I wrote a while ago about so-called ‘fantastic deals’ from major retailers and how some are a good buy and others not. This week has brought to my attention a case in point. As I run my own wine events business I am constantly scouring the shelves of the nation’s retailers for vinous bargains and two spring forth, both Champagnes, both from the ‘top two’ wine supermarkets, Waitrose and Marks and Spencer. Yes, I’m on about Oudinot again, apparently it has changed slightly and is now made form 100% Chardonnay. This is actually a good thing as the house that make it, Chateau Malakoff, have some of the biggest and best Chardonnay holdings in the whole Champagne region. Oudinot is on offer at less than £12 a bottle when you buy 6.
At waitrose, a mere £9.99 gets you a bottle of their own label champagne, usually £15. This being one of the few champagnes I had not tried and knowing Waitrose’s justifiably high reputation for wine, I thought ‘That must be worth a go’ with a mind to use it in a blind Champagne tasting to try and catch people out. In a frenzy of excitement I got the bottle home (it had come from the chiller) and cracked it open, Tuesday afternoon was suddenly looking up! Not for long. I have not had a more disappointing fizz for a long time. There’s no fault with it other than it is dull, uninteresting, over-acidic, under-fruited, bland, bog-standard fizz. Here we have the reason that so many people say ‘I don’t like Champagne, it’s too tart’ or ‘too acidic’ or ‘not worth it’. This wine is all of the above. One of my key principles is that Champagne is great value, delivering far more for your money than many still wines and in the case of Oudinot that’s true. Sadly, for Waitrose own label that’s not so.
You might think it’s unusual to have a sort of ‘anti-wine of the week’ but having recently been in Champagne picking the harvest, I think it is worth pointing out what’s hot and what’s not. I was visiting a House in Champillon, a premier Cru Village outside Epernay, called Maison Autreau. Their Premier Cru available mail order only, is one of the best value wines in the UK. The house is still run by the same family who have been there for over 200 years, Monsieur Autreau himself is 75 and still working hard. All the grapes are from Premier Cru vineyards owned by the family. So what has this got to do with Waitrose Champagne?
Well, we were there with a group of folks who we had brought over for the harvest, from all over the world. Having done the harvesting and visited a family firm, we decided to show them some razzamatazz and take them to a Grande Marque House, in this case Piper Heidsieck (they of the red labelled bottle). Now P&C Heidseick (that’s Piper and Charles) appears at the bottom of Waitrose’s label as the wine maker, hence the link. P&C buy in most of the grapes they use to make their own wines, so almost every grape in Waitrose’s wine will have been bought in. Where at Autreau and Chateau Malakoff, Oudinot’s producers, you will see an office, some cellars and some wine making equipment, at Piper Heidsieck, you get neon lights, a museum, an enormous marbled plastered pile of a building and best of all, an hilarious ghost-trainesque tour of their cellars. The killer blow on the ghost train was not the waxwork of Charlie Heidsieck himself lurking in an alcove, nor even the incredibly pompous narrative about Champagne making narrated in ringing Shakespearean tones by someone who sounded very much like Robert Powell, no no, the piece de la Resistance was the bubble machine at the end, right after the wax recreation of a scene from Casablanca. I kid you not.
So, Waitrose’s champagne is made by a bunch of Charlies who spend more money on their marble than on their wine quality. Marks’ fizz comes from people who are so focused on their product they have no public visits and some of the best vineyards in the region. I’ll leave you to decide where your money is best spent.