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

(continued from page 1)

Prestige cuvée Champagnes are generally vintage-dated, and houses usually only make them in the best or "declared" years. Thus, some firms made a prestige cuvée in 1986 or 1983, two controversial years, while others didn't. Whether a prestige cuvée is made depends on whether the vintage meets a number of in-house rules and minimum standards, but generally speaking, only a vintage that produces wines of exceptional quality will also be good enough to make a prestige cuvée. If the quality isn't considered exceptional, the Champagne house will probably use the wine for its regular vintage bottlings or maybe in its nonvintage wine.

Not everyone is keen on making vintage-dated, prestige cuvée Champagnes. For instance, Laurent-Perrier's cuvée Grand Siècle (now renamed Grand Siècle La Cuvée) has long been a non-vintage wine even though this house considers it its top-of-the-line fizz. It is a blend of great vats from several vintages (the current bottles contain top wines from 1981, 1982 and 1985). But now Laurent-Perrier has decided to produce a vintage prestige cuvée in addition a non-vintage one. The new vintage bottle is names Grand Siècle Exceptionellement Millésimé (literally "exceptionally vintage-dated). The first release, launched this fall, is a creamy, nutty, bread-dough flavored and very beautifully crafted Champagne from the 1985 vintage. It sells for about $80 compared to about $40 for Laurent-Perrier's vintage Brut.

At Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin, the prestige cuvée La Grande Dame is made from only eight vineyards, and only in years when those specific eight sites produce great fruit, explains Patrique Baseden, commercial director. La Grande Dame has been produced three times so far in the last decade: 1983, 1985 and 1988. When this label was launched in 1972, the goal was to create a special wine from the same eight crus that had been in the firm's possession when it was run by François Clicqout's widow. Nicole-Barbe Clicquot-Ponsardin named the company Veuve (literally "widow") Clicquot-Ponsardin in 1805, the year she took charge. The house markets La Grande Dame as a prestige cuvée made "in the spirit" of the woman who was once called "the Grande Dame of Champagne."

La Grande Dame doesn't get much longer aging than the firm's regular Brut vintage. Both are released about five to six years after the vintage, a reasonable period for a prestige cuvée. Some producers age their super-Champagnes longer in the belief that their wines gain considerable complexity at around the seventh or eighth year of cellaring. La Grande Dame (made of one-third chardonnay, two-thirds pinot noir) shows a bit more elegance than the vintage Brut, perhaps because its composition contains, compared to the Clicquot Brut, a slightly higher percentage of white grapes than black ones. For these differences you pay a third more for the Grande Dame ($75 to $85 a bottle in retail stores) than the vintage Brut ($40 to $50).

Most prestige cuvée Champagnes come in specially designed bottles that distinguish them from standard blends. But few of these deluxe Champagnes are more appealing-looking than the prestige cuvée Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque. The enamel-painted design of pink, gold and green flowers has to be fired at 932 degrees Fahrenheit, just 122 degrees below the melting point for glass. The design was created by Art Nouveau artist Emile GaIIé in 1902 to evoke the Belle Epoque of the 1890s.

Perrier-Jouët makes its Belle Epoque cuvée only from grand crus. Of Perrier-Jouët's 247 acres of vineyards, a big chunk (nearly 30 percent) lies in the prestigious Côte des Blancs, where the best chardonnay vineyards are located. This cuvée contains usually from 48 to 50 percent chardonnay. It's made from 20 different sites, thus blended from 20 independently vinified vats. (Perrier-Jouët's regular vintage brut is made from 32 different sites in 1985.)

"Perrier-Jouët was one of the first to recognize the importance of chardonnay. While others play a lot with pinot noir, we are mostly into grands blancs [great whites]," says Andre Baveret, the firm's technical director. He notes that in an abundant, fine vintage, Perrier-Jouët may produce 83,000 cases, or 1 million bottles, of the Belle Epoque, but the quantity fluctuates with the quality of the harvest, particularly in the Côte des Blancs, since the policy is to maintain a constant percentage of chardonnay in the blend.

A lot of ink has been spilled to debate what grape variety--pinot noir or chardonnay--is best suited to make the very best Champagne. Many claim chardonnay brings ethereal finesse and elegance that the true connoisseurs seek; others believe a good amount of pinot noir makes a Champagne more interesting and more like a complex red still wine, such as great Burgundy. No one goes for just pinot noir.

One company, Taittinger, makes its super-Champagne with just chardonnay. Taittinger is the king of Blanc de Blancs (as chardonnay-only Champagnes are called). It is always one of the most elegant Champagnes on the market with superbly fresh flavors and a long refreshing finish. It goes well as an aperitif but can also stand up to many dishes which normally match with chardonnays. The Taittinger Comte de Champagne Blanc de Blancs is a relatively scarce commodity in Champagne since only 20 percent of the region's vineyards are planted to chardonnay (the rest is mostly pinot noir and some pinot Meunier). But of Taittinger's 617 acres of vineyards, 50 percent grow chardonnay.

While Taittinger relies on one particular grape variety, the house of Roederer believes that using only grapes from its own vineyards is essential to making the quintessential tête de cuvée. This can be an advantage in producing the best quality because the house has complete control over the grapes. Roederer's recipe for Cristal isn't cast in concrete, and the sources for the grapes used in the blend may change from vintage to vintage. In 1985, the blend was made from 40 different vineyards. Another year, the Cristal blend may contain a different combination of vineyards. "Our only goal is to seek a total harmony between fruit, elegance and structure," says Christophe Hirondel, a Roederer spokesman. In those vintages when Cristal is produced, Roederer may make 500,000 bottles, half of which goes to the United States. Cristal is aged on the lees for five years. The '85 was released for about $ 100 retail and the '86 sells for the same amount. Recently, Roederer has begun to barrel ferment in large oak casks a tiny amount of the wines that enter into the Cristal blend. It's split evenly between chardonnay and pinot noir.

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