Champagne: Do vintages matter? Yes.

On Saturday morning this Easter weekend I was in a particular state of undress when a rapid and startling knock came at my front door. Who in the world could that be, I asked myself?

Then it occurred to me. It was a courier. And he probably had a case of wine for me. Within a fraction of a second I was climbing into my trousers inside-out and through the wrong leg all at once.

The case of wine I was expecting had bottles of Dom Perignon 2002 in it, so I was fairly keen to make sure the courier didn’t drive away.

For those in the know, the 2002 vintage for Moet & Chandon’s luxury cuvee is one of its best in recent years. The Wine Advocate, the publication founded by Robert Parker, the influential American wine critic, rated the 2002 Dom Perignon 96 points out of 100, calling it the “haute couture of the Champagne world-all about elegance, texture and attention to detail.”

I have had one bottle of it in my cellar for nearly a year now and was expecting to add to my collection with this shipment.

Except for one small thing. My case contained the 2003 vintage instead.

Unfortunately, the company that sold me the wine screwed up somewhere. My invoice said 2002, but they gave me 2003. Cue my sad face.

Call this a developed-world problem if you like, but it is still annoying.

First of all, the 2002 is – at least in this moment – the better wine and therefore has a higher intrinsic value. Rated 96 points by the best critics in the business (and Jancis Robinson gave it 20 out of 20), it outshines the 2003, which received 93-94 points, depending whose review you read. Now, such a score is no meagre result, and many would argue is closer enough to 96 not to be worth quibbling about, but a higher rating is still a higher rating.

Second, I was buying the 2002 not just for myself, but also for a friend who had tried it in the past and wanted more. He didn’t ask for 2003.

Third, vintages are important to wine consumers. If I decided I was going to order a cse of Chateau Latour 2005 and instead a bottle of the vineyard’s 2006 turned up at my door, I would be sorely disappointed. One vintage is known for its power and concentration, for being a potential “vintage of the century,” while the other, the 2006, is simply an also-ran known for being ‘all right’ but certainly nothing more.

When I phoned the company to alert them to the fact, I was given all sorts of reason why I received the 2003 and not the 2002 as I’d expected. But I wasn’t given a profuse apology or a promise that they’d make it right. In fact they dared to say the 2003 would be just as great as the 2002. Sorry? But that wasn’t what I ordered.

The fact is the 2002 vintage in Champagne is considered to be one of the greats, the sort not seen since 1996. Th2 Dom Perignon 2002 contains more chardonnay than pinot noir, while in a typical year the blend is almost exactly 50/50. It has a smoky, toasty nose in the way a Burgundy might and has a nutty flavour and a minerality that gives it a good zing.

For the 2003, the climatic conditions were quite extreme and has led many critics to suggest the wines are less good as a result. The winter was particularly cold – unseasonably cold – and then the summer was hot. Extremely hot. The year 2003 was one of a famous – and lethal – heatwave that hit Northern Europe and France in particular. Champagne was not spared. The crop was perfectly ripe, something that is only seen on rare occasions in the region.

The result is a wine that is no doubt a very good one, but given that other wines from the 2003 Champagne vintage are quite forward and precocious, the concern is that this one just isn’t as great as the 2002.

In fact, Antonio Galloni of the Wine Advocate described the 2003 as “one of the most unusual vintages of Dom Perignon I have ever tasted, going back to 1952.” He described the torrid heat, the fact the harvest was the earliest on record at the time, and the fact the firm’s chef de cave, Richard Geoffroy, has a penchant for risk-taking. Galloni describes 2003 as not having the seductiveness of 2000 or the power of 2002.

While Galloni says the wine is atypically rich and powerful, with the usual Dom Perignon finesse, it is also divisive and will require patience for its potentially iconic status to emerge.

Photo credit: Matt Banks.

Wine and chocolate pairing – yes, it can be done

Whenever a chocolate-related holiday comes along, the internet is awash with suggestions that we should try to pair our chocolate treats with a nice glass of wine.

It’s a noble suggestion. We eat a lot of chocolate in this country. Various studies in the past decade have placed the UK at or near the top of per-capita chocolate consumption in the Europe, showing each person devours anywhere from 9 kg or more per annum.

That’s a lot for a country that isn’t even famous for its chocolate (although some of the most famous chocolate manufacturers in the world, such as Cadbury’s and Fry’s, are British).

And since it comes as no surprise that the British enjoy their alcohol, particularly wine, matching these two favourite vices is only natural.

Except for one problem. Chocolate and wine aren’t the easiest things to pair – at least it doesn’t seem that way. Dry wine is out of the question here unless a very dark, bitter chocolate is being paired with a full-bodied Bordeaux or something equally structured. Alternatively, a full-bodied Shiraz that has spicy, peppery aromas, can make a nice match for the brooding flavours of dark chocolate.

So what goes well with chocolate? Not your typical wines, I’m afraid, so you’re going to have to go off the beaten path here and try something new.

Vins doux naturels

These wines are made by adding – yes adding – alcohol to stop the fermentation process, meaning there is more residual sugar in them and, in turn, more natural grape flavours. Typically these wines are known as Maury or Banyuls and come from the south of France and most often made from the grenache grape. Around the 16% alcohol region, they are close to Port but not as heavy and certainly a lot cheaper because they are not nearly as well-known or popular.

One to try:

Waitrose Seriously Plummy Grande Réserve NV Maury, Roussillon, South of France (£9.77, Waitrose)

Moscatel

Another route to try is moscatel with its rich flavours and notes of citrus and marmalade. This is a dessert wine that will be heavy on the sweetness and have all sorts of floral aromas.

One to try:

Torres Floralis Moscatel Oro (£8.89, Ocado)

Moscato

Another option here is to go for the slightly fizzy moscato wine. The right one will have a good balance of creaminess and fruit flavours to match the chocolate.

One to try:

Brown Brothers Moscato (£6.49, Tesco)

Sherry and Madeira

Creamy sherries and sweet Madeira could be a good match for chocolate, particularly rich and sweet chocolate cakes and puddings. A Palo Cortado sherry is somewhere between the rich oloroso and the crispness of an amontillado, so it won’t be too sweet or too dry. However, it might be worth going all-out for a Pedro Ximenez if you have a sweeter tooth.

One to try:

Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference 12-Year-Old Pedro Ximenez (£7.99, Sainsbury’s)

Other options:

In addition to the above, you might also want to try an Amarone, one of the richest and biggest of the Italian wines, which is made by pressing grapes that have been dried to the point of becoming raisins. Malbec and zinfandel, too, can be good friends of chocolate for their full flavours and fruit content, although be sure not to choose to sweet a chocolate to go with them.

Look to Argentina

It was Steven Spurrier, the wine critic, who once said, “If some higher being were to tell me my years with Old World wine had to end, it would be to South America that I would turn.”

I have to confess I find it difficult to refute his statement. So much great wine is coming out of South America right now and it is only getting better as time goes by.

Sure, great wines are made in other areas known as the New World, but they couldn’t match the variety that South America can. Australia has only a few specific regions where great wine can be made. Same with New Zealand. The USA produces some great wines, but quality comes at a high price. And while I’m a big fan of the better Canadian wines from the Okanagan region, it is only a tiny production area compared to what can be found in South America.

Argentinian wine, in particular, is a compelling choice right now. While the malbec grape has dominated its red wine production for years and torrontes is known as its signature white grape, there is more going on than these two stalwarts.

The big thing in Argentina right now – as has been passed on by word of mouth and also is evident on wine retailers’ stock lists – are blends. No more are we just seeing malbec and a small scattering of other grape varietals. The cabernet-merlot blends and even shiraz-malbecs are hitting the market in droves.

Grapes like carmenere are being blended with cabernet sauvignon, while white grapes like chardonnay, viognier and marsanne are coming together to produce some racy wines.

While I’m not completely sold on much of the wine coming out of South America – much of it can be undrinkable plonk – I’m finding it a safer bet when I am presented with an unknown, and often limited, wine list form which to choose the evening’s drink.

Winemakers like Tabali in Chile and Altos Las Hormigas in Argentina are among many producers doing great things at a price that might be impossible for any other New World wineies to match.