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Prestige Cuvée Champagnes
By Ed McCarthy
Dec 24, 2013
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What is a “Prestige Cuvée” Champagne?  It is the finest Champagne that a producer makes, from the finest grapes in Champagne’s best vineyards.  In most cases, a prestige cuvée is a premium Vintage Champagne--but a few producers do make a non-vintage prestige cuvée.  The French term for prestige cuvées is Têtes de Cuvée.

Almost every Champagne négociant house and many grower-producers make a prestige cuvée annually, except in below-average vintages.  One of the sure signs of a prestige cuvée Champagne is its retail price:  Invariably, it costs over $100, and in a few cases, over $200, with the average price in the $140 to $150 range.  Grower-producers’ prestige cuvées typically are less expensive than those of the Champagne houses.

Some of the larger houses produce two and even three prestige cuvées (an additional rosé and/or a blanc de blancs prestige cuvée).  The two most renowned prestige cuvées are Moët & Chandon’s Dom Pérignon and Louis Roederer’s Cristal.  In general, prestige cuvée Champagnes are more complex in flavor than other Champagnes and they are capable of aging the longest.  They are kept longer in producers’ cellars (five to eight years) than other Champagnes, and they also need more time to mature before they are at their best; most prestige cuvées can benefit from 10 to 15 years of aging before they are at their peak.  I always suggest that you not buy a young prestige cuvée with the intention of drinking it right away; a young prestige cuvée cannot possibly show its true potential in its youth.

Each December, the Wine Media Guild, a group of wine writers and journalists in the New York Metropolitan area, holds a Champagne luncheon in a New York restaurant.  This year’s theme happened to be Prestige Cuvée Champagnes, and a special guest, producer Bruno Paillard, was the speaker.  What follows is my report on 17 prestige cuvées we tasted at the luncheon this year (2013), plus another seven I have tasted previously on other occasions.

I have grouped the Champagnes according to their style; often a producer’s style for its prestige cuvée is different from the style of its other Champagnes; for example, although Champagne Louis Roederer typically produces full-bodied Champagnes, its Cristal is distinctly more elegant and less full-bodied.  Average retail prices are listed for each Champagne:

Lighter-Bodied, Elegant Prestige Cuvées

Champagne Ayala, Cuvée Perle d’Ayala 2002:  Ayala has two fabulous prestige cuvées, its ethereal Perle d’Ayala, and its rarer Perle d’Ayala Nature (with no dosage added).  Although now owned by Champagne Bollinger and located close to Bollinger in the village of Aÿ, Champagne Ayala’s style for all of its wines is very different from Bollinger; Ayala specializes in elegant, very dry, light-bodied Champagnes.  Chardonnay plays a key role in both Perle d’Ayalas, both being 80 percent Chardonnay and 20 percent Pinot Noir.  The 2002 vintage is turning out to be outstanding: rich, with good acidity, and long-lived.  The 2002 Perle d’Ayala is one of Ayaa’s best Champagnes yet, made from the grapes of five Grand Cru villages, with very low dosage, and well-priced at $125.  (Perle d’Ayala Nature 2002 is $150).

Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte, Palmes d’Or 2002:  No Champagne brand has grown so remarkably as Nicolas Feuillatte, which is the leading brand name Champagne of the huge Centre Vinicole, composed of 85 co-operatives.  Nicolas Feuillatte has existed as a brand since only 1976, and yet it’s the third-largest selling Champagne in the world today.  Its prestige cuvée, Palmes d’Or, made from all Grand Cru and Premier Cru grapes, and 60 percent Chardonnay, 40 percent Pinot Noir, is lively and flavorful, the best Palmes d’Or since the excellent 1996.  $110-$120.

Champagne G.H. Mumm, Cuvée R. Lalou 1998:  Mumm has re-introduced René Lalou, its successful prestige cuvée from 1966 to 1985, named after its legendary president who spent 50 years with Mumm.  Quality slipped at Mumm when it was sold to Seagram’s in 1985.  But the house, still fourth-largest, had a renaissance when Dominique Demarville became Chef de Cave in 1998.  Currently, Didier Mariotti is carrying on ably in his place. (Seagram’s sold G.H. Mumm in 1999; it is now owned by Pernod).  The R. Lalou 1998, 50 percent Chardonnay, 50 percent Pinot Noir, is a soft, easy-drinking Champagne that is now at its peak.  $150.

Champagne Perrier-Jouët, Cuvée Belle Epoque 2004:  Perrier-Jouët produces three Belle Epoque (a.k.a. Fleur de Champagne) prestige cuvées, with a stunning Epoque Rosé as part of the trio, all in its beautiful signature “flower bottle.”  The 2004 Belle Epoque has 50 percent of old-vine Chardonnay grapes from the Grand Cru village of Cramant on the Côtes des Blanc, which contributes creaminess and depth.  It is an elegant, delicate masterpiece.  Belle Epoque 2004 is drinking well now, but will improve with another few years aging.  $140-$150.  (The Belle Epoque Rosé 2004, $300).
 
Champagne Perrier-Jouët, Cuvée Belle Epoque Blanc de Blancs 2002:  As good as P-J’s Belle Epoque is, its 100 percent Chardonnay Belle Epoque Blanc de Blancs 2002 is even better.  The stunning Belle Epoque Blanc de Blancs, always in short supply, truly defines what a prestige cuvée is all about; it is creamy, lemony and complex, truly one of the best Champagnes I have tasted all year.  2002 is proving to be an excellent vintage.  $333.

Champagne Piper-Heidsieck, Rare 2002:  Piper-Heidsieck is a seriously underrated Champagne house because of its image as a mass market “commercial” brand, which it was 30 years ago.  Although Piper-Heidsieck is still a large house (seventh-largest), I am happy to report that Piper is now making excellent Champagne, from its Brut NV on up to its outstanding prestige cuvée, called Rare.  The 2002 Rare is simply great, perhaps the finest Rare that Piper-Heidsieck has ever made since the first Rare vintage in 1976—even better than its excellent 1988 Rare.  Made from 70 percent Chardonnay and 30 percent Pinot Noir, Rare, with the delicious, vibrant 2002, has established itself as one of the great prestige cuvées.  $150-$170.

Champagne Pommery, Cuvée Louise 1999:  When Champagne Pommery was sold to the huge Vranken Company in 2002, many followers of Pommery feared for the house’s future.  The good news is that Vranken held on to the vineyards that produced Pommery’s prestige cuvée, Louise--which has always been Pommery’s shining star.  Louise is a dry, classy Champagne that ages magnificently.  Some of my greatest Champagne memories are of Louise and its sister, Louise Rosé, always drinking well, with lots of finesse even in lesser vintages.  $130-$140.  (Louise Rosé 1999, $140).


Medium-Bodied Prestige Cuvées

Champagne Deutz, Cuvée William Deutz 2000:  Deutz is one of my favorite houses, and I especially love its prestige cuvées, Cuvée William Deutz and Cuvée William Deutz Rosé (one of the best rosé Champagnes made, in my opinion).  Deutz has become even better since Champagne Louis Roederer bought a majority interest in the house in 1993.  Even in the average-to-good Champagne vintage of 2000, Deutz has produced a simply magnificent Cuvée William Deutz.  It is vibrant, lively, and truly singing right now, and will only improve.  One of the standouts of the Wine Media Guild luncheon, and a real value at $110-$120.  (The sensational 1999 Cuvée William Deutz Rosé is a steal at $140, but difficult to find).

Champagne Pascal Doquet Vieilles Vignes, Le Mesnil 2002:  Pascal Doquet’s old-vines Grand Cru, Le Mesnil, from the great blanc de blancs village Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, was the only grower-producer prestige cuvée at Wine Media Guild’s tasting, and it showed very well compared to its much larger, more well-known rivals.  It certainly was the best value of all the Champagnes we tasted.  It is very young and pure, with great pedigree, and from a fine vintage.  $83.

Champagne Charles Heidsieck, Blanc des Millénaires 1995: 
Tom Stevenson, the renowned British Champagne expert, recently wrote that Charles Heidsieck is the most underrated house in Champagne, and I agree.  It is mystifying to me that this Champagne does not sell as well as it should.  Wine director Régis Camus has done wonders here, as well as at its sister-house, Piper-Heidsieck.
From its amazing NV Brut Réserve to its blanc de blancs prestige cuvée, Blanc des Millénaires, Charles Heidsieck is first rate.  And how fortunate are we that the 1995 Millénaires is still available, and as fresh and lively as ever.  Pure elegance and finesse. $175-$185.

Champagne Henriot, Cuvée des Enchanteleurs 1998:  Henriot is another very underrated house with a style that depends on its Chardonnay.  Although Henriot’s house style veers clearly to light-bodied, very elegant Champagnes, its superb, long-lived prestige cuvée, Cuvée des Enchanteleurs, is clearly medium-to full-bodied.  Made from 50 percent Chardonnay and 50 percent Pinot Noir, with the Chardonnay dominating, the 1998 Enchanteleurs is stylish and classic, a superb Champagne, almost as good as Enchanteleurs’ other-worldly 1996 and 1988.  $142-$160.

Champagne Lanson, Noble Cuvée 2000:  Lanson makes three prestige cuvées called Noble Cuvée; the blended Noble Cuvée, a vintage Blanc de Blancs Noble Cuvée, and a non-vintage Rosé Noble Cuvée.  All are made from Grand Cru grapes only, and all age extremely well, partially because Lanson does not use malolactic fermentation (a process which softens the acidity in wine).  Lanson Champagnes, especially its Noble Cuvées, need time to age and soften.  They can be austere when young.  My experience with these Champagnes is that they can age for 40 years or more when stored well, and will be at their best with age.  $130.  (The Noble Cuvée Blanc de Blancs, probably the best of the three, is $170; the NV Rosé Noble Cuvée is $120).

Champagne Laurent-Perrier, Grand Siècle:  Laurent-Perrier is the largest privately-owned Champagne house and the fifth-largest house.  Its well-known prestige cuvée, Grand Siècle, is always a blend of three vintages; the current blend is from 1999, 1997, and 1996.  Grand Siècle veers from Laurent-Perrier’s house style epitomized by the light, elegant NV brut.  Grand Siècle, although not huge, is clearly closer to medium-bodied in style, 55 percent Chardonnay, 45 percent Pinot Noir.  Grand Siècle ages very well, 20 years or more, and is at its best with some maturity. $120.  (Its Grand Siècle Cuvée Alexandra Rosé 2004 is $300).

Champagne Moët & Chandon, Dom Pérignon 2004:  The world’s most famous wine, Dom Pérignon is clearly the largest-production prestige cuvée, and can be found throughout the world.  Despite its sizable production, I have never come across a less-than-good bottle.  Granted some vintages are better than others, of course; the current 2004, 50 percent Chardonnay, 50 percent Pinot Noir, is quite good, very dry, but needs another five or six years of aging.  It will never be as great as the 2002, 1996, or 1995, but Dom Pérignon always has finesse and class.  In any vintage, Dom needs at least 15 years of aging before it shows its stuff.  $160-$165.  Moët is now making a non-dosage Dom Pérignon as well, but it is not exported to the U.S. yet.  (The 2003 Dom Pérignon Rosé is available for $300+).

Champagne Bruno Paillard, Nec Plus Ultra, Grand Cru 1999:  Bruno Paillard’s N.P.U., as his prestige cuvée is known, is a clear deviation from the light, very delicate, and very elegant Paillard style.  The 1999 N.P.U., only the 4th vintage N.P.U. Paillard has made (after the 1990, 1995, and 1996), is a medium to-full-bodied Champagne, 50 percent Chardonnay and 50 percent Pinot Noir, that is fermented in small oak barrels, and then aged in these barrels for nine months.  The N.P.U. 1999 was aged further in bottle for 12 years before it was released in 2013.  The grapes from only Grand Cru villages are selected for the N.P.U., and the dosage is a low 4 grams/l.  Bruno Paillard believes that his N.P.U.will be a great Champagne in time.  Right now, it is a huge bruiser, so different in style from Paillard’s other Champagnes.  $225-$230.

Champagne Louis Roederer, Cristal 2005:  Is Cristal the world’s greatest Champagne?  Perhaps.  I’ll be conservative and say that it’s always in the top three.  Again we have a great prestige cuvée that is misunderstood.  Cristal is not meant to be consumed in its youth; it really needs time to develop.  The 1996 Cristal, 17 years old, is not really at its peak of maturity yet, but the magnificent 1988 Cristal, 25 years old, is perfect now.  The 2005 Cristal, 55 percent Pinot Noir and 45 percent Chardonnay, shows all the signs of becoming a great Champagne:  Loads of finesse, class, and elegance, and complexly flavored even now.  Perhaps it will not reach the heights of 2002, 1996, or 1988 Cristal, but it will be great.  $220.  (Small quantities of Cristal Rosé are made; 2005 Cristal Rosé is $500 to $530!  But Cristal might be the world’s best Rosé Champagne).

Champagne Ruinart, Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 2002:  Dom Ruinart’s Blanc de Blancs is another prestige cuvée that requires patience.  Are you seeing a pattern developing?  The “other Dom” is quite a huge blanc de blancs which comes into its own with at least 15 years of aging.  The classy 2002 Dom Ruinart is a beauty; it will compare well to the 1996, 1990, and 1988 as one of the best Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs of modern times.  At $130, it is indeed a value for a Champagne of this quality.  (Ruinart also makes a Dom Ruinart Rosé, which sells for $300 and is not as good as the Blanc de blancs, in my opinion).

Champagne Taittinger, Comtes de Champagne 2005:  The huge house of Taittinger, the world’s sixth-largest, probably makes more blanc de blancs Champagne--and certainly the largest amount of prestige cuvée Blanc de Blancs--than any other house.  Its Comtes de Champagne really was the Champagne that popularized the blanc de blancs style after WW II.  Comtes de Champagne 2005, made with grapes from excellent villages on the Côtes des Blancs, is a big, voluptuous Champagne that will be at its best with 15 to 20 years of aging, and will continue to live for many years after that.  $150.  (The 2005 Comtes de Champagne Rosé, mainly Pinot Noir, also will take time to develop.  $230).


Full-Bodied, Rich Prestige Cuvées

Champagne Bollinger, Vieilles Vignes Françaises Blanc de Noir 2002:  Bollinger’s position is that it really doesn’t make a prestige cuvée, but we can consider its Grand Année or R.D. as prestige cuvées if we want.  Actually, these two Champagnes, as good as they are, are really Vintage Champagnes.  Bollinger’s only true prestige cuvée is its very rare old vines Blanc de Noirs, Françaises, made from ungrafted vines in two small vineyards.  Bollinger does not like to publicize this wine because it makes very little of it, and it’s always in demand.  Bollinger Françaises 2002 is rich and magisterial with an extremely long finish, a Champagne you will not forget.  Some of the very best Champagnes I have ever tasted have been Bollinger Françaises Blanc de Noirs.  One way Bollinger has managed to deal with the demand for Françaises is to raise its price; it is now a whopping $925.

Champagne Gosset, Célébris Extra Brut 1998:  Gosset makes three wonderful Célébris extra brut prestige cuvees: in addition to the current 1998, Gosset has a 2003 Célébris Rosé available, and a non-vintage Célébris Blanc de Blancs, probably the best of the three.  Although Gosset’s house style is rich and full-bodied, with its excellent NV Grande Réserve Brut the best example, the Célébris Champagnes have an elegance combined with richness that leaves a lasting impression.  The 1998 Célébris, 64 percent Chadonnay, 36 percent Pinot Noir, all from Grand Cru grapes, is drinking beautifully now, but will age for at least a decade longer. $150-$160.  (Gosset’s 2003 Célébris Rosé Extra Brut and NV Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs are about $180).

Champagne Krug, Grande Cuvée:  Krug and Salon are the only major houses that make only prestige cuvées.  Krug has always been the connoisseur’s favorite, and why not?  It is complexly flavored, important, ages beautifully, and ages forever--even its multi-vintage Grande Cuvée (no one would dare to refer to it as a non-vintage; Rémy Krug always noted that 10 or more vintages and 120 wines are in the blend, including 50 percent reserve wines).  It is a masterpiece, and continues to improve as it ages; 50 percent Pinot Noir, 15 percent Pinot Meunier, and 35 percent Chardonnay.  $140-$150.  (Besides the magnificent Vintage Krug, priced at $240-$250, are the fantastic Krug NV Rosé at $300, and Krugmakes the world’s best Blanc de Blancs, Clos du Mesnil 2000, $800-$850; and its new member of the Krug family, the limited-production Blanc de Noirs 1998, Clos d’Ambonnay, $2,000).   

Champagne Philipponnat, Clos des Goisses 2001:  Only Philipponnat would have the courage to make a Champagne in such a poor vintage.  Its record speaks for itself; Clos des Goisses is outstanding in every vintage it makes.  Blessed with an incredible, steep vineyard on the Marne River in Aÿ, Clos des Goisses, normally 70 percent Pinot Noir, 30 percent Chardonnay, lately has been using a 65/35 percent Pinot Noir-dominated blend.  Most knowledgeable Champagne lovers I know consider Clos des Goisses one of the world’s outstanding Champagnes.  It needs considerable time to open; I suggest 20 years from the vintage, although the 2001 might be ready sooner.  I do know that Clos des Goisses seems to last forever, like Krug and Salon.  It’s an extremely classy Champagne, with lots of finesse.  Always delicious.  $170-$180.  (Clos des Goisses 2002, 2003, and 2004 also in U.S.; tiny quantities of 2002 Clos des Goisses Rosé are available for $425-$450).

Champagne Pol Roger, Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 2000:  Pol Roger makes sturdy, long-lived wines, and none are sturdier than its Pinot Noir-dominated Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill.  Its 1996, 1990, and 1988 Sir Winston Churchills are among the finest Champagnes that I have tasted.  The Cuvée began with the 1975 vintage, as a memorial to its greatest customer, Winston Churchill. The 2000 Cuvée is rich and full-bodied, like the man himself, and will live for several decades.  $200-$225.

Champagne Salon, Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs 1999:  Salon only makes one Champagne, its prestige cuvée Blanc de Blancs, and only in good vintage years.  Salon is invariably the last house to release its Champagne.  No other Champagne, with the possible exception of Krug’s Clos du Mesnil, takes so many years (minimum 20 to 25) to be ready to drink.  It is no coincidence that the world’s two most renowned blanc de blancs Champagnes hail from the village of Le Mesnil.  Salon’s very small production, 40,000 bottles annually, sells out rapidly.  We don’t know how long Salon can age (its first commercial vintage was the 1921, although it did make a 1914).  Aimé Salon was the first to make a blanc de blancs Champagne to sell commercially.  Salon’s Champagne is huge; the amazing 1996 Salon is decades away from its maturity.  The 1999 Salon might be approachable in ten years. $300.

Champagne Veuve Clicquot, La Grande Dame 2004:  Veuve Clicquot, the world’s second-largest Champagne (after Moët & Chandon) has always produced excellent Vintage Champagnes, including its prestige cuvée, La Grande Dame.  This full, rich wine is made from 62 percent Pinot Noir and 38 percent Chardonnay.  La Grande Dame, like all great prestige cuvées, ages beautifully, at least for several decades.  The 2004 La Grande Dame should be ready in about five years, but will continue to evolve for many more years.  An exquisite Champagne.  $140.  (La Grande Dame Rosé 2004, made in smaller quantities, is even better than La Grande Dame, $290).

Prestige Cuvées will always be in demand, especially in the United States, their best market.  Many of them, of course, are extremely expensive, but if you check my listings carefully, you can find many bargains.  Yes, it’s true that the status of these Champagnes is a huge factor for many wine drinkers who buy them, but they are indeed outstanding Champagne that--like all great wines--will stand the test of time, and live for decades.