EPERNAY - A pre-Christmas dash to Champagne was, shall we say, a revelation. Fabulous fun too. Immediately ‘dragged down’ to the depths of Moët & Chandon’s cellars in the cold chalk below the city of Epernay, reality set in with a long line of glasses – nice, big ‘tulips’, not stingy, narrow flûtes. Benoît Gouez, Moët’s impressive chef de caves, has flair, training and a real love of his subject, the perfect blend, or ‘assemblage’ as one says in Champagne, required to create great vintage bubbly.

He faced a challenge in that very hot year of 2003, making a Grand Vintage with a very high proportion of Pinot Meunier that has turned into a blond beauty. Then we moved on to the perfectly-pitched 2002, the gentle, easy 1999 and the stupendous 1998, which surprised us all with its fabulous character, notes of toasted brioche and black fruit opulence. I found acacia honey on the nose of the 1996, great concentration on the palate and a finish of lavender honey, while there were cloves and orange peel in the full, vinous 1995.

The ‘bonnes bouches’ were magnums of the 1959 and 1961, expertly disgorged as we watched – and salivated. Can you imagine a Champagne redolent of caramel, black truffles, earth, wet fur and mushrooms? I can assure you the 1959 was magnificent – drink with a dish of hare! The 1961 is, quite simply, one of the Champagnes of my (long) life, its only rival the 1921. Coffee, nougatine, walnuts, biscuits, white flowers and peaches – in short, a complex, liquid miracle.