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Blue-Chip Bubbly

Ring in the millennium with these five prestige champagnes (if you can find them)
Jim Gordon
From the Print Edition:
Vince McMahon, Nov/Dec 99

Jean-Claude Rouzaud, whose family owns Champagne Louis Roederer, has been called the smartest man in Champagne by his competitors. He is venerated in the city of Reims, France, for making Louis Roederer one of the most profitable companies in the Champagne region. So, you'd think Rouzaud would be poised to take advantage of the biggest marketing opportunity for Champagne in a century--the millennium. Yet, when asked last year about his sales plan for 1999 he shrugged and said, "What can we do? Champagne [the region] could at most add 10 percent more to the market for two years."

Seated at Le Vigneron, a Reims restaurant known for its poster art collection and an even greater assortment of rare and vintage Champagnes, Rouzaud sipped his most prized product, a 1990 vintage Louis Roederer Cristal. The 57-year-old winemaker explained that increasing the output of Champagne is not as simple as, say, brewing up a few extra tanks of beer; it's limited by the supply of high-quality grapes grown in Champagne. In turn, that grape supply is limited because nearly all the suitable land within the legal limits of Champagne is already planted. As a result, Rouzaud, like many of his colleagues, does not get as excited about the millennium as you might expect.

"Roederer already sells three times as much Cristal in the U.S. as in France," he says, "but we have kept a small quantity aside for the millennium period." The entire private stash, 2,000 large bottles of Cristal 1990 in a size called methuselahs that each contain the equivalent of eight regular bottles, was sold to restaurants and interested consumers at $2,000 per bottle, shipping included.

Though these bottles are not cheap, the quantity is so small and the cost of making them so high that the whole project won't do much to Roederer's bottom line. For Roederer and the makers of the other coveted Champagnes, the millennium is more of an opportunity to make memories than money.

No doubt, some of the best memories will be made while imbibing the top-flight Champagnes. Besides Cristal, which takes its name from the crystal-clear bottle in which it's packaged, this elite group includes such blue-chip bubblies as Dom Perignon, Bollinger R.D., Krug Clos du Mesnil and Taittinger Comtes de Champagne.

These five consistently high-quality, vintage-dated Champagnes come from firms that have stellar track records for making wines that taste extraordinary when released and get even better with age. They have all been highly rated in Wine Spectator (Cigar Aficionado's sister publication), which has blind-tasted the brands for many years. The winemakers themselves, primarily in Reims and Epernay, France (the towns in Champagne that produce the best bubbly), are a very serious and passionate group.

These top-flight Champagnes are generally known as tête de cuvees, or prestige cuvées. A prestige cuvée is usually the most expensive bottling in a Champagne firm's lineup. Cuvée refers to a blend of selected vats of wine. In almost all cases a prestige cuvée is made only in the better years, say four vintages out of a decade. The cellar master chooses the best batches of base wine in the cellar, made from dozens or even hundreds of vineyard plots, and painstakingly crafts a harmonious blend from them. Then his crew bottles the wine and lays it down in the cellar for its long, slow secondary fermentation, which creates the pinpoint bubbles and encourages complexity of taste.

Certainly, the most famous prestige cuvée is Dom Perignon, made by industry giant Moët & Chandon. The broad-based bottle with the slender neck and antique-looking label is usually credited with creating the category. If you look, it's easy to spot bottles of Dom Perignon in movies, on TV and in restaurants. Dom, or D.P., has succeeded for several decades in part because of smart marketing, but the quality remains in the bottle. The other prestige cuvées, though hardly household names, have their own claims to fame.

But what they all have in common is that they transcend ordinary, less expensive Champagne. The blue chips are typically verydry, and more full-bodied, aromatic and distinctive in their flavors. The texture, as you sip, tends to be effervescent, velvety and not prickly. These wines have been aged a minimum of four years, often eight, before they are sent to market. The age, along with the strict selection of base wine and meticulous wine making, helps account for the subtle differences that shoot the price up so high--a minimum of $100 a bottle.

Great vintage Champagnes like these are not made for pouring over the heads of athletes or holding as a prop while you elbow your way through a party. They show their best attributes if you pair them with caviar, other hors d'oeuvres or the first course of a special dinner. And at the risk of sounding snobbish, a sweet dessert is not a good match for a dry Champagne, nor is a cigar. It is best to have Champagne at the beginning of a meal and a cigar at the end.

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