Drink of the season: Champagne. Photo: James Brickwood
It's tempting to observe that champagne has never been so affordable for Australians. When we look at the deals that are being done by retailers, especially the major supermarkets, there seem to be some great bargains. Aldi is the cheapest I've seen, with its exclusive brand Monsigny non-vintage white and rose advertised at $29.99 and occasionally $24.99.
Coles (Vintage Cellars) and Woolworths (Dan Murphy's and BWS), Red Bottle and other retail groups all have their exclusive brands which can be great value. In recent years, favourable exchange rates are one reason the availability of imported wines has soared, but we're also now in the age of direct importing, where supermarkets and other retailers bring in their own stocks and bypass the middlemen, saving a lot of money. Parallel importing also has an effect.
I, for one, drink more ''everyday'' champagne than ever, facilitated by the great prices Vintage Cellars do on the various Pierre Gimonnet wines, and others, notably Cattier NV (currently three bottles for $99) and Drappier Signature NV Blanc de Blancs (under $49) have provided good-value drinking. Pierre Gimonnet Gastronome Premier Cru 2007 or 2004 Vintage at $44.99 is a great buy, and one of the great innovations from both the big retailers in recent times is that you can have the ''case price'' on six bottles; you don't have to buy a dozen to get the deal.
The best bargain I've found lately is Lanson Gold Label Vintage 2002 at $49.99 by the six-pack at Dan Murphy's: a wonderfully complex champagne from a stand-out vintage which is now becoming rare on the shelves. I note their latest catalogue lists this at ''under $65 a bottle'', which is rather vague. Their prices do fluctuate without warning, but my advice is to demand the $49.99 six-bottle deal. And stock up on the great '02s if you can. And '04 is also a very fine vintage, but I wouldn't buy '03 or '05 without having a taste first.
Best value buys:
2002 Lanson Gold Label Brut Vintage, $50-$55 at Dan Murphy's.
Roasted nuts and lots of nougat, toasty and mellow, the palate deep and concentrated; the acidity beautifully balanced. A powerful, serious champagne. Fabulous drinking at the price. 95/100
2007 Pierre Gimonnet Cuvee Paradoxe Premier Cru, $55.50 at Vintage Cellars.
Toasty bread, brioche bouquet revealing generous time on yeast lees. Bracing acidity asserts itself on entry, then the back-palate is awash with toasty-bready yeasty flavours which are soft and pillowy, and the overall impression is very dry indeed. A trace of grip on the back-palate. A serious wine, good fruit uncluttered by excessive dosage. 95/100
NV Pierre Gimonnet Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs, Vintage Cellars.
No recent tasting note but consistently good value.
NV Piper-Heidsieck Brut, $50 widely.
Nutty, toasty-bread bouquet with appealing yeasty development and a touch of complexity. The acidity is pleasantly mouth-watering, yet it's quite ample in the mouth. Good clean finish that leaves you wanting more. 90/100
NV Robert Moncuit Brut Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru, $60 at Red Bottle stores and Porters Liquor Roseville.
Smoky, toasty-bready developed bouquet with plenty of cracked-yeast character. Fresh and lively in the mouth, with plenty of tang and nerve. It finishes clean and lip-smackingly dry, long and linear. 93/100
NV Cuperly Cuvee Prestige Brut Grand Cru, $60 at Red Bottle and Porter's Liquor Roseville.
Lots of singed toast, cracked yeast and roasted hazelnut, nougat characters, plus a definite hint of almond/marzipan. The palate is full and smooth, balanced and generous, with harmony and roundness, a tickle of sweetness adding richness to the middle before a clean, appetising finish. 93/100
NV Drappier Signature Brut Blanc de Blancs, $48.88 at Vintage Cellars.
Strong cracked-yeast aromas on a complex, mellow, mature bouquet. Soft, rounded, light to medium weight with a nice touch of richness, then a dry, slightly grippy finish which lingers long. 91/100
2002 Pol Roger Vintage Brut, $110 widely.
Strongly toasty bouquet, loaded with character and pinoty brassiness. Full in the mouth and yet refined. The wine has delicacy as well as power. The depth on the mid-palate belies its finesse. There's a lot of age and pinot generosity. The balance and beautifully clean finish demand another sip, and another … 97/100
NV Vazart-Coquart Brut Reserve Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs, $75-$80 Importer: Heart & Soil.
Toasty-bread and almond-meal bouquet, complex and inviting. The palate is fairly dry and tangy with abundant acidity, and a richness that billows out on the back-palate and leaves a most satisfying aftertaste. Liqueur is subtly handled. Balanced, clean and dry on the finish. 94/100
No recent tasting notes but reliably great quality:
NV Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve, $100
Last rated 95/100
NV Louis Roederer Brut Premier, $70-$80
Last rated 94/100
Great luxury champagnes:
2002 Pol Roger Blanc de Blancs, $115 96/100
2004 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs, $350 97/100
2004 Dom Perignon Vintage Brut, $280 96/100
2002 Piper-Heidsieck Rare Millesime, $230 96/100
NV Krug Grand Cuvee, $220-$250 96/100
Special mentions: buy with confidence anything from Pol Roger or Billecart-Salmon. And Bollinger Special Cuvee NV is better today than I can recall ever tasting it.