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Champagne Tasting at Leiths Cookery School

Published 23 May 2010

Leiths School of Food and Wine is well known and well respected. Foodies both professional and amateur flock to the West London cookery school set up by Great British Menu judge Prue Leith to hone their cookery schools on the Leiths diploma courses. Despite how well known the school is, it’s still insider knowledge that there are a host of evening and one-day sessions on offer for those who want to learn a bit without taking a full course. We decided to give the Champagne class a taste…

An evening spent drinking Champagne is always going to be fairly enjoyable, so the Leiths Champagne Tasting class was never at risk of being a wash-out. But with so many places in London offering similar courses (including at the recently reviewed West London Wine School not very far away), for one to stand out of the pack the quality has to be very good indeed. When it’s somewhere with as good a reputation as Leiths and a very reasonable cost for the evening – even for a Champagne course – at £100 a person, expectations are particularly high.

Aware of the need to excel, Leiths have gone right to the top and brought in Richard Bampfield, Master of Wine and European Champagne Ambassador no less. Before the course even really gets going, his passion for the drink is clear as he hands out a welcome glass of the fizzy stuff on arrival and talks about it less as a teacher and more as an avid fan, albeit a very knowledgeable one.

As the course gets going and we taste & test the first of six Champagnes, Richard continues to break the wine-school mould by insisting it really isn’t necessary to over-describe what you’re drinking. He does away with abstract taste metaphors conceding that actually the Champagne you’re drinking doesn’t taste of apple juice infused light oak floorboards with biscuit crumbs on them, it just tastes of Champagne.

Aside from being a refreshing line to hear from a wine buff, it also allows for a much greater understanding of the different Champagne styles. Comparing the following five wines to the first “control” Champagne (Laurent Perrier Brut NV), differences in flavour are explained through production methods, the ageing process and the grapes which are used as well as their years of release.

Richard demystifies the rigorous process explaining the steps from grape to bottle, coming out with a few surprising facts along the way: did you know, for example, that most Champagne is made from a blend of both red and white grapes? No, neither did we. Most Champagnes are made with a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.

As the tasting continues, the Leiths team bring out nibbles to match with the Champagnes. It’s amazing the way in which strawberries, almonds and smoked salmon not only compliment the drinks, but each change the way the Champagnes taste. It shows the importance of matching what you’re eating with what you’re drinking – even within the realm of Champagnes. Given that nowhere on the Leiths literature does it mention that any food will be provided, it is also a pleasant surprise and one which hints at the attention to detail which has obviously made Leiths the success it is.

Being given a mini bottle of Champagne to take away is another small touch which makes a big impression, though it’s the tips from Richard that prove to be the most valuable thing to leave with. For all those who like Champagne but aren’t so keen on the price tag, here are a few of our favourite expert tips from the evening to help you bag a bargain:

Almost all Champagnes you buy from a supermarket will be improved by a year of storing, as many are new vintages. Lay the bottles on their side and keep them somewhere not too warm, such as a garage and you’ll be rewarded with a far superior Champagne.

  1. Never buy Champagne at full price. Many places offer discounts if you buy a few bottles and this is the “real” price, the one bottle price is a rip-off. A good idea is to combine points 1 and 2, getting a few bottles of Champagne and storing them for a special occasion or as a gift.
  2. That said, most good Champagnes (like Dom Pérignon) don’t allow supermarkets to run specific cut-price offers as they think it lowers the brand image. The way to get around this is to buy Champagne when supermarkets have across-the-board discounts e.g. 20% off all wine.
  3. Supermarket-wise, Lidl is one to check out for good value wine – which may be surprising to some.
  4. Sainsbury’s own label Blanc de Noirs Champagne is also an inexpensive Champagne that’s worth a try, and own labels are generally of a fairly high quality and very consistent.

Leiths School of Food and Wine
Address: 16-20 Wendell Road, The W12 9RT (location map)
Nearest Tube Station: Ravenscourt Park (District Line)
Tel: +44 020 8749 6400
Website: http://www.leiths.com

Champagne Tastings with Richard Bampfield
Time: 7pm – 9pm
Cost: £100 per person
Dates: check the website for details