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Champagne

Per Henrik-Mansson
From the Print Edition:
bundle of cigars, Winter 92/93

On November 11, 1945, Sir Winston Churchill was given a hero's welcome in Paris as he rode down the Champs Elysées with General Charles de Gaulle. At lunch that day, the 70-year-old, cigar-chomping British statesman sipped 1928 Pol Roger Champagne. He loved it so much that he became a devotee, and according to his daughter, Mary Soames, never bought anything else. In 1985, on the twentieth anniversary of the wartime leader's death, the Champagne house honored his memory by launching Champagne Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill with a 1975 vintage.

The Pol Roger is the quintessential cuvée prestige: It comes from the best vineyards, it's produced only in the best vintages, it's made in limited quantities, it's expensive ($95 a bottle in US. retail shops for the '82)--and it has an interesting story. Today, virtually every Champagne house produces a cuvée prestige. Also known as têtes de cuvée, prestige cuvées are usually the best Champagnes money can buy. They are the "Rolls-Royce of a Champagne house." Names to count on include Dom Pérignon from Moët & Chandon, G. H. Mumm Grand Cordon, Louis Roederer Cristal, Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame, Laurent Perrier Grand Siecle Exceptionellement Millésimé, Perrier Jouët-Belle Epoque, Krug Grande Cuvée, Bollinger RD, Taittinger Comtes de Champagne and, of course, Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill.

Although a prestige cuvée Champagne can simply be an excuse to charge an exorbitant price, the best of them can be worth every penny to a Champagne lover. The taste of a prestige cuvée combines elegance with subtle, enticing flavors that run the gamut from toasted hazelnut to vanilla bean, lemon pie, freshly baked bread and green apple. With their lofty prices, attractive packaging and sometimes historically interesting contexts (like the Churchill cuvée), these prestige cuvées create a subtext of glamour.

Louis Roederer's Cristal and Moët & Chandon's Dom Pérignon are arguably the two most famous prestige cuvée Champagnes in the world and cost from $70 to $130 a bottle in retail shops. There is more to buying them than just wanting a glass of fine Champagne; their very presence in a room suggests success, power, a special event. That so many want to toast their achievements and special moments with Dom Pérignon or Cristal is a remarkable marketing tour de force by their producers.

Who made the world's first cuvée prestige? Actually, both Cristal and Dom Pérignon can take the credit. Roederer launched Cristal 59 years before Moët & Chandon launched Dom Pérignon, but Roederer didn't market it as a super Champagne, just special bubbly produced for Czar Alexander II. In 1876, he asked Roederer to make, just for the Russian court, Champagne in clear, crystal bottles. Legend has it that he wanted to make sure no bomb or other harmful object was hidden in the bottles. The Russian taste ran toward relatively sweet Champagne, and Roederer added a heavy dose of sweet liquid, called dosage, to the wine, making it commercially impossible to market in France or the rest of Europe.

When Roederer's market for Cristal collapsed after the Russian Revolution in 1917, the firm had a difficult time finding buyers for the overly sweet Cristal. The stocks were eventually sold in South America. Cristal was resurrected a few years after Moët & Chandon created, in 1935, the concept of a prestige cuvée. Moët & Chandon decided to create a special bottle of Champagne of outstanding quality, and priced to match.

Dom Pérignon (a blend of 60 percent chardonnay and 40 percent pinot noir) was named after the monk who had methodically developed a way of selecting and blending grapes at an abbey north of Epernay in the second part of the 17th century. The first shipment to the United States was 100 cases of 1921 Dom Pérignon in 1937. Since 1921, Dom Pérignon has been produced in 26 vintages, including these most recent years: 1980, 1982, 1983 and 1985.

By tradition and by design, Champagne houses are secretive about specific production details for their wines and even more so for their prestige cuvées. For example, Moët & Chandon refuses to reveal how many bottles it makes of Dom Pérignon, a policy that creates a perception of scarcity in the marketplace and, therefore, helps support the wine's extremely high price. With the exception of Bollinger, Champagne houses are even more cagey about what actually goes into a prestige cuvée blend--what vineyard sites are used, the exact percentages of grape varieties and the amount of time these wines age on their yeasts in the bottle before being disgorged and shipped to the market.

What is certain is that the wine that goes into a house's prestige cuvée should be--and generally is--the result of that producer's best effort with grapes from the best classified sites designated as grand crus. (Other sites receive premier cru or unclassified designations.) The best grapes should produce the most interesting wines. (See tasting notes, below.) Doing otherwise would be commercially suicidal because so much is riding on these super-Champagnes, including the house's prestige and profits.

For instance, Pol Roger's Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill comes from grands crus only, according to commercial director Hubert de Billy, and it is released after aging seven years on the lees, although many houses hold back their top cuvées five years. "This cuvée is round like Churchill himself. We try to transmit in this bottle what Winston Churchill would like to drink if he were still alive," says de Billy. The wine contains roughly about 60 percent pinot noir and 40 percent chardonnay; de Billy won't be more specific for fear of revealing corporate secrets. "That's part of the Cuvée Churchill mystique--to keep the percentage of the grape varieties a secret. If I tell you all, the cuvée may lose it charm. After all, when you buy a steak, you don't want to know how the steer was slaughtered." Nor will de Billy say how many bottles the company makes of the Churchill cuvée. Pol Roger has made the special wine in the following vintages so far: 1975, 1976, 1979, 1982 and 1985.


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