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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

(continued from page 3)

Taittinger is one of those wine companies in which the character of the wine seems to reflect directly the character of its maker. Taittinger's prestige cuvée, Comtes de Champagne, is as poised and sophisticated as Claude Taittinger himself, the patriarch and director of the family-owned firm since 1960.

Comtes de Champagne is a Blanc de Blancs, a white wine made primarily from Chardonnay grapes. (Many Champagnes are Blanc de Noirs, wines made from the clear juice of dark grapes, such as Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.) But don't expect the broad, luscious character of a California Chardonnay from Taittinger. The Comtes de Champagne conveys an intensity and focus more like that of a Grand Cru Chablis. There's something in Comtes de Champagne that subtly reminds one of the bracing smell of the sea or a freshly shucked oyster.

Comtes de Champagne was named in memory of Thibaud IV, Count of Champagne, who is credited with planting the first Chardonnay vines in France in the thirteenth century. Using vineyards it owns in the Côtes des Blancs district of Champagne, Taittinger makes and ages Comtes de Champagne in spectacular cellars carved out of Reims's chalk bedrock dating from the thirteen century. About 5 percent of Comtes de Champagne is aged in new oak barrels, adding smoothness and a slight vanilla quality.

The first vintage, 1952, was released in 1957. The current offering is 1993 ($160), a year that favored Chardonnay, and the best year between 1990 and 1995 for Champagne. The 1990 is slightly more powerful and deep in flavor, if you can find it, and the excellent 1989 vintage is also worth a search.

KRUG CLOS DU MESNIL

The name Krug has a special resonance in Champagne circles. Henri Krug and his brother Remi represent the fifth generation of the family to operate Krug, a small firm that proudly sticks to traditional wine-making methods and prices nothing at less than $100 a bottle. Krug is not your typical Champagne business, nor is it your typical Champagne.

Krug's biggest production item is a multivintage blend called Grand Cuvée that tastes so much more mature and exotic than the average Brut that it's easy to mistake it in a blind tasting for a grand old vintage Champagne. Krug's vintage Champagnes are legendary among wine collectors, and often fetch the highest prices at auction for Champagne.

But the rarest, most coveted Krug Champagne is Clos du Mesnil. This unique Blanc de Blancs is made entirely from Chardonnay grapes grown in a small vineyard in the village of Mesnil-sur-Oger south of Epernay. Clos du Mesnil operates similarly to a domain in Burgundy or a château in Bordeaux, rejecting the widely held belief in Champagne that one must blend different grape varieties grown in different parts of the region to achieve the best-quality wine.

A stone wall which dates back to 1698 surrounds the 4.6-acre plot of land where the grapes grow. Clos du Mesnil's first vintage was 1979, practically yesterday in Champagne terms. The vines yield just enough Chardonnay in good years to make 1,000 cases. This is a tiny production compared with the other prestige Champagnes.

Clos du Mesnil is a memorable wine to drink. At first sip, it's reserved, crisp, even steely. But its flavors of minerals, citrus and almond open up slowly as you savor the wine, and its sense of finesse lingers on the finish.


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