Forgetting for a moment the excellent small-to-medium houses (like Gosset, Vilmart, Gratien, Joseph Perrier and Roederer, for example) and turning to Champagnes that one might find in a decent off-license, I look for Pol Roger, Billecart-Salmon and (in recent years) Charles Heidsieck or, at a pinch, Laurent Perrier when I urgently need a hit of fizz. These latter options cost no more than Moet and The Widow - how do they compare? The short answer is that whatever is keeping the market leaders in pole position, it is not the quality in the bottle. Indeed, If Great Grog had included the inexpensive wines from Gobillard that they sell, it might have been embarrassing for the big boys.
In more detail then, Moet's basic NV, the Brut Imperial, had that oddly vacuous palate that I have noticed before - a coarseness of fruit that suggests a middling country wine. There is a lot of Pinot Meunier in the blend and I can imagine (as Richard has sometimes said) that it does noticeably improve with a year or two in bottle. Veuve Cliquot's NV on the other hand is fruitier and more forward, a touch better for drinking now, but still an unremarkable Champagne. The same qualitative difference was evident in the 1996 vintage from the two houses: V-C more forward and fruity, Moet more angular - maybe a touch finer. Neither wine though is a striking representative of what is supposed to be a great, ageworthy Champagne vintage.
Many, many years ago at my 21st birthday party when friends brought some exciting bottles, one guest decided to mix a classed growth Claret with a white of similar pedigree because she only liked rose wines. This is the cheap (or as the trade say "consistent") way of making a rose Champagne - as opposed to the quality method of allowing enough skin contact to pick up a touch of colour. As far as I know, every serious still rose wine is made by the latter method as is the pink Champagne from quality growers. Veuve Cliquot apparently use the quick and easy method even for their vintage rose - we had the 1995 and it was pretty good considering, with a touch of alpine strawberry sweetness on the nose and palate, but not a great wine. Moet's NV rose offering was very dull indeed and really can not be recommended.
Jumping to the top of the class, people criticise Dom Perignon sometimes - it is made in enormous quantities - but the quality is really in the bottle. The 1995 is relatively forward but has lovely complex, farmyardy pinot fruit and good texture and length - a really first-class wine that shows that Moet do know how to do it. It compared well with the Krug Grand Cuvee NV that we finished with, the latter also complex with the pinot showing its character, more substantial with the wood influence but maybe a touch less fine. Sandwiched between these, La Grande Dame 1995 from Veuve Cliquot was out of its class - it just lacked real complexity. If it had been their standard vintage wine I would have been quite impressed, but as a luxury cuvee it didn't make it. In fairness, somebody remarked they had sampled a better bottle of this a while ago, which raises the interesting question of whether these large houses release only one wine as their vintage 1995 or is it possible that the composition changes a bit between the first and last shipments.