That most illustrious of sparkling wines Champagne has produced a magnificent vintage with the 1996. Look at it as soon as possible and reserve stocks now, because it will be snapped up. By law, Champagne has to come from a small delimited area of north-east France. The major houses in the area own only around 7,000 of the region's 70,000 acres, as they prefer to select small parcels of grapes from the leading villages scattered through the countryside. Not all Champagne is ready for drinking as soon as it is made available. Most vintages requires further bottle ageing to allow the complex flavours to continue developing. The 1996 is just such a year. The hot summer produced good grapes boosted by a warm Sep-tember just prior to picking. Its purity of fruit and restrained yet powerful structure will develop magnificently. It is probably the finest year since 1985. As it is a vintage for keeping, it's an ideal opportunity to buy some larger size bottles as wine matures more slowly the larger the bottle. Look out for magnums (two bottles), jeroboams (four) and salmanazars (12). If you do not have cellar space (dark, uniform 12°C summer and winter and not too dry), consider storing in a Customs-approved bonded warehouse. This is a great boost to cash flow, saving on paying excise duty (currently £19.85 per dozen bottles) and VAT until the Champagne is cleared from bond. Moet et Chandon, as one might expect of the brand leader, has achieved good balance and up-front fruit for its 1996 Brut Imperial (Tesco £28.99). Many will await the 1996 Dom Perignon, its prestige cuvee, with eager anticipation. An equal blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir of the same year, the wine traditionally shows real elegance (Lay & Wheeler £354 per six under bond, approx £71.27 duty paid). Lanson's Gold Label has minute bead (the taster's term for sparkle) and light lemon hue, lovely depth on its aroma and ripe fruit tones on palate. The 1996 will benefit by extra keeping (Safeway and Sainsbury £27.99). Gosset's 1996 is very fresh and lively with a long length of flavour: a perfect summer Champagne (McKinley Vintners 020 7928 7300). The 230-year-old house of Veuve Clicquot uses only grapes graded Grand and Premier Cru (90% upwards) for its 1996 with 67% black and the balance Chardonnay. The 1996 Reserve has a creamy nose with a toasty and hazelnut quality on taste, whilst the classic La Grande Dame shows more structure and depth, derived from extra Pinot Noir fruit. For lovers of wood-matured Champagne, Bollinger's Grande Annee 1996 will not disappoint. This Pinot Noir-dominated wine has power and will accompany richer dishes like sea bass well (Tanners £45.70). Finally, Churchill's favourite, Pol Roger, lets the juice speak for itself with fermentation totally in stainless steel. In the cold cellars in Epernay, the wine matures gracefully to reveal a delicate style with lovely balance. Two wines are released: 1996 Reserve and 1996 Chardonnay Reserve (Lay & Wheeler equivalent to £33.08 and £37.19).