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Prestige Cuvee

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Champagne is the drink we turn to for celebrations. But for a real treat, says Giles Fallowfield, we should be popping the corks of prestige cuvées, the Champagne houses’ highest-quality wines


If you think conspicuous consumption is all about flashing the designer label of the imported lager you are drinking, you obviously haven’t been in the smartest West End restaurants and nightclubs when the latest City bonuses are sloshing around. For those who’ve just enjoyed a handsome payout, it’s the prestige cuvée Champagne they choose to share with their friends that says everything about their status.

Tales of one-upmanship in London clubs and restaurants abound, like the story of the bottle of Dom Pérignon that was sent to a competitor broker’s table only to be trumped by a return gift of Louis Roederer’s Cristal, typically the most expensive white luxury Champagne on any wine list (pink-hued prestige bubbles are even more expensive).

Cristal Champagne 1999 Recently, however, the show-off stakes have been raised another notch as larger sizes of prestige fizz – magnums and jeroboams – and jewel-encrusted designer offerings have been made available in London’s most exclusive venues along with shops like Harrods. Louis Roederer, for instance, has released 1,000 jeroboams of 1999 Cristal, of which just 100 are destined for the UK market, while Dom Pérignon has produced more larger formats of its recently released 1998 vintage than ever before.

But we aren’t just talking about bigger bottles. For the ultimate in conspicuous consumption, there will be jeroboams of Dom Pérignon 1998 in a white-gold sheath that will set punters back around £8,000 a pop in the very few establishments (only 15 bottles are destined for the UK) that are likely to be able to sell them.

While the ‘bling’ factor cannot be ignored, especially for these iconic brands, which for many define this rarefied sector of the Champagne market, the best prestige cuvées also have serious wine credentials. Generally, high prices can be justified by what’s in the bottle, especially when you do a price comparison with the top wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux.

But what exactly is prestige cuvée Champagne? Most producers, large and small, make a wine they’d put in this category. Typically it’s the top of the range, usually the most expensive wine, and often with glitzy packaging or a funny shaped bottle, it marks the Champagne house’s effort to produce the best, most impressive Champagne from the grapes it has access to, whether from its own top vineyard sites or bought in.

As such, these wines represent the best advertisement for the appellation, demonstrating why the sparkling wines from this specific cool climate region east of Paris are widely considered to be the most complex and long-lasting in the world. This pinnacle of excellence is yet to be seriously challenged by producers anywhere else around the globe, be it Australia, New Zealand or California.


THE PRICE QUESTION

These wines are so expensive because the price of grapes in Champagne is higher than in any other French appellation and the grapes used in prestige cuvées typically come from Champagne’s 17 grand cru villages, places like Avize, Bouzy and Verzenay, where the price premiums are highest.

The total area under vine in these villages is just 4,370 hectares, less than 14 per cent of the total appellation of some 32,000 hectares. So scarcity also helps inflate the cost of buying Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from these top sites. Grapes in these crus are almost exclusively Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. There are only tiny parcels of grand cru Pinot Meunier in eight of the 17 villages.

Nor are all of the grapes from the grands crus used in making prestige cuvées, as producers want to keep some grapes to help maintain the quality of their non-vintage blends. And their vintage Champagnes, although made in smaller volumes, are likely to contain a high proportion of grand cru grapes, too. So what is left for, or rather selected for, the prestige cuvée – the top of the range – will only be the best parcels of grand cru vines. In a village like Verzenay there are over 400 hectares of vines and, although theoretically assessed as the same quality, not all the sites have the same favourable aspect and exposure.

It’s no surprise, then, to hear that prestige cuvée styles account for less than five per cent of total Champagne production, which is around 300 million bottles a year. In 2005, total exports of prestige fizz reached 6.13 million bottles (4.7 per cent of all exports), while estimates of sales within France vary wildly –between two million and 10 million bottles. In Britain, the third most important export market for luxury Champagne, we accounted for nearly 640,000 prestige cuvée bottles in 2005, a figure which has risen every year since 2001.

With the best grapes priced at €5 a kilo or more, production costs start high. And in winemaking, too, all efforts are made, from the best oak barrels (where they are used) to the most expensive heavy bottles, quality corks and additional fancy packaging.

These wines are also likely to be aged for longer before release than any other cuvées that the Champagne houses produce. Few are sold with less than six years cellaring at the producer’s expense and many aren’t sold for at least a decade. The cost implications of this for the big houses are considerable. They have to pay for bought-in grapes in the 12 months following the harvest, but don’t see a return for many years to come.


STYLE MATTERS

While it’s relatively easy to explain why these wines cost more to produce, it’s a good deal harder to generalise meaningfully about prestige cuvées stylistically. They are, especially the single vintage styles, wines that are designed to age gracefully over a long period, certainly for at least a decade and often for three decades or more.

It’s a sad truth that much prestige fizz is drunk way before it has reached its peak of complexity, the point when aromas and subtle nuances of taste more than justify the high price paid. This is why some Dom Pérignon, Cristal and vintage Krug is held back for a second or third release, so those really interested in the wine qualities of these Champagnes can see what excitement in the glass maturity will bring.

There are no rules about how to make a prestige cuvée. They may be vintage or non-vintage, mono variety or a blend of two grapes or more. Most however are vintage – that is made from a single harvest – and the majority are a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Exceptions that would claim a place among most discerning observers’ top 20 are the non-vintage Krug Grande Cuvée and Laurent-Perrier’s Grande Siècle, plus 100 per cent Chardonnay styles (Blanc de Blancs), including Salon Le Mesnil, Charles Heidsieck’s Blanc des Millénaires, Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, Dom Ruinart and Perrier Jouët Belle Epoque.

As for when to drink these Champagnes, treat them more like fine white Burgundies than sparklers. Don’t over chill them, try them in a wider tulip-shaped glass rather than a narrow flute and watch the aromas and flavours develop gradually after they are poured. While they are good with the same food you might match to grand cru Chablis, they are sublime on their own. All you need is time and a fresh palate.


PRESTIGE CUVEE...DID YOU KNOW?

The first prestige cuvée: Dom Pérignon’s first ever cuvée was the 1921 vintage, which appeared on the American market in time for Christmas 1936. The first commercially available vintage of Cristal was the 1945 (although this cuvée was originally created for Tsar Alexander II in 1876).

The most expensive current release white prestige cuvée: Salon Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs 1996, £165 (Selfridges).

The most expensive current release rosé prestige cuvée: Louis Roederer Cristal Rosé 1999, £375 (Harrods).

The most expensive single vineyard prestige cuvée: Krug Clos du Mesnil 1995, £500 (Berry Bros & Rudd).

The oldest and most expensive Dom Pérignon Oenothèque vintage currently available: 1966 for £695 (Harrods).

The best recent Champagne vintages: 1999, 1998, 1996, 1995, 1990, 1989, 1988, 1985, 1982, 1979 and 1976.

The most aged when first released: Krug Grande Cuvée is the longest aged non-vintage Champagne. For vintage Champagne, several houses are still offering either the 1995 or 1996 vintages including: Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires (’95), Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill (’96), Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame (’96) and Salon Le Mesnil (’96).


10 DIFFERENT STYLES OF PRESTIGE CUVEE

Louis Roederer Cristal 1999

Combines subtlety and delicateness with intensity, making it delightfully approachable. It will gain even more complexity with age.

Dom Pérignon 1998

Hints of mature aromas and silky texture temporarily disguise the underlying acidity. Cellar at least another five years, 10 ideally.

Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 1996

Powerful, structured Pinot Noir-dominated blend shot through with the vibrant acidity that typifies the vintage. Already impressive, it will develop more toastiness over time.

Bollinger Grande Année 1997

Not meant to be a great vintage in Champagne, but then Bollinger doesn’t follow the pack. At a brilliant peak of luscious intensity right now.

Pol Roger Cuvée Winston Churchill 1996

Big ripe Pinot-dominated style with an exciting lifting streak of citrus acidity. Hints of the complexity to come but only just beginning to open up. Great cellaring potential.

Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle

Refined and elegant cuvée that is usually a blend of three vintages (currently 1996, 1995 and 1993). Drink now for its freshness or age it further to see richness and complexity develop.

Krug Grande Cuvée

A complex, multi-vintage blend that gets a minimum of seven years ageing before release to give the wine its uniquely rich, toasty palate.

Pommery Cuvée Louise 1995

A contrast to Clicquot, with 64 per cent Chardonnay and 36 per cent Pinot Noir helping make it a lighter, more delicate style, with a hint of gingerbread spice and a honeyed note developing.

Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 1995

Only made in the best vintages, this is delicious now, but as with previous fine vintages it is capable of long ageing.

Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 1998

Elegant all-Chardonnay cuvée that shows fresh mineral and floral aromas in its youth, but develops exotic richness with age.


Editorial feature from Square Meal Magazine Autumn 2006


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