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.
While the eve of the third millennium is a great time to uncork a bottle of fine Champagne, it's not a great time to go shopping for it. Importers and wholesalers believe that even if the supply of regular nonvintage Champagne holds out through December 31, the prestige cuvées will probably be out of stock in at least some areas. The message to consumers is simple: act fast if you want to be toasting in the new era with Dom, Cristal or one of the other blue chips.
If you don't see what you want in a wine shop, ask a clerk or the store manager. Some retailers are keeping the best wine out of sight to save it for their most serious customers. By asking, you may convince them you're serious, too.
You could live a long and happy life if you knew only one name in Champagne: Bollinger. This staunchly traditional, family-owned firm consistently makes one of the best nonvintage Champagnes, Bollinger Special Cuvee, and knockout vintage wines led by the Bollinger Grand Année.
Strictly speaking, Bollinger doesn't make a prestige cuvée. Bollinger R.D. belongs in this category not because of its marketing goals or expensive bottle but because of the quality and unique character of the wine inside the bottle. (R.D. stands for "recently disgorged," meaning it was shipped to the United States in the past six months.) Ghislaine de Montgolfier, Bollinger's president and a great-grandson of founder Jacques Bollinger, says a bottle of R.D. is simply a bottle of Grand Année that has aged several years longer in Bollinger's cellars, gaining more character and more maturity before it's sold.
Bollinger, like Roederer, owns a large percentage of the vineyards from which it sources its grapes and thus controls the quality of its wines from the ground up. Bollinger, like Krug, still uses wooden casks to ferment its base wines, lending more complexity of taste and a more traditional style of Champagne. The predominance of Pinot Noir (65 to 75 percent, with the remainder being Chardonnay) in R.D. also helps give it an authentic, reserved character.
While bottles sold as Grand Année are released only after they have been aged a minimum of five years, bottles sold as R.D. are aged eight to 25 years before they are deemed drinkable. During the aging period, the wine and its lees (sediment left over from the secondary fermentation that makes the bubbles) age together in individual bottles. The subtle interaction between the lees and the wine slowly adds more intriguing, toasty flavors to the wine, while effectively preserving its crisp texture and freshness.
Very dry in style, R.D. relies on maturity rather than sweetness to flesh out its flavors. The 1985 ($135) combines smoky, toasted almond aromas with a honeyed fruit flavor and extra long finish. Bollinger makes a concentrated effort to get R.D. bottles to consumers in perfect condition through an ordering system called the R.D. Circle. In this system, consumers place orders through their retailers and Bollinger then disgorges and ships the wine. Through this system, older vintages such as 1982, 1979 and 1975 are also available.
CUVEE DOM PERIGNON
Dom Perignon is the only wine with near-universal name recognition. Pizza parlors with five-item wine lists sell Dom Perignon. Michelin three-star restaurants in Paris keep great old vintages in their cellars. And virtually every wine shop in America has Dom Perignon on display.
One reason it's not hard to find is that Moët & Chandon makes Cuvee Dom Perignon (as it's officially known) in quantities estimated at hundreds of thousands of cases. Another explanation is that Moët has worked tirelessly for more than 60 years to promote and distribute Dom, especially in the United States. The third and most important reason is that when someone buys and drinks a bottle of Dom, they're not disappointed. The quality is always very good, as in the current 1992 vintage ($110), and sometimes spectacular, as in the 1988 and 1982 vintages. People remember the name and return for more.
The name Dom Perignon refers to a Benedictine monk, Pierre Perignon, who worked in the wine cellars of a church-owned vineyard in Champagne 300 years ago. Legend has it Perignon single-handedly invented Champagne, but this has been discredited. It is clear, however, that Perignon did much to perfect the method of making high-quality sparkling wines from the rather thin table wines of the Champagne district.
Moët & Chandon has owned the property where Perignon worked, the Abbey of Hautvillers, for more than a hundred years. In 1936, Moët began selling the 1921 vintage of what until then had been a private bottling of first-class Champagne and called it Dom Perignon. Today, Pinot Noir grapes from the abbey property still go into Dom Perignon, which cellar master Richard Geoffroy typically blends from about 55 percent Chardonnay and 45 percent Pinot Noir.
Dom Perignon's taste is as distinctive as its antique-looking bottle and label. Along with lively fruit flavors, fine bubbles and full body, Dom boasts an assertive aroma that reminds one of toasted bread and wet earth (it's much better than you think). This aroma is the wine's signature, as individual as the enterprising monk for whom it is named.
LOUIS ROEDERER CRISTAL
Much of Roederer's success is undoubtedly due to Cristal. Roederer, founded in 1776, created Cristal in 1876 for exclusive use at the court of Czar Alexander II of Russia.
Not widely known by the public, Cristal is nevertheless coveted by Champagne lovers. It fetches even higher prices than Dom. Besides those $2,000 bottles of 1990 Cristal, the current vintage widely available is the 1993. This Cristal is one of the best Champagnes from a very good but not great year, and retails for $170 a bottle. The 1990, however, ranks with past great years of Cristal, including 1985, 1982 and 1979.
The taste of Cristal--the blend is slightly more than half Pinot Noir, with the rest Chardonnay--combines generous flavors with a graceful texture. Its style is not overly powerful, but it layers in nuances of citrus fruit, minerals, even ginger, that linger on the finish. As with any wine type, the length and nature of the aftertaste are what separate the good from the grand.
Roederer is one of the few major Champagne houses that own a majority of their vineyards. Its holdings of 450 acres supply 75 percent of the company's output, including all the grapes for Cristal, which gives Roederer complete control over the quality of the prestige cuvée from the vine to the bottling line.
TAITTINGER COMTES DE CHAMPAGNE
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.
Clos du Mesnil shares traits with other Krug wines, partly because all of them are barrel-fermented--a rare practice in Champagne today. But it also has its own distinct personality. Henri Krug says the flavors remind him of grapefruit or lime, and a hint of a stony, flinty quality that other Champagnes from this village share. So, Clos du Mesnil gives the better of two traditions.
A stunning 1989 Clos du Mesnil ($300) and a somewhat leaner 1986 ($315) are currently on sale. With seven vintages dating back to the original, there isn't a weak year in the lineup. All are aging remarkably well and destined to become collector's items.
Jim Gordon has been writing about wine for 15 years.