Champagne can be an anytime drink!

Champagne is a wine.

Despite it having been around for as long as any other wine, there is still the old mindset that it is meant to be drunk only for celebratory occasions or as an aperitif - or poured over a pyramid of champagne glasses at weddings.

The incentive to re-visit this subject came after a tasting of two cuvees from the same house, Champagne Pol Roger, a few evenings ago.

The first was the "white foil" Non-Vintage as an aperitif, followed by the Brut 2000 vintage at a Chinese seafood dinner.

Pol Roger Brut Reserve NV (White Foil)

Cepage: Pinot Noir 33 per cent, Chardonnay 33 per cent, Pinot Meunier 33 per cent.

Tasting notes: good, lively bubbles, fresh, lightly fruity, citrusy and floral bouquet.

Medium dry, good ripe fruit underneath with crisp acidity and mixed flavours of lime, lemons and a tinge of peaches. Very fresh, very attractive.

There was an attractive crispiness and liveliness to the taste that was very refreshing.

Pol Roger Brut Vintage 2002

Cepage: Pinot Noir 60 per cent, Chardonnay 40 per cent

Notes: Light straw-yellow, very lively bubbles, lovely bouquet, very fresh and very lightly citrusy; firmer, more incisive flavours, family resemblance to the non-vintage Brut, but more concentrated fruit flavours.

Very crisp concentrated flavours of ripe citrusy fruit, lemon and tangerines, but more limey than orangey.

Very classy flavours, even elegant. Rich without being sweet. Aristocratic.

Pol Roger Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill 1990

(Drunk October 2006.) The grapes are sourced exclusively from Grands Crus Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the exact blend is a closely guarded family secret.

Sir Winston Churchill said: "My tastes are simple. I am easily satisfied with the best."

A youthful, medium-yellow colour; nose at first very mature, but lightened up with airing in the glass.

Early features of maturity on nose and palate also cleared up with airing, very fresh, very rich and creamy. Still a long way from full maturity.

Champagne Pol Roger became highly popular in post-war Britain because it was Sir Winston's favourite champagne, reinforced by his friendship with French resistance heroine Odette Pol Roger, whom he had met in 1944 in Paris at a British Embassy luncheon given by the British ambassador to celebrate Armistice Day.

Apart from the cuvees exemplified here, Pol Roger produces a beautiful Blanc de Blancs Vintage, a lovely Rose Vintage, a Pure Extra Brut NV and a Pol Roger Rich Non-Vintage.

The Sir Winston Churchill deluxe cuvee was produced as a memorial to Sir Winston.

The first vintage was the 1975, released in 1984 and only in magnum. I was in London in October that year, and, learning of the release of this cuvee, quickly made my way to Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly, where I happily bought a case of six.

There is still one magnum from that case sitting securely in the cellar!

I had begun this week's column decrying the persistence of the view of champagne as a celebratory drink, and an expensive one at that, hence not for regular consumption on non-celebratory occasions.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

And the proof of the pudding is in the drinking in this case.

The classic pairing is that of champagne and oysters.

We do consume enough oysters in tropical Singapore, but we have lots of other kinds of local shellfish for which champagne would also be perfect.

That is exactly what we drank last night at dinner in our favourite Chinese seafood restaurant, with local shellfish, cockles and bamboo clams.

Pol Roger vintage 2000 was the perfect accompaniment.

The current thirst for Burgundian Pinot Noir, together with recently decreased production in Burgundy following four successive hail storms during the growing season, has driven prices for Burgundy, particularly red Burgundy, to dizzy heights, almost beyond reasonable reach.

Time to look at other sources of Pinot Noir, and there's no better place than in the Central Otago district of New Zealand's South Island. Here is one worthy of readers' attention.

Pinot Noir 2003, Carrick, Bannockburn, Central Otago, New Zealand

Medium dark-red, with brownish tinge. Very attractive Pinot Noir nose, almost Burgundian, perhaps a bit too heavy, not subtle enough.

Very good, almost Burgundian Pinot flavours, red berries, in particular strawberries; very good ripeness, quite satisfactory minerality, rather opaque and thicker in texture, denser than a Burgundian but a very good alternative nonetheless.

Good length and clean follow-through. Very satisfying drink, and good substitute for Burgundian Pinot, for which it could be easily mistaken.

Stephen Tanzer's International Wine Cellar rates this 90/100.

Interestingly enough, most of the reviews of this wine describe it as rather muscular, contrary to my experience with this particular bottle.

I expect that those were reviews of the wine soon after release, whereas the wine we drank was already 12 years old.

Interesting. Can this wine age further? On the basis of this bottle, I would expect it to continue ageing and maturing well for another five to seven years.

Carrick was founded by Steve Green in 1993, when the first vineyard was planted with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc.

The vineyards are organically farmed, the grapes fermented in open fermenters using wild yeasts.

Aged in French oak barrels, 20 per cent new for 12 months before bottling. On the basis of this bottle, it would be safe to continue buying and building up a small collection. Incidentally, price on purchase in 2008 was NZ$43.50 (S$45). You cannot go wrong at that price.

You could not get a decent Burgundian Pinot Noir at that price, not any more.

Lastly, I wish to pay a personal and heartfelt tribute to a great wine-maker and friend, Anne-Claude Leflaive of Domaine Leflaive in Puligny-Montrachet, who passed away on April 5.

As I am involved with the distribution of the Domaine's wines, I just want to record here her contribution not only to her own Domaine, but to the world of wine, through her singularly-determined championship of biodynamic farming of vineyards.

She joined the Domaine in 1991, while her father Vincent was still hale and hearty and in charge.

She began introducing biodynamic farming to the Domaine's vineyards, beginning with the vineyard of Premier Cru Clavoillon, under her father's watchful eye.

I recall tasting in the cellars of the Domaine in one vintage in the early 90s, when she had the two differently-farmed Clavoillons, one biodynamic and the other farmed as usual.

She had us taste from the two tanks, and I can remember having absolutely no doubt that there was a difference.

The biodynamically-farmed Clavoillon had more precision, more hidden energy, and was crisper and purer.

She smiled triumphantly when I explained my interpretation of the differences.

Her father gave her full rein after that and the whole estate gradually adopted biodynamic farming.

She was not content to pay attention only to her Domaine's vineyards. She founded a school of biodynamic farming, and as she said in an e-mail to me: "I hope you will be the first student!"

Sadly, as I could neither speak nor read French, I had to opt out.

Through her energy, commitment and grace, she made the world of wine a better place.

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