Whether it’s footballers knocking back Cristal at Chinawhite or Prince Wills drinking Dom Pérignon at Mahiki, it seems prestige cuvée Champagne has never been more popular among the rich and famous. It’s all well and good for celebrities and royalty to pay the hefty price tags attached to prestige Champagnes, but the rest of us might wonder: is the stuff in the bottle really worth it? And if it is, which one should we order?
Unlike a non-vintage Champagne (NV), which reflects the individual style of the Champagne house and should be consistent from year to year, a vintage or prestige cuvée Champagne is only made in exceptionally good years. Every Champagne therefore has its own individual character. ‘The beauty of Champagne is that all the wines taste very different,’ says David Collas, food and beverage manager at The Ritz.
As well as being made in a good vintage, prestige cuvée Champagne is only made from the best grapes, which are handpicked from the house’s top vineyards. James Samson, who looks after Roederer for importer Maisons Marques et Domaines, explains: ‘At Louis Roederer, Cristal is the showpiece that best represents the pinnacle of quality and the values which run throughout the entire production and philosophy of the house. It is made from grapes grown only in top-quality vineyards, made only in the best years.’
As only the finest quality grapes are used, these wines are inevitably in short supply. ‘With a cuvée de prestige you will find yourself paying more for the rarity value of the finished product.
Production of Cristal is very limited indeed and so it
is scarcity and demand that justify the price’, says Sansom.
After being selected, the grapes are sorted by hand before being made into the still wine that forms the base of the Champagne. For a prestige cuvée, as many as 12 base wines are blended to come up with the perfect balance of fruit and acidity. Maturation on lees for a minimum of three years in oak barrels adds a further level of complexity. At French restaurant Angelus at Lancaster Gate, owner Thierry Tomasin likes to tell diners exactly how the cuvée is made as ‘people react to the story behind the winemaking process’.
Collas agrees: ‘Whether you’re into Krug or Bollinger, you drink it because you appreciate the work that has gone into it as well as the image.’ He believes that drinking a prestige cuvée should be an ‘incredible experience’. ‘Our guests are looking for the best quality and are looking to experience an exceptional moment,’ he adds.
But as well as artisan craftsmanship, of course, prestige Champagne also equals high status. According to Fred Brugues, head sommelier at Sketch, classics such as Cristal and Dom Pérignon are ‘always magical’ for closing a contract during a business dinner. ‘They are very well-made but people tend to drink them to show off, in order to be seen as successful.’
All very interesting but where do you start if you’ve never ordered this style of Champagne before? If you are more used to drinking NV, Miriam McLachlan, head sommelier at Zuma, recommends starting with a younger prestige cuvée as it won’t show too much bottle age and will have crisper bubbles. ‘Over time, some Champagnes can become quite exotic. This is not what people expect from Champagne. They may want something lighter and fresher to begin with.’
The Knightsbridge restaurant therefore offers diners a choice of vintage. McLachlan has a particular soft spot for Salon 1996: ‘Despite its bottle age, it still has so much youth in it and is really vibrant,’ she says. While in the case of Dom Pérignon, you can choose from a bottle of 1999, or a bottle of 1990, for those who enjoy a more mature style.
Classic brands such as Dom Pérignon can be reassuring, but some people like to be recognised for their knowledge and prefer to order something unusual. This is the case at Sketch: ‘People may order an Elisabeth Salmon Rosé to show they know there is more to Billecart-Salmon than the classic rosé,’ says Brugues. For the same reason, L’Amour de Deutz, Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Françaises, and Substance and Contraste, both by Jacques Selosse are also favourites. Guests have even started requesting Pommery’s Cuvée Louise by the glass in Sketch’s Gallery – not just in the super-expensive Lecture Room.
Thankfully, you don’t need to break the bank in order to enjoy a top Champagne. Brugues cites Deutz and Pommery among those that are still reasonably priced. ‘Deutz is fantastic – it plays on to the same market as Bollinger but, either because of its history or distribution, it is not priced the same.’ He also thinks Charles Heidsieck is one of the most underexploited Champagne brands, offering real value for money.
But one of the best ways to sample a prestige cuvée – and decide which one you prefer – is to order it by the glass. Sketch is currently serving William Deutz Rosé by the glass for £35 – a ‘fraction of the price of Dom Pérignon Rosé’ – while Zuma serves Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle by the glass, ‘perfect for starting off our tasting menu’, for only £18.50. Whatever your reason for drinking it, when it comes to prestige cuvée Champagne, the real value lies in the wine’s exceptional quality as well as the knowledge that you are drinking the best.