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Last Updated: Friday, 31 December 2004, 04:55 GMT
Festive fizz for British drinkers
This New Year, supermarkets and wine merchants in Britain are facing a real challenge to keep the nation in top-quality champagne because the British are drinking fizz at record rates.

Our Paris correspondent Caroline Wyatt has been to investigate what one of France's top champagne houses is doing about this potential crisis.

A glass of Bollinger
Britain is France's largest export market for champagne

It's been yet another vintage year for champagne sales in Britain - more than 20 million bottles so far this year.

By the end of Christmas and New Year, it's believed we'll have drunk another 10 million bottles, a record figure for the festive season.

But this New Year's Eve, if you haven't stocked up already you may have to search harder than usual for the one you want, because at this rate many of the best bubblies may already have disappeared from the shelves.

In the Champagne region of France, in the small town of Ay, one of France's top champagne houses Bollinger says it's delighted, if slightly bemused, by Britain's ever-growing enthusiasm for something only the French can produce.

Even the advent of other, cheaper fizzy wines from the New World has failed to dent champagne sales.

Ghislain de Montgolfier, head of Bollinger, says that Britain has always been France's biggest champagne export market, but that demand this year has been enormous, especially for high-quality brands.

"It's a kind of family story between you and us," he smiles.

Exclusive image

"With Bollinger, the only problem I can't solve is that there is always a danger that one might run out. We agree to sell a certain amount to each export market at the beginning of the year, but because we have a huge demand around the world, it can be difficult to predict.

" And of course, if the wine is not ready to be drunk or taken from the cellar, we won't sell it."

One of the key things that give Bollinger its particular flavour is the way it's blended with pinot noir grapes, usually used in red wine, and also the way the wine used for the blend is aged in oak casks.

The casks themselves come from Burgundy, and must be 4 years old, and have contained chardonnay wine before they are used at Bollinger.

The wine itself is left in the dark cellars to mature for several years before being put on the market.

Preparing casks for champagne
Bollinger casks must previously have contained Chardonnay

The house makes just 2 million bottles a year, or less than one per cent of France's total champagne production.

Hence its exclusive image, which customers in new markets such as China seem equally keen to buy into.

But what is it about champagne in general that so appeals to us all?

Is it the taste, or simply marketing, the canny way in which the French protected the name and the region to distinguish its product from the many other fizzy wines on the market?

"It's the bubbles!" says Monsieur de Montgolfier, a man whom it's fair to say has devoted a lifetime to seeking the perfect glass of champagne.

"It's the taste and the bubbles that make it far easier to drink. After that, it's the image because when people open a bottle of champagne, they feel relaxed.

Expanding vineyards

" It's something with which to celebrate something good, a love affair or just the festive season, so the mere fact of opening a bottle of champagne and the sigh as the cork comes out means you feel relaxed just by opening the bottle."

And he does indeed demonstrate how to open the bottle so smoothly that instead of the usual pop and fizz, the cork sighs gently as it's released.

Ghislain de Montgolfier
Monsieur de Montgolfier believes bubbles are the key to success

Curiously, Bollinger is even better known as a brand in Britain than it is in France.

It's long been made by appointment to the British royal family, and has featured often in James Bond films as the spy's favourite smooth seduction method.

But more recently, it was a certain British television programme which had an Absolutely Fabulous effect on sales, though Edina and Patsy's liberal use and abuse of 'Bolly' came as a surprise to the company itself, which had not been asked.

Now, though, they are delighted with its impact.

"We never asked for them to choose Bolly, but we have to thank them," says Mr de Montgolfier.

In the coming years, the family-run company says it's going to have to expand by buying more vineyards in the region.

This in order to try to help quench the growing British thirst for bubbles, estimated to grow to 40 million bottles a year by 2007.

Absolutely fabulous news...

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