“Forgive me if I’m leading you into bad habits by encouraging you to start drinking at 4 o’clock in the afternoon,” says Richard Bampfield MW as he began a tasting of three sparkling wines hosted by the storied wine club 67 Pall Mall. In the 1800s, 67 allowed members to store their wines at the club rather than at their home (too dangerous) and this club has room for over 40,000 bottles. As part of St James legendary ‘Clubland’, this former Hambros Bank remains a destination for wine lovers of fat purse and sound palate. Kitty-corner from Berry Bros & Rudd and conveniently near Clarence House, it’s also in the right neighbourhood if you need a cigar or to get your Rolex repaired. For members and guests there are the opulent Lutyens Room, The Marlborough Room, The Wine Library (not a lending one, sadly) and The Vault. In short, it’s a hallowed place of wine, money, style and history because we know those things don’t always hang out together.
Here, they do. So it seemed only fitting that 67 Pall Mall is the first serious tasting I’ve had this summer, albeit virtually. Zoom tastings rarely have a pedigree like this one: MW Richard Bampfield, Nick Baker and three bottles of sparkling wines and champagnes from Baker’s The Finest Bubble (est 2014), a place so serious that it will deliver bottles to Londoners (within the M25) within 2 hours. Like a sparkling Judgement of Paris, which of these three bottles would be the most beautiful?
In short, it’s a hallowed place of wine, money, style and history because we know those things don’t always hang out together
In truth, this tasting explored key questions posed by Bampfield, “Can we tell the difference between a blanc de blancs – a wine made from white grapes – and a blanc de noirs – a wine made from black grapes? Does a rosé champagne genuinely taste different to white? Or are we drinking with our eyes? And finally how do English sparkling wines and champagne really differ?” Widely respected throughout the world as a wine educator and overall guru, he is a former Chairman of the Association of Wine Educators and in 2009 was the European Champagne Ambassador. Noted for his collection of champagnes, Baker has lengthy time in the wine trade too, and can often be seen on Instagram committing sabrage which Bampfield also does on Insta with great aplomb. But both Bampfield and Baker are practical people. Baker even suggests that you open a bottle of sparkling wine – champagne or English sparkling – an hour before you drink it.
When the Finest Bubble hessian bag arrived ship-shape, brought by a deliveryman, I swear, in livery and wearing a fez, I was terribly overexcited. First up, we tasted a Pierre Gimonnet 2014 (thefinestbubble.com single bottle £42). Designed to be served by the glass, it’s lighter and more delicious but earns it’s moniker “Champagne of a feast”. It has the complexity of a vintage champagne and a light youthful quality others can’t muster. (Vintage champagne can often have tastes unexpected to the average drinker.) This Gimonnet is light on fizz, light on acidity and tastes of fruity pastry, like “Maison Bertaux in the morning” as a fellow taster put it. An English sparkler big and bold enough to be tasted with two considerable champagnes, Rathfinny 2015 is the first blanc de noirs of this truly exceptional English vineyard. I’ve been a fan since 2018 when I first Rathfinny at their Somerset House launch. Roses, wild strawberry and dark cherry tastes means the grapes were picked at their ripest: this beauty has a lot of body (thefinestbubble, single bottle £36).
Champagne Charlie came next. “No champagne house is more respected than Charles Heidsieck at the moment,” was the quote and their Rosé Reserve did not disappoint. There are other Heidsiecks, Charles is arguably the smallest and the best. Established in 1851, Charles was the nephew of the owner of Piper-Heidsieck – and he was “Champagne Charlie”, the man who introduced champagne to America. Charles Heidsieck champagnes are often served at notorious events (Scott served a bottle at Christmas dinner during his tragic expedition to Antarctica). The taste? Momma! Lush wild strawberries and gingerbread top notes, followed by deep fruit, raspberry, blackberry and succulent peach. (thefinestbubble, one bottle £60).
Tasting – okay, we’re drinking – with experts like Bampfield and Baker brings out the convivial nature of sparkling wine, even over Zoom. They enjoy tasting and drinking and they’re playful about it. Baker encourages us to try different glassware – not just the tasting glasses but also red wine glasses, flutes, coupes and others. Bampfield’s erudition means what you have in your mouth is transformed by his guidance – a sip of wine is both a lesson and a delight. If you’re going to taste, this is the way to do it. And, best of all, you can recreate the experience. 67 Pall Mall has this very tasting session available for viewing on YouTube. Each bottle is a little life, unique and lovely, and these three are absolutely worth opening, smelling, gazing at lovingly. Even if you’re a nervous guzzler, you can begin to taste the harmonics of seriously good sparkling wines. C