Fizz for £10. What’s not to like? Quite a lot in fact

On the same day we were remembering our war dead, the Daily Mail was busy celebrating this year’s crop of ultra-cheap Champagne offers in the run-up to Christmas.

In an attempt to win the hearts of consumers all over the UK, supermarkets such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda are slashing prices on their Champagnes, sometimes to as little as £10.

Now, shops like Lidl and Aldi have always sold their wine on the cheap, so finding a bottle of bubbly there for £12.99 doesn’t come as much of a surprise. But to see the big supermarkets cut their prices by more than 50 per cent is a little worrying.

Sure, we all like a good deal and if it’s at the expense of the big supermarkets’ bottom lines, is it really such a big deal?

Yes. But not for the reasons you might think.

The problem isn’t that the supermarkets are more than likely making a loss on these wines (and if they aren’t, they have simply squeezed the producer’s profit down to almost nothing). It’s that the big supermarkets are discounting these bottles so heavily to the point independent wine retailers are suffering because they’re unable to compete.

Even though the likes of Asda, Sainsbury’s and Tesco are selling Champagne brands like Dubois-Caron, and De Vallois at cut-rate prices rather than finer marques like Bollinger and Louis-Roederer, the damage it causes to small retailers is the same.

For the average consumer who simply wants to pop a bottle of Champagne for the lowest price possible, the name on the label is probably not of great importance.

Some will say those customers are unlikely to buy from a specialist wine merchant on the high street anyway, but the fact is many of these people *do* visit them and, if they’re used to seeing fizz selling for £10 at Asda, there is a good chance they’ll recoil when they see the real price for good Champagne.

Whether or not £25 or more for a bottle of Champagne is justified in any case is up for debate; the sticker value might reflect how much it costs to produce the wine but might also be set at a level to push it into the luxury bracket.

Nevertheless, selling Champers for a tenner still isn’t good for the market, particularly when it is for less than what other retailers pay for their bottles on the wholesale market. So while Tesco is sending their bottles out the door at a loss hoping to make up for it elsewhere in the Christmas rush, the high street specialty wine shop is losing sales – and customers – because they simply can’t afford to make a loss.

It also does no favours for merchants selling English sparkling wine, which are seldom sold at deep discounts due to the young market’s economics.

Faced with the choice between a £10 generic Champagne and a £25 bottle of Ridgeview, will the average person care if one is better than the other? They are likely to see a massive price different and simply go for the better deal. This not only hurts the shop selling English wine, but also the producers who make it.

In the interest of full disclosure, I visited my local Lidl recently and, during a moment of boredom in the interminable queue, I decided to buy one of its £12.99 Champagnes.

Did I feel proud getting such a good deal? No, not really. I bought it because I was curious to see if it was any good. It is currently in my cellar, sitting next to bottles of Bollinger and Dom Perignon, as well as English sparklers like Ridgeview and Breaky Bottom. It might have competed on price, but I doubt it will be able to compete on quality.

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.