Brilliant bubbles and decent red

At a recent importer’s lunch featuring an undeniably great wine – Roederer Cristal Champagne – I think I provoked a bit of both incomprehension and irritation amongst one or two of my neighbours when I asserted  (confessed?) that I never had spent, and never would spend, the money required to buy good champagne.

The standard non-vintage that we also drank before and over lunch tasted costs over R600. (At this rarefied level do I need to be accurate, and go in search of the price list? If you can contemplate R600 you can afford R650, so why quibble?.) I think it is very fine wine, surely the best of the standard champagnes that I know – I really like the elegant, dry Roederer style, packed with fine concentration and maintaining its finesse and not becoming flabby when it warms up in the glass. It’s one of life’s sad truths that sparkling wine served at a perfect degree of chill will warm up in the glass, unless you’re very greedy, and too many of them will reveal the extra bit of sweetness in the dosage that’s needed to hold it together. Roederer doesn’t do that, it stays just great while one lingers over it.

But R600? It’s probably a matter of taste, but when I think of the great German riesling I could buy for that money, or the white Burgundy, or the excellent red wine, well, I’m more than delighted when others pay for the bottle and give me a glassful or a sip, but no – champagne remains for me the most overpriced wine in the world (apart from top-priced Bordeaux, which is seldom much better than its near rivals at a fraction of the price, in my admittedly limited experience).

Of course, if I were rich, I’d happily order a case or two. And if I were very rich, I’d also order a case of Cristal – the wine made originally for a Tsar of Russia, but now available to anyone with money. (The tsar and his corrupt cronies liked it as sweet as a dessert wine, but the recipe changed when the English upper classes became more important customers: the champenois have never hesitated when it came to choosing between integrity and profit, of course.) Cristal – we had the youthful 2002 – is a wonderful wine. At a spitting distance from R2500 it should be.

This is a champagne that is, compared to Dom Perignon which is produced in mind-boggling quantities, comparatively rare. Apparently there’s now a bit more of it available in South Africa than heretofore. Whether this is out of the goodness of the producer’s heart, or because bling-loving rappers are going off it, or rich Americans are finding it prudent to appear a little more restrained in their conspicuous consumption, I’m not sure. No doubt, it’ll do quite well in Johannesburg, but I’m surprised they even bothered to put on this little lunch in Cape Town, where the rich tend to be pretty mean, while pretending their lack of glitz is because they’re more classy than the nouveaux-riches from up north.

So I unhesitatingly recommend that, if you’re rich, you buy Roederer in vast amounts. I’d appreciate a sip.

Tonight, on a slightly lower and much redder level, I finished what was left of a bottle of Chapoutier Belleruche Côtes-du-Rhône 2005. It had lasted absolutely fine since last night. This is a good example of one of my favourite styles of wine, in the whole world, and I’d much much much rather have six bottles of it than one bottle of Roederer non-vintage champagne, and, even more so, much rather have two cases of it than one bottle of Cristal. (The current 2006 is R100 from the Wine Cellar in Cape Town. Also imported to SA at around this price are Côtes-du-Rhône from Perrin and La Vieille Ferme.) I’m happy and proud to say that Belleruche is, as it were, my current house wine, and I know it well. I do just wish it was screwcapped, as I had a corked bottle recently, which is upsetting.

As there wasn’t all that much of it to go with my pasta and tomato sauce (plus lots of garlic and capers, a bit of chili and a handsome admixture of anchovies), and wanting to more or less stick with the theme, I opened a bottle of youthful Lammershoek Syrah, also 2005. More expensive, more “serious” than the Belleruche, with a gorgeous depth of fruit to it, and  finer tannins than the French wine – but also much more oak, which made it less harmonious and a less happy food accompaniment, and to me at least generally less satisfactory. When, oh when, will our ambitious winemakers learn that less (wood) can be more? As the euro spirals out of reach, I really wish it would be soon….

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