25 DECEMBER 1964, Page 23

Consuming Interest

Merry Explosions

By LESLIE ADRIAN Ostentatious or not, it needs resolute self- indulgence to pay 30s. to 50s. a bottle for a wine that provokes a frivolous response rather than U..; serious (however mock) regard that appears about the brows of those confronted by a Château Whatsit glowing within a crystal decanter. Its solemn arrival silently at table is in marked contrast to the merry explosion of cork and froth that heralds even a Dom Perignon or a Ruinart.

So Champagne is fun (exporting must be great fun with such a product), even if from time to time it has to defend itself from degenerating into a joke at the expense of its devoted public. It fought gallantly twice in the British courts to protect its honour. And the full majesty of French law had to intervene between the cunning Swiss and the honest vignerons of Reims and Epernay to stop the exportation of still, white Champagnes for subsequent carbonation and sale as 'Champagne, bottled in Switzerland. The Swiss did the world a disservice, for in some years the still or faintly petillant wines from the Marne and the Montagne de Reims are a joy to taste without the brisk intervention of bubbles to con- fuse the nose and palate. Their clumsier cousin, the red Bouzy, is all right in his ordinary way, but old eyes can yet sparkle for the still wines of

Sillery, Cramant and Le Mesnil. (I have wondered if Anthony Powell's eminence grise, the string- pulling Sillery in the 'Music of Time' epic, did not acquire his name from being a hidden in- fluence for greatness like his eponym.) To understand the greatness requires study, as well as money. To drink the grandes marques of the vintage years as if they were BOBs jobbed up for debs to squirt at ceilings is a sin as well as a scandal. The anonymously manufactured Cham- pagnes are usually the product of the leftcver vins de taille, the tail-end of the pressings of the euvee. The must is Champagne, but is liable to be more acid and to have more tannin than the first juice from the press. The grande marque houses sell off this surplus to the numerous wineries that produce the so-called Buyer's Own Brands, which bear upon their labels some invented name or the name of the retailer or restaurateur.

For reasons that they cannot or will not explain the grandes marques are limited to twelve— Bollinger in Ay; Mobt et Chandon, Perrier-Jouet and Pol Roger in Epernay; Mumm, Krug, Lanson, Pommery, Roederer, Veuve Clicquot, Charles Heidsieck and Heidsieck Monopole in Reims. This illustrious short list omits such worthy names as Ruinart (Champagne's cldest house), Taittinger, Irroy and Mercier, not to mention Piper Heidsieck. But Champagne it full of little mysteries. For example, of the grandes marques three have no vineyards of their own, Po! Roger, Charles Heidsieck and Krug. Of this trio Krug is well-nigh unobtainable (Harvey's of Bristol have just listed some, 'a notable omission from past lists'), yet costs 5s. or 6s. more a Dottie for non-vintage than the rest. One restaurant in London offers the Krug 1955 (like Modt's Dom Perignon it declares fewer vintages) for £5, 'be- cause I could only get three bottles and I wanted to keep it in the list.'

Apart from the galaxy of labels, the vocanulary is confusing. But a general rule is that Brut, Dry, Extra Sec, Dry England and so on all mean much the same (i.e. that the 'liqueuring' of the wine after removal of the sediment has added between 1 and 2 per cent of syrup). Few sweet Cham- pagnes come to Britain now, a few houses like Mercier and Roederer producing a Rich version with a slightly higher proportion of syrup. There was once a description, `Goat Americain,' that was even sweeter. The dry-palated Yankees repudiated this, but the Champagne merchants had apparently intended it for South America.

This dosing of the wine can, for many people, mask its true quality. In the case of the BOBs that may be just as well. But if some generous and understanding friend gives you a bottle of the best for Christmas, don't waste it on a party or the side of a ship, sit and drink it thoughtfully— there's a lot of love and work gone into it.