked Sam Caporn, winner of the Madame Bollinger medal for excellence in tasting and knowledge, to help navigate our way through the fizz forest. She says: “First, choose one that suits your palate. NV tends to be a blend of the classic grape varieties (chardonnay, pinot noir and meunier), but some use more chardonnay – which is elegant with apple fruit – and others more pinot noir – broader with red grapes.
"You could also look for blanc de blancs styles (only white grapes) and if it doesn't say on the bottle then do a bit of homework. It pays to be prepared.”
Once you’ve got to grips with grapes, it’s time to consider style. Sam says this is best done through tasting: “Work out if you prefer bready wines, floral and fresher, or those that use oak in the winemaking process. If you like yeasty notes, then it is worth splurging on vintage as these spend longer on the lees (the yeast deposits used in fermentation).”
It’s not all about the name, either. “The top brands spend a lot on marketing and have real cache but the supermarkets are doing a good job too," she says. "Plus it’s worth checking the supermarket bottle to see if it says which champagne house made the wine.”
With that in mind, we tested over 30 champagnes – from the big names to the bargain basement – over a fortnight. We used a mixture of styles, prices and cuvees and compared and contrasted as many as possible to find the best for a variety of occasions, tastes and budgets. These are the bottles that popped our cork.
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Tesco Finest vintage champagne, 75cl, 12.5%: £23, Tesco
We tasted this 2012 vintage from Tesco against a few of their other champagnes and were hugely impressed by this bottle, which stood head and shoulders above the others. Our testers, none the wiser to the actual price, thought this would cost upwards of £40 and agreed this was one of their overall favourites. It’s a blanc de blanc, so it is very dry, elegant and really quite complex. We found a delicious lemony, apple sharpness with a touch of biscuit and a drawn-out lingering finish. It’s supposed to be great with salmon blinis, and we’d agree it would make a good aperitif for light canapes or even a seafood starter once the season really gets going.
Roger Barnier l’oubliee solera Champagne, 75cl, 12%: £49.99, Wanderlust Wines
This is a grower Champagne from an independent family house dating back five generations with the aged vines to match – the oldest fruit-producing vine pre-dates the First World War. Here, Champagne is made in the very traditional sense, with wooden presses and no cellar work, instead letting the fruit speak for itself. This means that the brioche notes aren’t prominent but that the wines can take a lot of ageing.
This particular Champagne is a blend of different barrels from different vintages combined together (it uses the complicated solera system of replenishment, like sherry) so you can enjoy the serious complexity of old wines mixed with the fresh and vibrant younger stuff. It’s an extremely interesting Champagne and our testers gave it a thumbs-up across the board with its fizzy sophistication. One to share for a special occasion, for sure.
Bruno Paillard premiere cuvee champagne, 75cl, 12%: £40.95, The Whisky Exchange
From an independent, family-owned house, this Bruno Paillard champagne is made in an interesting way: several grape varieties and vintages from as far back as 1985 are blended together with the first press of new grapes in the house’s signature style. They call it “multi vintage” and the result is quite delicious. On the palate we found lots of brioche, yeastiness and complexity due to those older vintages and because each bottle is aged for longer than legally required. It’s bone dry (extra brut) and a really sophisticated bottle that wine buffs would appreciate. Drink on its own for best effect.
Bollinger rose brut, 75cl, 12%: £49.99, Waitrose
Rose champagne isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but this Bollinger classic probably is. With a blend of 62 per cent pinot noir, 24 per cent chardonnay, 14 per cent meunier grapes and just a tiny five per cent red wine added, this makes for a rounded, crisp glass of bubbles with a heavy dose of red fruits – think cherries, berries and summer fruits just asking to be paired with fruity puddings (they say it’s great with Asian food too).
The colour is always important for a rose, and Bollinger’s is a bright, millennial pink that rings true with a slight sweetness to the wine. The fact that this is cellar-aged for twice the legally required time means there’s more complexity, length and structure than a basic NV pink. We think the current price makes this a good-value, special-occasion bottle that will always impress.
Thierry Triolet brut, 75cl, 12%: £20.99, The Fizz Company
A light, zippy, elegant Champagne that is an ideal all-rounder and a perfect party fizz. We found the finish was lemony, apply and toasty with plenty of bubbles and sure to be a big people-pleaser for anyone who leans towards a chardonnay-style fizz – the chardonnay grapes from this area of Champagne are famously good. This is a grower Champagne, meaning Thierry Triolet grows the grapes (and sells some to Krug and Billecart Salmon) then makes the Champagne himself; this usually makes for a much pricier Champagne, so this example is great value too.
Abel Charlot brut, 75cl, 12.5%, case of six: £120, M&S
This blend is dominated by red grapes, making for a full-on fruited experience from one of M&S’s top winemakers Elisabeth Sarcelet. It’s very rounded, with lots of lingering, bready notes – probably because a quarter of it comes from older reserve wines. It tastes more expensive than an entry level NV Champagne thanks to its length, and having a nice gift-box thrown in will always make it a good present. We’d drink this with canapes, very happily.
Billecart Salmon rose champagne, 75cl, 12%: £57.85, 31 Dover
An iconic rose from one of France’s most famous champagne houses, Billecart Salmon’s NV pink is recognisable in name, hue and taste. In the glass, the mousse alone on this fizz is fine, persistent and inviting. Colour-wise, it’s a beautifully pale shade of salmon, with a deliciously dry crispness that is offset by those signature strawberry and summery flavours. Although it’s not as complex, cool or interesting as other examples in this list, this is a special bottle of bubbles – it tastes like celebration, and with a price tag edging towards the £60 mark, it’s a bottle to savour or give as a present.
Pommery brut royal champagne NV, 75cl, 12.5%: £40, Waitrose
A consistently good champagne from another big name house: Pommery has extensive acreage to call on for its grapes and it shows in this beautifully balanced white NV bottle. This handsomely boxed example is an exclusive limited edition for Waitrose and makes an ideal gift for hosts, but lose the box and pick up the same bottle for a bit less and you’ll enjoy the well-structured honey nuttiness against the characteristic chardonnay citrus at a great price.
This one did well with our testers and we’d recommend serving it as a reception drink or tucking into it ahead of turkey on the big day; the sort of thing you can drink with anything, at any occasion.
Taittinger brut prestige rose NV: £37.50, The Champagne Company
The pale, blushing shade of this famous fizz hints at the zippy strawberry and raspberry flavours you’ll find, but perhaps more surprising is that this rose has plenty of chardonnay, so there are also fresh, zesty notes to balance the sweetness, and a healthy three-year ageing to really make it sing.
Taittinger is one of the last giant champagne houses still owned and managed independently by the family and it prides itself on maintaining consistent quality: you always know what you’re going to get with a bottle of Taittinger and this “prestige” rose lives up to its name and reputation. We liked how versatile this was; dry enough to drink as an aperitif, fruity enough to pair with puddings. Taittinger even suggest certain French cheeses will work well with it.
Didier Chopin brut champagne, 75cl, 15%: £19.99, Laithwaites
We thought this bottle of blanc de noir from independent grower and winemaker Didier Chopin was well able to compete with the big names – both in drinkability and complexity. First up, it presented as you’d expect of a pinot noir and meunier blend – lots of rounded red fruitiness and little else – but we were surprised by how lively, fresh and youthful it became, with developing toasty notes and buttery brioche. It has spent five years on the lees (hence the yeastiness) making it a very grown-up – and exceptionally good value – tipple to see in the new year.
Arteis & Co rose 2008 champagne, 75cl, 12%: £55, Wanderlust Wine
The design of this bottle stands out and you can tell it’s not going to be your run-of-the-mill champagne. The Arteis brand was born after an ex-Perrier-Jouet winemaker became disillusioned by how many of the big houses have no traceability and buy grapes from wherever they can. The result is his own premier cru and grand cru grapes in a blend that can easily take on the big labels.
We found this to be a very dry, crisp rose with redcurrants and blackcurrants going into aged brioche flavours – he clearly knows a thing or two about wine. It’s a hugely complex, brilliant champagne and only 6,000 bottles were made of this one, so grab one quickly if you’re keen: we are.
Monsigny 2006 vintage champagne brut, 75cl, 12.5%: £22.99, Aldi
We’re going to put our hands up and say we rate most Aldi champagnes – its standard £12 NV veuve is a great everyday bottle – but we’re hugely impressed by this 2006 vintage champagne. It’s super briochey, with lots of expensive tasting notes, and is brilliantly smooth. Sam Caporn also recommended this particular bottle: “This is a genuine steal at this price. People can experiment without spending a fortune.”
The verdict: champagnes
We’ve picked the Tesco Finest vintage grand cru as our overall winner as it delivers in value for money as a vintage champagne that also tastes amazing, and has a really distinct, elegant style. If you want to splash out, the Roger Barnier l’oubilee solera is what we’d choose, thanks to its incredible complexity and downright deliciousness.