This page was updated in November 2020.
We Brits love a bottle of bubbly. Most of us won’t pay more than £7 on a bottle of wine but are happy to drop £20 or £30 if a bottle has the magic word champagne on the label. Our expert Henry Jeffreys has been taste-testing non-label champagnes to find the best and most budget-friendly ones out there.
Made by the Union Champagne co-op in Avize, this is a wine that really punches above its humble price. There’s lemon sherbet on the nose, a full texture – creamy, rich and round – but with a good fruity freshness and a long nutty finish. Again, the price tag is attractive. Buy from Tesco (£20).
This one is made for the Wine Society, a cooperative wine club by one of the region’s biggest cooperatives, Castelnau. There’s orange and lemon fruit on the palate, with savoury yeasty notes, then a touch of sweetness at the end. Delicious with most seafood, or if you’re serving alongside appetizers at a party, opt for cheese straws. Buy from The Wine Society (£22.00).
Tarlant Reserve NV
Up next, Tarlant which comes from a family estate based in the Vallée de la Marne. You’ll experience super fresh lemons on the nose that smells something a bit like buttery pastry – a sign this has been properly matured. In the mouth, it’s fresh, fruity and has even more of those creamy pastry notes. Subtle, elegant and very moreish. Buy from Vivino (£42.33).
Les Pionniers 2008
During tasting, I was slightly disappointed by the non-vintage version of Les Pionniers, however its big brother, from the stellar 2008 vintage, knocked my socks off! Made by one of grand names of champagne, Piper-Heidsieck, this is a serious meaty wine. Think of the tangy flavour of Marmite mixed with Seville oranges only a lot more delicious. Buy from the Co-op (£26.99).
Berry Bros. & Rudd Grand Cru NV
Made by one of the region’s smaller cooperatives, this champers is so fresh and chalky yet slightly lemony that it’ll feel like you’re drinking sparkling chablis. All the fruit is sourced from the Grand Cru village of Mailly so the grapes are absolutely top-notch – meaning very expensive. Available from Berry Bros. & Rudd (£32).
Barnaut Blanc de Noirs Grand Cru NV
Up next, we have a bottle from a small grower based in Bouzy, which was, and to some extent still is, known as red wine country. Blanc de noirs means it’s only made from dark grapes which you can taste in the vivid, orangey fruit moving into marmalade flavours that have a real smokiness on the finish. Tangy and delicious. Buy from Lea & Sandeman (£27.95).
The Wine Society’s Champagne Brut NV
This is all about big flavours: brown apples, nuts and spicy notes. If, like me, you love Bollinger champagne but can’t afford it, this is the wine for you. The producer, Alfred Gratien, is one of the few houses along with Bollinger that still age their wines in oak. Buy from The Wine Society (£34).
Herbert Beaufort Grand Cru Carte d’Or Brut NV
Herbert Beaufort are a small quality producer based in Bouzy and, as you’d expect from the red wine location, it has a high percentage of pinot noir in the blend. I loved the sheer intensity of fruit here, particularly that of oranges and limes. Full of zest, this is great fun, like champagne should be. Buy from M&S (£35 – available in cases of six).
Why is champagne so expensive?
Champagne is a costly wine to produce. The raw materials (that is, the grapes) are the most expensive in France. Most champagne houses don’t own nearly enough vineyards to provide for their needs so they have to buy in grapes from small growers. This demand pushes up the price.
The region Champagne has a climate very similar to southern England so these precious grapes don’t get terribly ripe. The resulting wines – low in alcohol and high in acidity – are not yet delicious but perfect for turning into sparkling wine.
The process where base metals are turned into sparkling gold involves blending the still wines, usually from different vintages and vineyards all over the region, into a house style. The resulting blend is then bottled with a mixture of wine, yeast and sugar, sealed, and left to ferment a second time. The result is those magic bubbles of carbon dioxide.
But this secondary fermentation also produces flavours of toast, nuts and yeast – the flavours we most associate with champagne. It’s left in this state for a minimum of 15 months (some are kept for decades like this). The yeast is then removed, the wine corked, and it is ready to sell, though the best wines are kept longer. All of this takes time and money.
What makes a bad champagne?
Disappointing champagnes – and there are many, sadly – will have been made from inferior grapes, matured for the minimum period and will result in a green acidity that has been merely masked with sugar. Wines like these are the reason many people think champagne is over-hyped. Those lovely toasty, bready notes take time to arrive and time is money. No wonder most of us just reach for one of the big names (though these can be a disappointment too).
How we tested champagne
We thought it would be interesting to try the best of the no-name champagnes. We sampled from supermarket own-labels made by giant cooperatives to hand-crafted champagnes made by small growers who use only their own grapes, unusual in Champagne. The wines tried ranged from £10.99 to £35 though the majority were in the £20-30 sweet spot.
Each champagne was tasted blind. Not surprisingly the more expensive bottles, on the whole, tasted better. The conclusion? Around £18 seems to be the minimum you should spend. Anything cheaper, you’d be much better going for something sparkling from Australia, New Zealand or Spain.
How to open champagne
When opening a bottle of fizz, remember it will behave far better and more predictably if it has been left to sit and chill for a few hours. Warmth and/or rough handling both make for an explosive cork situation and the likelihood of more mess and waste. Champagne should go into glasses, not onto ceilings.
- Make sure you have your glasses ready and within easy reach. Then, take your bottle and remove the foil; there should be a tag or perforation line to make this easy and neat.
- Once this is done, grip the neck of the bottle in one hand with your thumb over the top of the caged cork.
- From here on in, keep the bottle pointed away from yourself and anyone present, especially people’s faces – about a 45 degree angle is good.
- With your other hand, untwirl the cage fastening. Uncover your thumb, lift off the cage and replace your thumb over the cork.
- If you can feel the cork pushing to leave the bottle already, get a glass ready. Otherwise, with the bottle gripped in one hand, slowly pull up the cork with the other. It may be quite stiff at first – if so, alternate pulling and twisting motions – but as you go you’ll start to feel the pressure from within helping you out.
- Ease it up, always with your hand over the cork in a firm grip and, as you hear a pop, you know you’ve opened it.
As to pouring champagne, if everything went smoothly, you have a bottle at 45 degrees, with a touch of vapour wafting out. Let that excess gas escape for a few seconds, then in smooth, gentle motions, pour a small amount – just a splash – into each glass in turn.
Now return to the first glass and, tilting it also at around 45 degrees, top up slowly, until no more than two-thirds full.
If the champagne is very lively and the mousse is rising to the top of the glass despite a slow pour, just move onto the next one and come back to it. That mousse is the fizz escaping, and in excess, leaves you with a flat drink, and nobody wants that.
Don’t over-fill the glass, as it will warm up far faster there than in the bottle, and warm champagne is a shame.
If you have a bottle where the cork is straining to be free as soon as the cage is removed, then you will have to move fast.
Once the cork is out, it will be followed by froth, which should go straight into that readied glass. Keep pouring off the excess into your glasses one by one until it subsides, then top up as before.
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This review was last updated in November 2020. If you have any questions, suggestions for future reviews or spot anything that has changed in price or availability please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.