The taxfreetravel guide to Champagne and duty-free ….
Champagne. There is really nothing quite like it. A glass of bubbly is the perfect way to mark any happy occasion in style whether it’s launching a cruise liner; toasting the newly married couple, or just celebrating having survived yet another hard week at work. Admit it. Who doesn’t experience a tiny thrill of pleasure as the cork slowly pops out of the bottle; the whiff of smoke curls up into the air, and the pale-gold wine foams into the tall, elegant flute?Now bubbly was once, and still is, the drink of the rich and privileged. Yet as living standards have risen worldwide, more and more people naturally want to know what all the fuss is about. Sales have continued to rise year on year to the extent that vintage Champagnes are now in short supply. The world quaffed a head-spinning 330 million bottles of Champagne in 2011. With production strictly confined to a small area of North Eastern France, it doesn’t take a genius to see that prices are only headed one way.Saving a penny or two is one of the main reasons why Champagne can be a great buy in duty-free. Moreover, most major international airport stores have a decent selection of Champagnes these days, which is something that can’t be said for their selection of still wines. You see Champagne and duty-free have something in common: they both revolve around brands. Luxury brands are both aspirational and reassuring, which is why you will find the likes of Dom Pérignon, Moët et Chandon and Veuve Clicquot at airports all over the world.
For their part, the big Champagne houses love to have a high-profile presence in duty-free shops, onboard luxury cruise lines and on the most prestigious airlines. The travellers, who shop in these stores, are the consumers the Champagne producers want to impress. As a result, many brands have introduced special gift presentations and exclusives wines for travel-retail, which you just won’t find on the High Street.
That’s all very well, but is Champagne really worth the price tag? Can’t sparkling wines from other parts of the world be equally good if not better? Well, we’re not about to run down the likes of Spanish cava, Italian prosecco or Portuguese espumante. These countries abound with excellent value for money sparklers, but the climate, soil, vines, long heritage and strict production regulations of the Champagne region ensure that Champagne really is a unique, hard-to-replicate drink of good quality.
If you are going to shell out on a bottle of Champers, it is perhaps worth knowing a little about the way Champagne is made and the main types of wine you will find on the shelf. So let’s start our Champagne primer by asking the simple question: what exactly is Champagne? All sparkling wines, including Champagnes, are basically wines, which have been blended together and then fermented for a second time by the addition of a mixture of sugar and yeast.Champagnes are left to ferment in the bottle rather than massive steel vats that are used in the production of many cheaper sparkling wines made elsewhere. The bottles are then gently and expertly shaken regularly so that the sediment settles in the neck of the bottle. Once sufficient carbon dioxide has built up inside, the bottle the neck of the bottle is frozen and a small amount of wine containing the impurities or ‘lees’ is removed.A little sugar mixed with brandy or ‘dosage’ to use its proper term is added to fill the bottles back up to the top and a cork stopper is inserted. Hey presto, you have Champagne. Champagnes vary considerably in terms of sweetness, but most quality Champagnes generally contain the least amount of sugar permitted; are dry in taste, and labelled as ‘Brut’.
Champagnes are classified into three main types. Blanc de blanc, the rarest of the trio, is made purely from white Chardonnay grapes, creating light, dry wines. Blanc de noirs, the most common, is made from the flesh of red or black grapes, while increasingly popular rosé Champagnes are made by adding some still red wine or by the traditional method of leaving the grape juice to macerate in their skins for a short period.
Most Champagnes are ‘non vintage’, being made up of wines from different years. Higher quality and more expensive ‘vintage’ Champagnes hail from specific years, which produced excellent wines and are aged a minimum of three years. Further up the price ladder are the prestige cuvées: top-of-the range wines made from grapes grown in the best vineyards, from the finest juice, and aged for many years.
Iconic prestige cuvées include the legendary Dom Pérignon Oenoteque, Perrier-Jouët’s La Belle Epoque with its exquisite flowery bottle; the rappers’ favourite Louis Roederer Cristal and Veuve Clicquot’s La Grande Dame. Expect to pay at least three times more for these wines than non-vintage bubblies, but rest assured these Champagnes, while varying considerably in terms of taste, are actually good value when you consider how much people spend on premier cru Bordeaux wines.
If your pockets aren’t that deep, there are bound to be cheaper vintage and even non-vintage Champagnes on sale that will tick all the right boxes. It’s about finding a house style that suits your palate. For instance, Lanson Champagnes tend to have lots of acidity, while higher-priced brands such as Bollinger and Krüg are much more full-bodied with lots of complex flavours. Also, don’t overlook high quality brands with a great pedigree, but which have a lower profile, such as Winston Churchill’s favourite bubbly Pol Roger, Taittinger or Laurent Perrier.
Packaging might also be a factor in your choice, especially if you are buying bubbly as a gift. For instance, Veuve Clicquot has introduced a number of stylish traveller cases for their Champagnes in recent years, while Nicolas Feuillatte, one of the biggest and youngest Champagne houses, prides itself on in its stylish modern look. Look out for their highly rated Palmes d’Or range. Meanwhile, Pommery has long been a patron of the arts and its fun, quarter-sized POP bottles, which showcase the work of modern artists, make colourful gifts.
As we’ve said, most major airports these days will stock a solid range of Champagnes, but European airports tend lead the way in this product category ahead of both European and Asian airports, where Champagne has less of a loyal following. Unsurprisingly, Paris Charles de Gaulle airport’s Pure & Rare outlets have an excellent selection, including some exclusive vintage cuvées. World Duty Free’s UK airport shops have a permanent multi-bottle price promotion on a rotating choice of brands, which can offer travellers savings of up to 20% over High Street prices.
At London Heathrow Terminals 5 and T3 look for the newly opened Wine Collection • Rare & Vintage stores for a wider selection of higher quality Champagnes. Over on the Continent Brussels airport also gets a thumbs up for its Epicure outlet, which even stocks the wonderfully bling, but terribly pricey Champagne Armand de Brignac (see http://www.skyshops.be/en/products/103/wine-spirits/106/champagne), along with other high-end names such as James Bond’s favourite Bollinger, and two highly-prized, family-owned brands: Billecart Salmon and Castellane. In Asia King Power’s shops at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi, and Sky Connection’s Free Duty stores at Hong Kong international also deserve an honourable mention, as does DFS at Singapore Changi.
We hope that this brief tax-free guide to Champagne has given you enough confidence to buy a bottle the next time you are on your travels. There really isn’t a bad time to receive a bottle of bubbly. As French emperor Napoleon once put it so memorably: “In victory you deserve Champagne. In defeat, you need it!”