The clock is ticking down to the time when we can socialise again and I’m planning to push the boat out and invite a few friends over for a socially distanced garden party as soon as the rules allow.
According to the Bank of England, we have billions of pounds worth of pandemic-induced savings sloshing around, hence predictions of a mini spending boom as the “coiled spring” of the UK economy rebounds.
So what should I serve — champagne, English fizz or just a crémant? Spend too much, and it’s a bit showy. Yet spend too little or pick the wrong stuff and you’ll be stripping out your guests’ sinuses.
If you offer me a glass of Krug, Cristal or Dom Pérignon at a party, I’ll be there like a ferret up a trouser leg. However, bottles of vintage champers from the great houses are hundreds of pounds a pop. To spend that kind of money to celebrate the end of lockdown, no matter how much we’ve saved, is naff.
Many high-end brands are marketing hype for those with super yachts and more money than personality. Why would LVMH buy 50 per cent of Jay-Z’s Armand de Brignac brand (known as “Ace of Spades” after its visible-at-50-paces logo) unless there was a market for expensive celebrity-led luxury?
One metallic coloured bottle will set you back over £230. And if you want the rosé? You won’t get much change from £450. By the way, that’s the price per bottle after you’ve secured a case discount. I’m sure it’s lovely, but it’s just not worth the money.
Sadly, when it comes to wine notes and reviews, I am more bluff than buff — but I know what I like.
With the well-known non-vintage brands, you can’t go wrong with a bit of Bolly or Moët (pronounced with a t, unless you’re in an Essex nightclub in which case it’s “mow-way” because French grammar doesn’t matter there). Personally, I rather like non-vintage Veuve Cliquot. Its bubbles are small and plentiful; the biscuity aroma always a delight. The usual price is £40 a bottle and £46 for the rosé version — but even that’s a little steep for an impromptu session.
Of course, these bigger brands can often be found on sale. After Christmas I was alerted to the double discount deal at Tesco. I picked up the last case of the orange-labelled icon for £22 a bottle. Deal! And if you pop on to waitrosecellar.com now you’ll find Moët at just £28 a bottle. Fine . . . but can you do any better if you go English?
Years ago, if you’d suggested drinking English sparkling wine most people would tell you that you’d lost control of your senses. Too acidic, they’d say. But with French champagne houses snapping up land on the chalk hills of Kent, Sussex and beyond, perhaps there’s something in this?
Recently I interviewed the winemakers Susanna Busi Jacobsohn and Douglas Jacobsohn about their sparkling English wine “Busi Jacobsohn”. We did a live tasting at 5.45am on my Talk Radio show (well, it’s lunchtime somewhere in the world).
They produce a white and a limited-edition rosé. If you are going to spend £38 or £39 respectively on a bottle, this knocks any standard French champagne out of the park. The nose is wonderful, with a hint of biscuit. And the taste? Oh so dry, but with a fruity burst. It’s as good as a champagne that’s more than twice the price.
Fellow English houses Nyetimber and Balfour have wonderful offerings too. The latter even has some perfectly drinkable delights available at just below the £20 a bottle mark.
However, I’m prepared to push the boat out a little further at my party, so I’m looking for notable quality at below £25 a bottle. Hello, Chapel Down. Their whites are lovely but the two versions of their standard pink bubbles are the ones to note. The English Rose NV is perfectly drinkable, but their Rosé Brut is absolutely sensational. Currently on offer at Waitrose for £21 a bottle and on the Chapel Down website at £144 for a case of six, at this price point, it is hands down and glasses out the best pink fizz on the market.
If readers have any better suggestions, I’d like to hear them. Under lockdown, we’ve been experimenting with some local sparkling wines too. Wyken Moonshine from Suffolk is £22 a bottle and sips down nicely. One of my tennis club members has a smallholding producing just 500 bottles a year of “Jarrow House”. At a smidgen over £20 a bottle with grapes grown just outside Colchester, who knew such a quaffable bottle came from just down the road?
Anyway, after a couple of glasses, your guests will be more interested in whether you have a range of tasty snacks to devour. I am of the old school, and favour a bowl of Twiglets and some hot sausages slathered in honey and grainy mustard. To shake things up, you could try the latest TikTok sensation — table nachos.
Cover your table in silver foil. Tip out bags of tortilla chips. Splat heaps of fresh guacamole, dollops of soured cream and tomato salsa. Liberally sprinkle sliced red and green jalapeños. Spoon over a hot fried minced beef concoction, and top with a river of hot, molten cheese. When we’ve all had our jabs, sharing snack filth like this with friends will be something worth celebrating — and best of all, there’s no washing up.
We don’t yet know when the date of this garden party might be, but when the time comes, I’ll be stacking my bottles of English sparkling in the wine fridge (an excellent lockdown purchase) and chilling them to 8 degrees Celsius. Then I’ll put the champagne flutes in the freezer, and at the appointed time, plunge a chilled bottle into an ice bucket creating that wonderful splosh and clatter as the ice cubes buffet into each other.
There’s nothing better to build the excitement than hearing the clinking bucket handles and tinkle of the glasses as they’re transported outside, condensation dripping down the ice bucket, almost in anticipation. And the sound of corks popping outside will be a joyful serenade to the end of lockdown.
The chances are, the first proper get-together is likely to be a bit of a session. Once a few bottles have been quaffed, should one still be pouring the good stuff or serve something a bit less bank balance busting?
Some may advocate the supermarket own-brand champagnes. Stop! Generally speaking, they are swill — but there is an alternative. If you pop to Aldi, you’ll find an English Lyme Block fizz at £14.99 a bottle (it’s zesty and fresh) and if you’re lucky they’ll have a Crémant du Jura at just £8.49. Both are pretty good, but three bottles in, your guests will think they’re amazing.
This party is going to be epic, but if I start to serve you the cheap supermarket bottles of champagne that have been lying around in the bottom of the fridge, you’ll know it’s time to go home.
James Max is a radio presenter and property expert. The views expressed are personal. Twitter: