Every December a group of New York area wine writers gather to taste some currently released Champagnes. On this occasion, we decided to look into Prestige Cuvées. Currently most major Champagne Houses and a few Grower-Producers make at least one Tête de Cuvée--as they are called in France.
Prestige Cuvées are a Champagne producer’s finest Champagne: They are made from the best grapes from the choicest vineyards available to the producer; they are often aged three or more years longer than the producer’s other Champagnes; and they are almost always made from the two finest grape varieties in the Champagne region, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (Krug is the rare exception, using Pinot Meunier in many of its great Champagnes).
Many Houses produce two prestige cuvées, a white blend and a rosé; Perrier-Jouët actually makes three: A white, rosé, and a blanc de blancs. Prestige Cuvées account for only 3 to 4 percent of the entire Champagne region’s production but the U.S. is their best customer: Over 13 percent of the Champagnes sold in the U.S. are Prestige Cuvées. The famous Dom Pérignon, Perrier-Jouët, and Roederer Cristal are prestige cuvée sales leaders in the U.S.
On this occasion, the New York Wine Press, the group that sponsored the tasting-luncheon, chose 13 of the best Prestige Cuvées available; we were able to obtain almost all except Salon, the great Blanc de Blancs, which has a very small annual production, and Philipponnat’s Clos des Goisses, a great Prestige Cuvée that is difficult to obtain.
We began the tasting with three “aperitif” Champagnes, all very fine but not technically Prestige Cuvées; prices listed are the average retail cost of the Champagne, primarily in the New York area:
Lanson “Extra Age” NV Brut (magnum): Lanson does make a Prestige Cuvée, “Noble Cuvée,” but it is not currently available in the U.S.; a few older vintages, 2000 and older, are still lingering in a few wine stores. However, I had tasted its Extra Age on an earlier occasion and was impressed, and when it was offered in magnum in place of Noble Cuvée, we happily accepted it. The current Lanson Extra Age is a blend from the 2000, 2002, and 2004 vintages. It was very full-bodied and fresh; the grapes came from prime villages on the Côte des Blancs and Montagne de Reims. It is made from 60 percent Pinot Noir and 40 percent Chardonnay. Totally delicious; it will age well for many years. $96; magnum priced at $190.
André Jacquart Blanc de Blancs NV Brut Nature Grand Cru: André Jacquart is a small House in Vertus on the Côte des Blancs (not to be confused with the cooperative named Jacquart). Its Grand Cru Nature has zero dosage; its grapes come from the premier village of Mesnil. This Champagne was one of the most impressive in the tasting; it clearly held its place with the Prestige Cuvées that followed. It was elegant, and yet powerful, with lots of complex flavors. And it was the least expensive Champagne of the tasting! $60
Lamiable “Les Meslaines” Grand Cru 2008: Lamiable is a grower-producer located in the Grand Cru village of Tours-sur-Marne, well east of Reims and Epernay. Made from 80 percent Pinot Noir and 20 percent Chardonnay, and from the excellent 2008 vintage, this Champagne holds great promise, and is also extremely well-priced, but it is just too young right now for current drinking. I would hold it for another five years before drinking it. $60-$65
The following Champagnes were served according to weight and fullness, with the relatively light-bodied (none could really be called “light”) served first, followed by the medium-bodied, and ending with the most full-bodied Champagnes:
Piper-Heidsieck “Rare” Brut 2002: This large House is one of the biggest producers of non-vintage bruts, but its very fine Prestige Cuvée, ”Rare,” is not well-known and deserves more acclaim. In a great vintage, such as this 2002, it can be outstanding. A blend of 17 Crus, It is 70 percent Chardonnay, 30 percent Pinot Noir. The 2002 Rare has been well-aged; it has been released in the U.S. only in the last few months (although the 2004 is available in the UK). I first discovered “Rare” when I tasted its astounding 1988 many years ago; it made my “Greatest Champagnes tasted” list. The 2002 Rare is still young, believe it or not; I would not drink it for several years; give it more time to mature. $145-$155
Laurent-Perrier “Grand Siècle” NV Brut: The Grand Siècle is always a blend of three vintages; in this case, it’s composed of the 1999, 2000, and 2002 vintages, with 61 percent coming from the 2002, the best of these three vintages. It is a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from 12 Grand Cru villages. It has been well aged, and is showing beautifully right now. I am very familiar with this prestige cuvée, and I know that it is capable of aging for decades. $185, average price, but I spotted it in one major NYC wine shop selling for $135.
Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Brut 2004: Ruinart has always been renowned for its Blanc de Blancs Champagnes, and makes a fine NV version, but its star is its Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs. Made from 69 percent Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs and 31 percent Chardonnay from the Montagne de Reims, this unusual terrroir blend lends a unique character to its flavor. It is exquisite, like a fine painting. It would benefit from 9 to 10 more years of aging in a cool cellar, although you can enjoy it now. $130-$145
Taittinger “Comtes de Champagne” Blanc de Blancs Brut 2006: Taittinger is a large House most renowned for this Champagne. In fact, it was Taittinger who revived interest in blanc de blancs Champagnes when it released its 1952 Comtes in 1957. Its success led to the growth of this style of Champagne. The 2006 Comtes de Champagne was released in the U.S. just a few months ago; it is a good vintage for the region and for Comtes. I have found that this Champagne is extremely reliable from vintage to vintage and very long-lived. You can enjoy this great blanc de blancs now, but it will age well for decades. $130-$150
Louis Roederer “Cristal” Brut 2007: I have always loved the famed Cristal, one of the most elegant Champagnes, with lots of finesse and style. It is a blend of Grand Cru grapes, 58 percent Pinot Noir, 42 percent Chardonnay. Having said that, one must recognize that 2007 was a fairly light vintage in Champagne; this Cristal is very drinkable right now, but it will not go down in history as one of the great Cristals. But because it is Cristal and very well-made by its masterful chef de caves, Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, I am sure that it will age well. $200-$225
Perrier-Jouët “Belle Epoque” Blanc de Blancs Brut 2002: Formerly known as “Fleur de Champagne” in the U.S., P-J’s Prestige Cuvées are now known as “Belle Epoque” throughout the world. Perrier-Jouët’s Prestige Cuvées have always sold well in the U.S, partially because of the attractive “flower bottles” these Champagnes use. But I also think its style, with prominent use of really good Chardonnay, suits the American palate. Of its three Belle Epoques, my favorite is its newest (and most expensive), its Blanc de Blancs. My favorite, that is, in a good vintage: I loved its 1999, but did not like the 2000. Now we have the 2002, and it’s a powerhouse, although it is pricey. I would want to own this wine, and save it for a few years. It is just too austere right now, but you know it will be something special in time. And it does come in a beautiful, clear flower bottle. It would make a great gift for that special wine person in your life--or for yourself. $366
Pascal Doquet “Le Mesnil-sur-Oger” Blanc de Blancs 2002: Pascal Doquet is a grower-producer who has been gaining attention for his magnificent Champagnes, and his 2002 Grand Cru from Le Mesnil might be his best Champagne yet--and at a very good price. It’s a Prestige Cuvée in every sense of the word: great site; excellent grapes, and very well-made. Drink it now, or better yet, hold on to it for a few years. It will only get better, I assure you. Blanc de Blancs at its best. And now, Pascal Doquet is a completely organic grower. $80-$90 (a fantastic value at this price)
Veuve Clicquot “La Grande Dame” Brut 2006: The renowned Veuve Clicquot has just released its 2006 La Grande Dame. It comes from 8 Grand Cru vineyards, including those in Verzenay for Pinot Noir and Avize for Chardonnay. As usual, it is predominantly Pinot Noir (61 percent) with 39 percent Chardonnay. Although 2006 is reputed to be a powerful vintage, I found this La Grande Dame to be very drinkable now, not as powerful as I imagined it would be. But of course it will age well for many years, as all Grande Dames do. $140-$155
Moët & Chandon “Cuvée Dom Pérignon” Brut 2006: I have admiration for Dom Pérignon, by far the largest-produced Prestige Cuvée (millions of bottles) made by the largest Champagne house, Moët & Chandon (production: 30 million bottles plus). And yet Dom Pérignon always remains at a high-quality level. Undoubtedly, its renowned chef de cave, Richard Geoffroy, plays a key role in its excellence. Its 2006 is super, robust and powerful; it’s one of the best of the recent DP vintages. It is typically made from 50 percent Pinot Noir, 50 percent Chardonnay, but the blend changes slightly according to the vintage. Just a great Champagne, with a long future. It lives up to its reputation. $150-$170
Bollinger “La Grande Année” Brut 2004: Bollinger’s only true Prestige Cuvée is its Vieilles Vignes Françaises Blanc de Noirs, made from two small plots of un-grafted Pinot Noir vines; only 2,000 bottles are made in certain excellent vintages. It now retails for about $1,000 a bottle, but so little is made that it’s quite scarce in the U.S. Since we wanted to include the great House of Bollinger, we chose its current vintage wine. Made from 66 percent Pinot Noir and 34 percent Chardonnay, the ‘04 Grand Année was rich and full-bodied, a classic Pinot Noir-dominated Champagne. It was also classic Bollinger, very assertive, enjoyable now but will be even better in 10 years. $120-$130
Henriot “Cuvée des Enchanteleurs” Brut 2000: Henriot is another fine House whose Prestige Cuvée is barely known in the states and yet it is consistently one of the best prestige cuvées available. The 2000 is its current Prestige Cuvée release; its 1996 and 1988 are still superb. Despite the fact that 2000 is considered an average vintage at best, many experienced tasters thought that this was the finest Champagne in the tasting. Made from 50 percent Pinot Noir and 50 percent Chardonnay from Grand Cru villages on the Montagne de Reims and the Côte des Blancs, the ’00 Enchanteleurs exhibited power and complexity. It was vibrant and assertive, a true super-star. A great Champagne will come through even in an average vintage. $160
Pol Roger “Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill” Brut 2002: Ever since its first vintage in 1975, ten years after Winston Churchill’s death, this Prestige Cuvée has been the standard bearer of Pol Roger--which was the favorite House of the great man. It is a Pinot Noir-dominated Champagne, powerful and full-bodied. The Sir Winston is drinking well now, but is a bit reserved. It clearly will improve with time, and has a long future ahead as one of the great Champagnes. $250
Krug “Grande Cuvée NV Brut: Krug says it doesn’t have one Prestige Cuvée, but that all of its Champagnes are prestige cuvées. It is no idle boasting, because all of Krug’s Champagnes are superb. The Grande Cuvée is the most available Champagne of this small house. This Grande Cuvée is 44 percent Pinot Noir, 37 percent Chardonnay, and 19 percent Pinot Meunier (Krug has an excellent source for Pinot Meunier) and is based on the 2005 vintage. An amazing 50 percent of older reserve wines (up to 120 different wines) goes into the Grande Cuvée blend. The result? A seriously complex, full-bodied Champagne, consistently excellent. $150-$160
The overwhelming impression I received of these Prestige Cuvées is their youthfulness and remarkable ability to age. Also, there were no clunkers in the group. They ranged in quality from “Very Good” to “Outstanding.” My favorites at the tasting that day were the Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque Blanc de Blancs ‘02 and the Pascal Doquet ‘02 in the medium-bodied group and the four actual prestige cuvées in the last flight, the full-bodied group: The ’06 Dom Pérignon, the ‘00 Henriot Enchanteleurs, the ‘02 Sir Winston Churchill, and the Krug. It would be impossible for me to choose just one favorite in this remarkable lineup of great Champagnes.