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.
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.
Krug doesn't claim to make a prestige cuvée. The Krugs immodestly argue that the Krug name, in itself, stands for prestige. Thus, it is impossible to single out a "prestige cuvée" in the Krug line. But if price alone is to judge, the vintage Krug Collection bottles are the most prestigious. They are the oldest Krug wines around. And they stand the test of time well. A recent bottle of 1964 was amazingly fresh. It was a delicious wine with complex aromas and flavors of apple, butter and pears. This Champagne was comparable to some of the greatest white wines of Burgundy's famed Côte d'Or region.
It is not by chance that Krug Champagnes taste like fine white Burgundy. In Krug's case, this is clearly due in part to the house's tradition to ferment in Burgundian-size, 205-liter oak barrels. The wines are then placed in stainless steel tanks. "By fermenting in oak barrels, we make the wines able to age for a long, long time. They become resistant to oxidation," says co-owner Remi Krug. After bottling and the second fermentation, the Krug vintage wines will age on the lees at least six years and often eight years before being disgorged and then released.
Bollinger's style is similar to Krug's, but Bollinger has a different approach for its famed RD series. "RD" stands for "recently disgorged." Disgorging is a technique to eliminate the yeasts, lees and other solids that have accumulated in the wine as it ages; after disgorgement, the wine is bottled and shipped. The RDs are released after at least seven or eight years of aging on their yeasts in the bottle. The '82 RD was released in 1991, and the '85 will be released in 1993.
Bollinger launched its RD line in 1955. "We wanted to let our clients taste a wine with some more age on it," said Christian Bizot, the owner. In a vintage year, Bollinger's production averages about 150,000 bottles of Grande Année and 70,000 bottles of RD. Older vintages of RD Bollinger Champagne are often available on the market, and Bollinger has even established a program whereby consumers place an order for these wines with a merchant. Upon receiving the order, Bollinger will disgorge and ship the bottles. Among the RDs available for purchase are the 1979, 1975 and 1973.
Although it is almost 20 years old, the '73 Bollinger RD illustrates how successful this house has been in aging these old Champagnes. This particular bottle of '73 was outstanding, complex yet fresh, with doughy, vanilla and lemon pie aromas and flavor.
Whether Bollinger RD, Dom Pérignon or Roederer Cristal, prestige cuvées offer Champagne aficionados the best quality. They don't come cheap, but they offer unforgettable finesse and complexity and exciting character. And these are as good as the world's best still wines, be it a Montrachet or a Bordeaux first growth like Château Latour.
Per-Henrik Mansson is a Switzerland-based correspondent for The Wine Spectator.