Waitrose champagne buyer Dee Blackstock MW reveals her passion for the business of fizz - and the secret to serving the great celebration drink.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t enjoy champagne. Before becoming a buyer, I lived in Hong Kong where entertainment largely revolved around cocktail parties. My husband and I lived an almost colonial life. Champagne was the only sparkling wine available, so that’s what we drank.
We returned to the UK in the 1980s and I joined a fine wine company, realising that I could turn my love of champagne into a profession. I joined Waitrose in 1991, and passed my Master of Wine exam in 1992. I buy Waitrose’s champagne, as well as its sparkling and New Zealand wine, and I might sample up to 100 wines in a day.
Great champagne is unforgettable: I can still recall a wine tour to France when I tasted a Clos de Goisses 1982 that seemed infused with the flavour of flambéed bananas. That trip lit a fuse that never went out. I love so many champagnes: Bollinger, Charles Heidsieck, Le Mesnil, Louis Roederer and Pol Roger are all excellent.
Dee's tips for champagne lovers
- Over-chilling champagne dulls the fruit. Keep it at the right temperature – 8-9 °C, but 10°C for rosés.
- Pour champagne correctly. Never tip the glass. Line up your glasses and pour a small amount in each one before going back and topping up.
- Don’t use detergent when washing your champagne glasses. It kills the bubbles. Just use plenty of very hot water.
I always serve champagne to friends, pairing it with everything from pink lamb and duck to chocolate and cheese. Blanc de blancs is perfect for Stilton, demi-sec is lovely with fruitbased puddings and rosé champagne is sensational with chocolate.
My champagne hero is the late Daniel Thibault, chef de cave (cellar master) of Charles Heidsieck and Piper-Heidsieck. Visiting his cellars was like taking a magical mystery tour: we’d discover wonderful vintages.
Women do well in my industry. Generally our taste buds are more finely tuned than men’s because we tend to do most of the cooking, tasting and balancing flavours. And there’s a history of powerful women in champagne. Take Lily Bollinger, who ran Bollinger for 30 years. She famously said she only drank champagne when she was happy or sad, alone or in company, when she was hungry and when she wasn’t, but otherwise she wouldn’t touch it – unless she was thirsty. Now there’s a woman after my own heart.
Know your champagne...
- Non-vintage is a maker’s signature champagne, which is blended with base wines from different vintages to maintain a consistent house style and taste.
- Vintage champagne is made from one specific year and only when the conditions are spot-on.
- Cuvées are the different styles of champagne a producer makes. A house can have several cuvées.
- Blanc de blancs champagne is produced by using only the Chardonnay grape.
- Blanc de noirs is made just from one or both of the two red grape varieties, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
- Demi-sec is a champagne that contains higher levels of sugar.