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Does Champagne still sparkle in London’s on-trade?

How does London’s extensive restaurant and bar scene perform when it comes to their Champagne offer? Douglas Blyde investigates. 

“I like to start off my day with a glass of Champagne… I like to wind it up with a glass of Champagne, too. To be frank, I also like a glass or two in between” – words uttered by historical gastronome, Fernand Point.

However, with a world of choice when it comes to quality traditional method sparkling wine, are London’s restaurant-goers still dazzled by fizz from France’s most northerly wine region in an epoch where a new “Bar du Champagne” in Covent Garden is commended for having an opening list featuring just eight renditions out of over 50 bins? And do the glossy grande marques continue to purvey what is wanted?

Quality “interlopers”

France accounts for over €2.1 billion of Champagne sales says Felipe Carvallo, head of London Sales for Flint Wines, where, remarkably perhaps, “the UK is roughly a quarter of that.”

However, when faced with increasing costs across the board, London’s on-trade customers are exploring quality traditional method alternatives at entry level, “particularly Crémant by the glass.” The latter is evidenced in the marketing of “House of Bollinger Crémant”, Langlois.

Meanwhile, English wine generally is proving “one of the most relevant and exciting developments.” In particular, “serious restaurants and sommeliers are actively engaging with English sparkling, not at the expense of Champagne but rather growing the level of interest in the sparkling wine category.”

He continues: “a few years ago everyone was serving the same two or three English brands but the picture is more nuanced now. We are fortunate to work with Hundred Hills in Oxfordshire who are leading the pack in quality and can absolutely go toe-to-toe with some of the best Champagnes.”

Charles Carron Brown, manager and sommelier at Aulis by Simon Rogan, has gone so far as to create an all-English sparkling selection. “This isn’t Aulis London saying we don’t like Champagne,” he underlines, adding, “it’s really awesome however to showcase the vineyards on our doorstep.” Carron Brown nurtures direct relationships with producers in a way which the Champenois, on another continent, cannot match, “which enables us to sell their story and
wines as best we can.” The reception by guests? “100% positive.”

Contrary to the aphorism “a rising tide lifts all boats” implied by Carvallo, Ruchira Neotia, a wine communicator, and consultant to restaurant clients including Darjeeling Express, believes English sparkling wines are “elbowing Champagne out in the by the glass realm” along with the ascent of Franciacorta.

“Not only did it receive a major marketing boost” she says of the latter, “it is championed by Italian sommeliers in top jobs across the British hospitality industry. You need only look at the top 50 somms in the UK to see the vast majority happen to be Italian.”

Nick Baker, founder of online merchant and events firm, The Finest Bubble, looks to gold medallists emblazoned with the bandera de Italia from the annual CSWWC (Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Competition). “In Trentino, one of the top producers, Ferrari, hired the former chef de cave of Charles Heidsieck Champagne. Their sparkling wines were already very good, so a high flying Champenois will only raise quality.”

Growers versus Grand Marques

Alessia Ferrarello, wine director of NoMad hotel, believes sommeliers “are deeply, warmly passionate” about “grower Champagnes”, defined by Baker as “Champagne from some 16,000 growers produced by the same estate that owns the vineyards.”

These are identified “by the initials RM (Récoltant-Manipulant).” Ferrarello believes the very best grower Champagnes should be seen as wines in their own right. “Champagne is still seen as a ‘celebratory drink’ and one where the grands marques still fare much better than the independent, artisanal farmers.”

She adds: “I believe I can speak for the vast majority of sommeliers when I say it is such an incredibly exciting region, full of ferment from young generations of winemakers who have in the last ten years revolutionised their parents’ wineries and approach to vine growing.”

Sandia Chang, co-owner of Kitchen Table, has observed an increased curiosity from guests about artisanal producers, “just as they like to know where the beef is from, or the farm that the rhubarb is grown.”

Carvallo is bullish. “The strong interest in grower Champagnes is reflected in the fact two most recent additions to our range, Françoise Bedel and Robert Moncuit, have been growers. Often a grand marque will appeal to someone who wants the safety and reliability of a respected brand where as someone going for a grower Champagne is after the discovery of something less well-known.”

Neotia believes growers “trump the grand marques for trend credits and crowd preference” in “hip” neighbourhood restaurants across “Hackney/ Shoreditch et al.” And, although relatively diminutive in terms of overall production, growers are causing the grand marques to reappraise their ranges.

“A number have created expressions bearing hallmarks of a vintage whilst maintaining a balancing act with reserve wines. e.g. Roederer 200 series. The one issue with grower Champagnes is that they are often vintage offerings and unlike the grand marques – released quite early. As such they also tend to be consumed far too early.”

Alex Hunt MW, Purchasing Director for Berkmann, highlights a category at the centre of the Venn diagram. “Consider the category of smaller houses – a strength of Berkmann’s portfolio given our partnership with EPC, Drappier, and Jacquesson. This category can offer consumers both a recognised brand and terroir-specific styles.”

Overall, Giuseppe d’Aniello, head of wine of the London Edition, and ambassador for RSRV Champagne, enjoys “the healthy and productive contrast” offered by a mosaic of operators. “In a fine dining environment where the guest is more keen to try the unusual bottle, the unknown producer works well. Talking about partnership for a bigger operation, it is important to work with bigger names.”

Organic agenda

While producers such as Telmont are making headlines with their “beyond organic” approach, manifesting in the cuvée, Reserve de La Terre, entailing the complete cessation of herbicides, synthetic pesticides, synthetic fungicides, and synthetic fertilisers across all sites from which they draw its fruit, Champagne as a whole possesses just 5% of vineyards certified organic according to Telmont’s president, Ludovico du Plessis.

“Champagne is probably the only wine region where the brand is more important than the wine itself,” says d’Aniello, whose guests, he noted, show more enthusiasm towards explicitly still organically produced wines. Neotia agrees.

“Champagne has done a decent job in marketing the ‘sustainably made’  mantra to move thinking away from a wholly ‘organic’ leaning.”

“We don’t really see that having organic credentials in Champagne is a driver of growth or that it makes a big impact on the end consumer,” says Carvallo, although he notes “it’s hard to justify producing a premium artisan product and to get a sommelier or customer to take you seriously while still using chemicals like glyphosate in your viticulture.”

Baker believes the topic is bigger than organic certification. “Organic, biodynamic, sustainable farming, B Corp, and HEV (High Environmental Value) are all becoming increasingly important as it gives the consumer some reassurance the larger or smaller producer with that accreditation is taking significant steps to reduce its impact on the planet. In times when the human population is having too much impact on the planet with its pollution then we will almost certainly see more consumers being more careful where they spend their money.”

Burgeoning prices

d’Aniello recalls the post-pandemic landscape. “After COVID, the market was unstable. We had big issues to get allocations. Working very close to our historical supplier, I personally asked for a specific allocation of the best-selling Champagne. A realistic forecast was done for each trimester, and we were able to fix the price for the full year.” He also implemented a “bonus” on sales. “Such as a free bottle per 10 purchased which adjusted our GP and wastage and reduced our cost price.”

Fast forward to the present day, and Neotia observes “a can of worms”. She says: “Champagne prices have been steadily going up. Some grower champagnes have achieved cult status and have essentially moved out of circulation and into ‘investment’ cellars. That said, there are producers like Olivier Collin or Ulysse Collin who insist on their champagnes being severely limited for the collector circuit and instead be released to trade. You do have to pitch for


Preservation systems such as Greg Lambrecht’s Coravin has enabled sommeliers to offer entire cellars by the glass. Although he deems it “irrelevant” for entry-level Champagnes, d’Aniello applies Coravin to a trolley of Dom Pérignon and Krug. Meanwhile, it allowed Chang to introduce a grower Champagne pairing. “It has always been a dream of mine. Guests have an opportunity to try many producers during their meal with us.” Ferrarello is clearly exhilarated.

“Who would have thought you could pour Selosse by the glass?” Emer Landgraf, head sommelier of The Clove Club notes gas can be a big expense, “but it always outweighs the cost of wastage.” Neotia still rates “a simple Bouchon”, however, which “can perfectly preserve a bottle up to half full for almost a week.” She elaborates: “Champagne already has all the elements needed for longevity – acid, structure, complexity. Besides,  the Coravin system for Champagne is quite expensive (at present) and not one to be wasted on a lot of NVs. A better way to stem wastage is by using house champagnes also in cocktails.”

However, rather than have a chest-beating array of options by the glass, Baker places more relevance on rotation, “so there is always something new for regulars.”

Could do better

Landgraf believes the consumer has for too long been “removed from the viticulture process” of Champagne. Aniello urges the CIVC (Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne) to work harder to edify sommeliers, including “more masterclasses where they explain the difference in terroir, production and winemaking.”

Chang says the large houses should pull focus on the fact that Champagne is not just for high rollers, celebratory events, or a mere aperitif, “but that is a wonderful food wine.” Neotia, who pairs Ulysse Collin Les Maillons Blancs de Noirs with Bengali-style goat curry at Darjeeling Express, agrees it is “a bona-fide food partner” and campaigns “for better education on the breadth and power of Champagne and its might when it comes to standing up to the most difficult of foods.”

Another bugbear is glassware. “Many a fantastic Champagne has been murdered in the flute,” says Neotia. “A lot of people complaining about Champagne being too astringent are drinking it in the wrong glass!” Baker wholeheartedly concurs: “restaurants should throw away the hideous flute shapes as they destroy Champagne which is as much about aromatics as taste.”

On the subject of ruining flavour, Baker considers clear glass bottles which are formed from non-recycled materials, a problem. “Champagne as a collective could ban the clear bottle. A fault called light strike can devastate Champagne simply by exposure to light, sunlight or artificial light within as little as 45 minutes.”

The greatest woe of all, though, concerns what Neotia describes as “shocking markups” particularly evident in London’s restaurants. “Simple maths will show that with a two times mark-up on Champagne the restaurant would still make more money overall from the sales than they would from a three times bottle of an alternative.” She adds: “Champagne lovers are being forced away from Champagne… I implore friends in the trade to reconsider their mark-ups and
drive better enjoyment of the drink.” However, even in spite of an orbit of issues, Landgraf says “Champagne, for the foreseeable future, will remain the king of the bubble world…”

Ten London restaurants celebrating Champagne

Authentique: the Tufnell Park wine and vinyl bar, merchant, and épicerie majors on Brut Nature from growers including Cédric Bouchard, Elise Bougy, Jacques Lassaigne, and Vouette et Sorbée, alongside “green” cassoulet and seasonal raclette.

Berner’s Tavern: a quintet of sommeliers convey Champagne trolleys in this elaborate room, powered by an inventory of Leclerc Briant, Frederic Savart, Frank Pascal, and magnums of Henriot.

Cabotte: though best known for Burgundy, the City staple’s sparkling selection ranges from Extra-Brut Intense from AR Lenoble, to top year Salon Le Mesnil close to retail, via layered Gosset 12 ans de Cave Minima rosé.

The Clove Club: regionally ordered Champagnes range from generous Heri-Hodie Extra Brut from Roger Coulon by the glass, to Guillaume S. Selosse’s Au Dessus du Gros Mont Blanc de Blancs at cellar temperature alongside Isaac McHale’s detailed dishes.

The Guards Bar and Lounge at Raffles at The OWO: overseen by Champagne afficionado, Dion Wai, the selection at this storied venue includes Roederer 244 on house pour.

Hide: guests draw rarities like Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Francaises, Henri Giraud PR 19-90, and Joseph Perrier Cuvée Royale 1975 from Hide’s own cellar, or cast a net to the full arsenal from the owner’s wine showroom, Hedonism.

Kitchen Table: Sandia Chang playlists a grower Champagne flight to the menu of partner in business and life, James Knappett, including Résonance Extra Brut (Marie Courtin), and even a Ratafia (Rata du René, Lamblot).

NoMad: organised by style, the selection at this grand, former magistrate’s court includes Cuvée Nomad Billecart Salmon by the magnum, with Dom Pérignon 2013 by the glass.

Planque: only growers, ranging from Laherte Frères’s Ultradition, to l’Etonnant Monsieur Victor MK13 (Pierre Péters) feature at the cult Haggerston favourite where glassware is taken seriously. Disgorgement dates are given where possible.

Stem and Stem: this newcomer City wine bar and florist depicts the fascination for Champagne of head chef/owner, Edward Boarland, including Marie Courtin’s Efflorescence, and Henri Giraud Argonne 2013.

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