The wine buff: Top 10 New Year's Eve bubbles
I'm not a New Year's Eve person. Is that a terrible thing to say? Over the years, I've celebrated in so many different ways - from parties in my youth in friends' houses while their unsuspecting parents were away (now more commonly referred to as a 'gaff') to black-tie masked balls, small, intimate dinners with friends, and sitting at home watching the telly, snuggled up beside my lovely husband.
You've probably guessed that the last two are by far my favourite ways to pass the time until the clock strikes 12 on December 31. But there is one thing that I do love about New Year's Eve, and that's the opportunity to pop the cork on a bottle of Champagne or interesting bubbly. This, of course, is the wonderful advantage of being in a small group because it's the perfect chance to taste something unusual or to splash out on a slightly more expensive bottle.
In September this year, I had the opportunity to visit Charles Heidsieck in Champagne, and it was particularly special because the harvest was in full swing. After a number of bad years, and a harvest decimated by frost and hail in 2017, 2018 had turned out to be an exceptional year. The sun shone at the right time, grapes were not only abundant but of top quality, and everyone was smiling.
Trucks snaked along the narrow roads through villages, loaded with crates of hand-picked grapes, and larger tanks carried the must (freshly pressed grape juice) to the Champagne houses. Rather than the usual ghostly experience of driving through French villages (I always wonder where all the people are), everyone seemed to be out and about, working. It was visceral. You could get the real sense of how important the harvest is. There is one crop a year, and the stakes are sky high.
In Champagne, just about everyone works in the industry in some way or another. You will be familiar with the big names like Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and Bollinger. Charles Heidsieck, in Reims, is one of the smaller houses. More low-key, it is a bit of an insider favourite. It is always one of the Champagnes at the top of my list, so if it sounds familiar, yes, I have recommended it in the past. It has quite a colourful history. Founded in 1851 by the original "Champagne Charlie", when 30-year-old Charles Heidsieck skipped over to New York for a visit in 1852, just a year after he'd launched his brand, he made such an impression that he was deemed worthy of the moniker. An 'influencer' before his time, his love of lavish entertaining, hunting, and all-round bonhomie meant that he was the talk and toast of the town, and everyone in high society wanted to drink his Champagne.
All was fine and dandy until America plunged into civil war 10 years later, and with that went his fortune. In an effort to secure payment from creditors, he took to travelling the country to besiege them in person, but his behaviour was considered suspicious and, soon, he was under lock and key, arrested as a French spy. It was a considerable international incident and, after much diplomatic s'il vous plaît-ing, he was repatriated to la belle France, with barely a centime to his name and a queue of impatient debtors to contend with. But as luck would have it, an inconsequential piece of land he picked up during his sojourn in America was quickly climbing the property ladder, from the Colorado outback to the shiny new city of Denver. The dollars rolled in, and Champagne Charlie was back in business.
Placing less focus on partying this time round, he turned out to be quite the savvy businessman. With a nose that was turning out to be as good for property investment as it was for fine Champagne, he bought 8km of the chalk cellars, or crayères, that lie 30m beneath the streets of Reims - the D4 of Champagne ageing - where his bottles were stored and matured in the perfectly cool conditions enjoyed by a few of the top Champagne houses.
He was also one of the first to identify the benefit of establishing long-term contracts for buying fruit from small vineyard holders, in order to increase the amount of Champagne he could produce under his house name. While this might sound like an unusual thing to do, it is the way most Champagne houses operate now. Basically, the business is broken down into the big guys, who own vineyards but also buy most of their fruit from the small growers; the co-operatives, who are a collective of growers who work together and make Champagne under their own labels as well as sell to the big guys; and the little guys, the growers on their own, who make their own Champagne under their own label. If that sounds a bit complicated, yes, it is. But if you think about the dairy industry in Ireland, and how farmers sell their milk to the big co-ops, it starts to make a bit of sense.
What made it real for me was when I had the chance to visit a small winery, André Boever. It is pretty inauspicious-looking. As we turned into a tarmacked yard, I could see a truck, loaded with crates of grapes, parked in front of a large garage. But the magic was inside. An old press in a large wooden basket, called a Coquard, was being used to extract juice from the freshly picked grapes. Three guys were hard at work managing the press and, as a few bottles started to be popped for tasting, we were joined by more people who were happy to help finish a bottle before the bubbles went flat. The cloudy juice that was flowing out of the press in front of us would eventually end up in a bottle of Charles Heidsieck.
To visit Champagne is to get a sense of the enormous amount of work that goes into every bottle. And I'm sure a load of hopes and prayers too. It was so wonderful to share that moment with the farmers and winemakers when the harvest was abundant; and, for me, toasting in the new year with a glass of bubbly is to celebrate the bounty and friendships that we are all so lucky to have.
À votre santé, and a very happy new year to you all.
La Gioiosa Collezione Oro Prosecco DOCG
€13.99, 11.5pc, from Aldi
Coming in an impressive-looking bottle, prosecco fans will love this fully sparkling fizz with its floral aromas and flavours of ripe pear, apple and a touch of honeysuckle.
Veuve Monsigny Fireworks Champagne NV
€22.99, 12pc, from Aldi
Made by Stéphane and Virginie Philizot, this Champagne is aged for 48 months in the bottle before it is disgorged, giving it a round flavour of ripe, slightly cooked apples with crisp citrus and toasty notes.
Martivey Champagne Brut NV
€29.99, 12pc, from Spar, Eurospar, Londis, Mace
With a floral nose, there are fresh notes of lemon and slightly bruised apple on this Champagne as well as some nice, rich pastry notes and a touch of clove on the palate.
Granzamy Brut NV Champagne
€29.95 (reduced from €34.95), 12pc, from O'Briens
Made by a small, family-run Champagne house in the Marne Valley, this vegan, 100pc Pinot Meunier has soft flavours of spice, apples and a touch of savoury cherry, with a rich toastiness that will appeal to Bollinger fans.
Domaine Zinck Brut Crémant d'Alsace Rosé NV
€33, 12pc, from Martin's Off-Licence and siyps.com
A Crémant d'Alsace is made in the same traditional method as Champagne, and this 100pc Pinot Noir rosé has crisp flavours of cherry, raspberry and wild strawberries.
Tesco Finest Premier Cru Champagne
€35, 12.5pc, from Tesco
Delivering plenty of classic, toasty aromas, this award-winning Champagne is a sophisticated blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from top-rated Premier and Grand Cru vineyards, and it's vegan-friendly too.
Herbert Beaufort Carte d'Or Grand Cru Champagne
€50, 12pc, from Marks & Spencer
A grower Champagne from the Grand Cru village of Bouzy, this is a blend of 90pc Pinot Noir and 10pc Chardonnay from old vines of 45 years to 95 years, which bring creamy concentration to this toasty bottle of fizz.
Delamotte Brut Champagne NV
€48-€55, 12pc, from Mitchell & Son, Grapevine, Deveney's, Thomas Woodberry's
A classy Champagne that is associated with the rare and expensive Salon Champagne. The Grand Cru Chardonnay that is used in this blend brings a minerality to the rounder flavours of apple, pear and a touch of toast.
Llopart Original 1887 Brut Nature Gran Reserva
€65-€70, 11.5pc, from The Corkscrew, Blackrock Cellar
A really complex, unusual Cava, this is based on the first Llopart Cava produced in 1887, and aged for 50 months, which develops into a creamy texture with evolved flavours of dried apricots, nuts, lime, hay, wax and a chalky saline finish.
Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve NV
€65-€70, 12pc, from Green Man Wines, 64 Wine, Terroirs, Baggot Street Wines, Blackrock Cellar, Mitchell & Son, Fallon & Byrne, Donnybrook Fair, Redmonds, Sweeneys, Bradleys, World Wide Wines, O'Briens
A really elegant Champagne, this has a mature and nutty nose, with deliciously French flavours of peach, nectarine, frangipane and brioche, with fine, persistent bubbles.