Champagne versus sparkling wine: the Bothy Vineyard challenge

The Bothy Vineyard (www.bothy-vineyard.co.uk) is Oxford’s nearest vineyard. Run with imagination and dedication by Richard and Sian Liwicki, it produces award-winning white, rosé and red wines. New from Bothy this year is their sparkling brut rosé, Halcyon Days. But this piece is not a plug for Bothy but an opportunity to write about a remarkable tasting last month.

Bothy vineyard

The Bothy Vineyard

Richard is, to put it politely, a bit of a sceptic about champagne. He reckons that there are sparkling wines in the market which are not only preferred by tasters but considerably better value than the real stuff. So, he challenged a group of the Bothy’s friends (we all put in a few days’ work a year in the vineyard in return for a bottle or two and some of Sian’s top-notch cooking) to produce their best bottle of champagne or sparkling wine for a taste-off.

Thinking about this over the dinner that followed we decided that this was one of the best possible ploys to get people to open good stuff for you. Tell your host (preferably one with a known passion for wine ‘x’) that you’re not entirely convinced of its virtues and challenge him or her to prove you wrong…

So, twelve of us gathered at the Bothy with our bottles. None of us are professional tasters but amongst our number were members of champagne families, wine historians, sommeliers, wine stewards, winemakers, restaurateurs and enthusiastic drinkers.

In fact we had seventeen wines to taste; seven champagnes and ten other sparklers. All wines were tasted blind, every wine was scored out of 20 and discussed and marked as champagne / not champagne on our scoresheet before, first, the grand reveal, and second a bowl of scrummy pasta dressed with truffles.

champagne tasting Dec 2014

The line-up

Nobody picked all the champagnes. The Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 2007 fooled most of us, whilst the Wine Society’s Blind Spot from Tasmania (the own label result of their determination to prevent the most interesting Australian grapes being swallowed by big conglomerates) also did damage to those hoping for a perfect score. It was the Blind Spot – just – which scooped the evening’s prize – half a point ahead of the runner-up. And, for British readers, it’s £13.95 rather than the £30 plus for the premium champagnes (and Nyetimber).

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Blind Spot – courtesy of Sarah Ahmed, Wine Detective (http://thewinedetective.co.uk/)

Runner up was a champagne from the tiny Lilbert-Fils in Cramant. Their Blanc de Blancs (£48 from the Wine Society) is an old vine wine from Grand Cru sites that’s still entirely hand-riddled. My notes stress its finesse, its delicate nose of orange blossom and tea and its subtle flavour. A classic champagne, highly rated and enjoying ‘best-kept secret’ status for some critics. See www.champagne-lilbert.com to learn more. Fabrice Roualet’s Brut Grand Reserve (courtesy of a family member) was another wine that did well. It comes from Premier Cru vineyards in the Marne valley between Champillon and Dizy. See www.champagne-roualet.fr.

A personal favourite of mine – aside from the Lilbert and the Blind Spot – was the Laherté Frères Brut Tradition (now known as Ultratradition).Based just south of Epernay, this is another family firm with a strong environmental tradition (including some biodynamic wines). See www.champagne-laherte.com. Berry Bros compare this wine (£26 per bottle) to Mohammed Ali in his prime: ‘all vinous weight, yet light on its feet’. A good description: my notes stressed the richness of the fruit (greengage and lemon first but moving to mango) and the length of the finish. The more time in the glass the better it tasted. See www.bbr.com/products-19859.

What was also apparent was the richness of France’s sparkling wine tradition. It’s worth checking out St Péray Mousseux (from Yapp’s, www.yapp.co.uk) or the Antech Blanquette de Limoux (another from the Wine Society, www.thewinesociety.com) – both unusual and interesting wines which scored well overall.

Richard’s scores indicated (he says) that Champagnes got 5.5 votes whilst non-Champagnes got 11.5. He feels vindicated in his view of champagne. But since 12 people had one vote each there is still room for doubt. Where did those extra five votes spring from? Perhaps we need another tasting next year when we’ve all replenished our stocks…

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