For a champagne lover, this is the best time to be alive and be in Britain. There is a huge variety and quality available, and it is increasingly easy to try rare labels and vintages. We are trading up and, as our tastes improve, champagne brands are evolving along with other luxury goods, fighting for attention in a sophisticated marketplace.

A familiar label may be reinvented for a younger fashionable crowd while old favourites feel pressure from newcomers. Ordering any old champagne isn’t cool: now, rather as you’d order a Plymouth or Tanqueray martini, you know the difference between Billecart and Bollinger, and have a view about Roederer and Ruinart.

Britain is the largest market for champagne outside France, and it’s the ever-expanding restaurant world that is key to recruiting this new audience. Just ask French super-star chef Raymond Blanc.

“British wine consumers are the world’s most demanding and knowledgeable,” says Blanc. In response, restaurants have expanded their champagne lists, stocking many treasures beyond the familiar names.

First among equals are the restaurants of London, particularly for those in or within reach of money. The newly reopened Pied à Terre on Charlotte Street in London’s West End has more than 25 champagnes to go with Shane Osborn’s two Michelin-star food. Ruinart Blanc de Blanc is their superior house fizz and owner David Moore notices that prestige champagne sells very well to customers with style and money. “They may be from the City,” he says, “but they don’t look flash and they have a more mature palate.”

At L’Etranger in South Kensington, owner Ibi Issolah has an acute take on his clients’ drinking habits. North American and Russian customers tend to order cocktails or hard liquor as an aperitif, but British and European guests prefer the simple elegance of Taittinger as a less alcoholic option. The Krug stereotype is cheekily described as “a man with silver hair, a Rolex and a Roller”, but there is also Salon ’85, with its rich rounded character, a steal at £350, and there’s a magnum of Laurent-Perrier 1990 on the list.

At Umu, the classy Japanese restaurant in Mayfair – which has the dubious distinction of being London’s most expensive place to flash your black Amex card – champagne has to battle against 80 different types of sake, but it’s holding its own. Sommelier Andrea Bricarello draws a certain crowd attracted by exclusivity and the starry associations of Cristal (cue Val Kilmer), but vintage Ruinart works with the precise Kyoto cuisine and Jacquesson appeals to the new taste for light, fragrant champagnes.

Across the street at The Square, sommelier Christopher Delalonde oversees a magnificent wine list that includes 11 non-vintage and nearly 30 vintage champagnes. His clientele of powerful business leaders tend to be wine men and order champagne that has a foodie resonance like Salon (six vintages), the Krug Collection, Bollinger, five vintages of Dom Pérignon Oenothèque, and the Cristal Vinothèque 1985 and 1979 at £375 and £445 respectively. Not exactly first choice for a girls’ lunch then.

The Ritz in London has a year-long Champagne Calendar to showcase a broad range of champagnes. Month by month, the full range of each marque is available (by glass, bottle, or magnum) throughout the hotel, culminating in a champagne dinner hosted by representatives of the individual house. “Price is not important,” says executive manager Jeremy Downer. “Our guests come to learn, to try different vintages and styles of the great champagne houses and appreciate how they work with food. It’s a very enjoyable way to improve your own palate and it’s very popular for business entertaining when you want to try that bit harder.”

Not to be outdone, Claridge’s is featuring a growing number of vintage champagnes in its elegant art deco bar. They are already much in demand by the movers ‘n’ shakers of fashion and finance who’ve made this chic corner party central. There is Cristal 1997, Dom Pérignon 1996, Krug Grand Cuvée by the glass as well as over 50 choices by the bottle including Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame, Cristal Rosé in magnum, and for pure showing off, a jeroboam of Cristal 1997 for a mere £3,500.

The growing trend for good champagne is not confined to traditional restaurants, and you’re likely to find vintage wines as a matter of course in some funky places. The ultra-hip Bush Bar and Grill lists Dom Pérignon 1995 and in the heart of Soho, Terence Conran’s homage to Latin American food and culture, Floridita, lists Pol Roger’s Cuvée Winston Churchill with its wonderful biscuity taste, as well as the usual suspects.

At Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, Raymond Blanc’s beautiful hotel and restaurant in the Oxford countryside, sommelier Xavier Rousset, supervises an extensive list of prestige champagnes. Veuve Clicquot and Dom Pérignon are popular for birthdays and special occasions, but the list has considerable depth with seven different types and vintages of Ruinart, eight of Krug and 10 of Dom Pérignon including rare Oenothèque vintages going back to 1962 and 1959. British and European guests tend to be much less keen on spirits than American visitors and a glass of champagne is the most popular aperitif before diners plunge into the main selection of Bordeaux and Burgundy wines. Rousset himself prefers the rich vinous flavours of Bollinger and Krug while he notices a trend for Gosset and Ruinart – less well-known brands that mark a real connoisseur. “Good champagne” he says, “is one you drink a whole bottle of.”

On the south coast, Chewton Glen’s champagne list is aimed at a broad range of clients. Well-heeled footballers from Southampton order Cristal to keep up with the Beckhams (and drink it too young). American guests order Louis Roederer as an aperitif that will work with starters of lobster and foie gras, and they still have a love affair with the art-nouveau bottle of Perrier Jouët. Prosperous Russians enjoy Bollinger or Salon with their caviar. “They really understand the meaning of quality,” says sommelier Alan Holmes approvingly, “and these champagnes capture the creamy, yeasty, nutty essence of mature chardonnay.”

The house champagne at Chewton Glen is Gosset, a superb 400-year-old label that is still family-owned and punches above its weight in the wine world. Also on the list are bottles of recently disgorged Dom Pérignon Oenothèque from 1959, 1964 and 1973, letting you taste these mature wines at their peak, and for casual chic, you can order half a bottle of Krug (size doesn’t affect quality) to have with a sandwich for a light lunch.

The British sparkling wine Nyetimber has been added to Chewton Glen’s list recently, ruffling quite a few feathers in the process.

But chairman Martin Skan is unrepentant. “It came top in recent tastings,” he says. “Even in France it’s rated very highly. After all, Sussex and Kent have the same climate and chalky soil as Champagne. There’s only the Channel in between.”

There’s a treat in store for golfers who arrive in St Andrews in Scotland, scene of Tiger Woods’ triumph this summer on the legendary Old Course. The Seafood Restaurant, overlooking the wind-lashed shore, has a champagne list with several vintages of Dom Pérignon including rosé; 1982 and 1990 of the elusive Salon; Cristal, Krug, and Pol Roger. It’s a list tailored to the sporting heroes and high-profile crowd who attend the Open.

At Le Pont de la Tour in London’s financial district, general manager Giuseppe Dewilde is passionate about champagne, describing it as “happiness, a celebration, it’s what brings people together for business or friendship”. This elegant restaurant, a magnet for the City’s big hitters, stocks 76 different champagnes with a huge selection by the glass catering for all pockets from everyman to Donald Trump (Krug since you ask).

Pont’s main wine buyer, Walter Speller, is unfazed by big reputations and he sources champagne from many suppliers and houses, always looking for small producers or the as-yet-undiscovered name. “The success of many prestige cuvées is solely the result of good marketing,” he says coolly. “And while we can admire this, we are not impressed by image. We look for a good glass of champagne to actually drink and it is interesting to taste top quality wines ‘blind’ to assess the quality without external influences. Champagne deserves a better image than just the favourite tipple of table-dancing hip-hop stars.”  Ouch. So spraying your friends with magnums of Cristal at Movida is a no-no then?

But fads and fashion affect everyone’s choice, and celebrity endorsement is a big part of luxury marketing everywhere. The trend for a glass of champagne with lunch has emerged with the increasing number of influential female customers and the alluring myth that champagne makes you thin. In an astute move, Laurent-Perrier positions different wines in the portfolio at different market segments. Low-sugar Ultra Brut with just 65 calories per glass is defined as the glitterati party choice. Prestige Grand Siècle targets the high-profile contemporary art crowd, and of course the Laurent-Perrier rosé is the benchmark for fashionable pink champagne everywhere.

Moët & Chandon has been so successful in allying its brand with the fashion world that it’s easy to overlook its heritage and impressive vintages like the newly released 1999, launched in a blaze of gastronomic glory earlier this year.

And while Veuve Clicquot’s La Grande Dame vintage speaks to real champagne aficionados, the distinctive yellow label non-vintage is a permanent fixture in the social calendar and at sporting events like the Test Series and swanky polo matches.

Mumm is emerging after years in the wilderness with a new winemaker, Dominique Demarville. At 32, he is the youngest ever cellarmaster in Champagne when he took over in 1998. The current range of Mumm champagnes was launched last summer with tasting events at top restaurants. The wine critics in every country were impressed. But to catch the headlines, explorer Bear Grylls ate a three-course meal at 22,000ft in a Champagne Mumm hot air balloon before skydiving back to earth. Gimmicky, but effective.

At the top end of the scale, even Dom Pérignon, market leader in the luxury sector with the strongest name and impeccable credentials, has started to think outside the box. There is a dramatic new ad campaign, conceived and photographed by Karl Lagerfeld, to launch the new 1998 vintage. It stars Helena Christensen, whom Lagerfeld chose for her sensual, womanly beauty, and each shot is tense with erotic mystery.

The Dom Pérignon 1998 vintage was launched to London’s glitterati alongside a spectacular limited edition book showcasing top chefs, recipes and fashionable people. This bold move is not merely selling champagne, it positions Dom Pérignon as a luxury brand alongside Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Dior and Hermès.

Krug has embarked on a lavish collaboration with the French luxury company Pinel & Pinel to produce the Krug Trunk that will be on the market this year for £29,000. Only 30 are available worldwide but there is already a waiting list.

Each trunk, with its dark brown calfskin interior, takes 700 hours to make and inside, a complex arrangement of drawers holds everything for a superior picnic including three bottles of Krug, a cooler, tulip glasses, porcelain tableware, caviar spoons and a truffle grater. The door of the trunk becomes a low table and four leather stools appear from nowhere. It’s magical but it’s just the start. This year will see a major project that will “blow the lid off things in the champagne world”, according to one insider. I can’t wait.

Smaller luxury brands are content with less flamboyant strategies. Gosset continues its march forward with subtle endorsements from top chefs with three Michelin stars like Ferran Adria of El Bulli in Spain, Philippe Legrande at the George V in Paris, and Michel Roux at the UK’s Waterside Inn. Gosset was chosen to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Michelin guide in 2000 and the company hosts the annual Celebrissimes lunch that pays tribute to 100 influential women in the field of food and wine throughout the world. The annual Trophée Gosset Celebris is awarded in several European countries for the best champagne list, and the judges look for a broad range of producers, not just the big guns. Reassuringly, there is no stipulation that the winner must stock Gosset.

Pol Roger, a distinguished house still owned by the de Billy family, rarely goes in for lavish public relations gestures. It concentrates instead on quality wines, top restaurants and its old school clientele to foster the cult of the gentleman’s champagne.

Bollinger, for many years the champagne of choice for the British Establishment, achieved notoriety in the 1980s with the antics of Patsy and Edina in Absolutely Fabulous. The austere, masculine style was a surprising choice for the air-headed main characters, but it didn’t do Bolly any harm. The brand shrugged off the association and concentrated on top-quality champagnes like La Grande Année and R.D. (“recently disgorged”). The exceptional Vieilles Vignes Francaises, made in tiny quantities from pre-phylloxera vine (the only ones in the whole of Europe), is available at just a handful of British restaurants including the Coq d’Argent in the Cityand the Greenhouse in Mayfair and is a connoisseur’s favourite, despite commanding a hefty £600-plus price tag.

The most memorable remark about champagne comes from Madame Lily Bollinger. Made to the British press 40 years ago, it has resonated around the world ever since.

“I drink champagne when I am happy, and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and I drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.” Daily Mail, October 17, 1961.

While Bollinger is still a small house in terms of overall production, it is number five in the UK market by value. Simon Berry, of wine merchant Berry Bros & Rudd, describes R.D. as “one of the greatest champagnes on the planet”, and notices that Bollinger is resistant to fashion, possibly because most of its customers are men.

And Simon knows what he’s talking about. For over 300 years, Berry Bros & Rudd has supplied everyone from royalty, aristocrats and the Aga Khan to pop stars, writers and normal wine lovers. To brush up your own knowledge of champagne, visit for details of seminars, tutored tastings and dinners at the wine school in the famous cellars below the historic headquarters in St James’s.