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Champagne Smarts
By Alexis Beltrami
Photos courtesy of
C.I.V.C.

Why post a feature on Champagne just after the holidays? Are we perverse? Well, yes, but that's not the reason. We wish to make a point: Champagne is a wine for all seasons, and is one of the most versatile wines with food. Just ask Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon.

The mainstay of any Champagne house is its classic or non-vintage bottling (actually a blend of wines from multiple years). These wines, which are crafted to maintain a house style with great consistency from year to year, are themselves nothing to sneeze at, and are perfect for most occasions. In favorable years a producer may declare a vintage, and ultimately bottle a vintage Champagne made solely with the grapes from that vintage. Another step up in quality (and price) is the prestige cuvée, which is almost always also a vintage Champagne.

We turned to wine writer, educator, and consultant Ed McCarthy, author of the James Beard-nominated Champagne for Dummies, for insight into the styles of the top Champagnes.

Alexis Beltrami:
How did Champagne become a particular specialization of yours?

Ed McCarthy: Champagne is something that I came to love only with time.

In a Champagne cave (cellar)

I had been tasting and writing about wine since I was about 20, but it wasn't until my 40's that I really started to distinguish among the different kinds of Champagne. I think what happens with a lot of people is the bubbles sort of take over and you fail to realize that Champagne is a fine wine, with bubbles. The more you taste, the more you can distinguish the different kinds of Champagne, and Champagne from sparkling wines made in other parts of the world. I also had a few eye-opening experiences tasting in the cellars of the great Champagne houses. In particular, I remember tasting the first vintage of Pommery's rosé prestige cuvée, the Louise Rosé 1980, and it was just amazing (to this day it remains the greatest rosé Champagne I've tasted). And tasting at Krug, where they broke down all the elements that go into their Champagnes.

AB:
Is Champagne noticeably superior to other sparkling wines around the world?

EM:
I believe it is. With other types of wine, whether white or red, you can have legitimate debates over where the best wines are made, but Champagne really does stand out above other sparkling wines, for a number of reasons. First of all, they've been doing it for about 300 years. But even more than that, they just have the right, as the French use the word, terroir-the right combination of very cool climate and chalky, well-drained soil, which produces very small, concentrated grapes with very high acidity, which make perfect sparkling wine. And they have those very cold, chalky cellars, where the wine ages slowly, and that helps as well.

AB: There is a perception in this country that Champagne is a luxury item that is too expensive to be consumed on a regular basis. Do you agree?

EM: No. Most non-vintage, or classic, Champagnes sell in retail shops for $20 to $40, and most vintage Champagnes are in the $35 to $65 range. Considering the prices being paid for prestigious still wines around the world, Champagne is a good buy. And remember, Champagne production is unusually labor-intensive, requiring the blending of many wines, a second fermentation, riddling, disgorging, dosage.

AB: What about the prestige cuvées, or têtes de cuvée-are they worth the extra cost, vis-à-vis 'ordinary' vintage Champagne?

EM: They are for me. I think this is a case where you do get more for your money, just as vintage Champagnes are superior in general to non-vintage. In fact, Champagne differs from most other wines in that there is a much closer relationship between price and quality. Of course, vintage Champagnes themselves rank among the world's great wines. The prestige cuvées, however, have more intense and complex aromas and flavors, and are more elegant. Their bubbles are also finer, because they are aged longer in the producers' cellars, and they are longer on the finish. Prestige cuvées also have more longevity than most other Champagnes.


Racking (separating clear wine from its lees)
AB: Would you briefly describe some of important prestige cuvées?

EM:
Anything Krug makes is a prestige cuvée, from the Grand Cuvée, which is their basic one, on up through the Vintage Brut and the Clos du Mesnil blanc de blancs. Krug Champagnes are very dry and full-bodied, with richness, depth, and complexity of flavor, and are best enjoyed with food. They are classic examples of prestige cuvée Champagne.

Bollinger's style is also full-bodied. Their vintage Champagne, Grande Année, is great, and then they make an RD (recently disgorged), which is aged longer and disgorged at the last minute before release. The RD is sold by special order only, guaranteeing that it is fresh when sold. One of the greatest Champagnes made is Bollinger's Vieilles Vignes Françaises Blanc de Noirs, which is made entirely from Pinot Noir from vines that escaped the 19th-century phylloxera blight. It's very intense and very rich, a special Champagne.

Pol Roger's Sir Winston Churchill, another cuvée made in a big, powerful style, is great, as are Veuve Clicquot's La Grande Dame and La Grand Dame Rosé. Taittinger's Comtes de Champagne is one of the great blanc de blancs. Dom Pérignon, the luxury cuvée of Moët & Chandon, is not only a great prestige cuvée (it was also the first, at least in the dry style) but is one of the most readily available. It is a medium-weight Champagne that stresses finesse and balance rather than power. The Dom Pérignon Rosé is one of the great rosé Champagnes.

Roederer Cristal, which is sometimes difficult to find, is a stunning Champagne. It's not a powerhouse but is more subtle and elegant, and needs time--at least 15 years from the vintage--to show its best. The rare Cristal Rosé is the world's most highly regarded rosé Champagne.

The Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle "La Cuvée" is a blend of three great vintages-1985, 1988 and 1990 in the current release. Its outstanding qualities are its never-ending stream of wonderfully tiny bubbles, and its amazingly complex aromas and flavors. The Grand Siècle Cuvée Alexandra Rosé possesses a delicacy and complexity that sets it apart from most rosé Champagnes.

The Piper-Heidsieck Champagne Rare is a wonderful prestige cuvée, made entirely from the highest-rated vineyards. It is light- to medium-bodied, dry, and citrusy.
It is one of the best buys among prestige cuvées.

Pommery Cuvée Louise is my idea of a prestige cuvée: it is the epitome of elegance, with superb, discreet fruit flavors and excellent balance. Its delicate flavors make it the perfect Champagne with caviar (beluga can be overwhelmed by more powerful Champagnes). The Louise Rosé, which debuted with the 1980 vintage, is a paragon of rosé Champagne.

Harvest

The Piper-Heidsieck Champagne Rare is a wonderful prestige cuvée, made entirely from the highest-rated vineyards. It is light- to medium-bodied, dry, and citrusy. It is one of the best buys among prestige cuvées.

Pommery Cuvée Louise is my idea of a prestige cuvée: it is the epitome of elegance, with superb, discreet fruit flavors and excellent balance. Its delicate flavors make it the perfect Champagne with caviar (beluga can be overwhelmed by more powerful Champagnes). The Louise Rosé, which debuted with the 1980 vintage, is a paragon of rosé Champagne.

Perrier-Jouët's Fleur de Champagne (called 'Belle Epoque' in Europe), which comes in the flower bottle, is the second most popular prestige cuvée in the US after Dom. It is all finesse and elegance, with floral aromas and light, elegant flavors.

Then there are some lesser-known prestige cuvées that are harder to find but worth seeking out, such as Philipponnat's Clos des Goisses; Jacquesson's Signature, which is maybe the best value among the prestige cuvées; and Gosset's Célébris, which is stunning.

AB: How long should the prestige cuvées be cellared before drinking?

EM: I recommend holding both vintage and prestige Champagnes until at least ten years after the vintage date. Over time, all the different wines that go into a Champagne blend sort of marry, like a soup. Of course, for much of that span they are not yet on the market, anyway. The 1989s are perfect for drinking right now. They are ripe and luscious, with lower acidity than either the 1988s or 1990s. 1990 was a great vintage, and the '90s are drinking nicely now, with a beautiful balance between fruit and acidity, but they will continue to age well for several years. 1988 is a favorite vintage of mine, with dry, austere, powerful wines that still need a few years' aging.

AB: You've inspired me to go out and taste some vintage and prestige Champagnes. Do you have a favorite place to sample Champagne by the glass?

EM: Cello, on East 77th Street in Manhattan, is a beautiful French restaurant with a great Champagne list, including some hard-to-find small grower Champagnes, and they pour four Champagnes by the glass. My favorite Champagne bar in New York continues to be Flute, in the theater district [editor's note: Flute has recently opened a second location, near Union Square].

Ed McCarthy is also co-author, with Mary Ewing-Mulligan, of four other titles in the Wine for Dummies series. Ed and Mary are co-editors of the new Web site CellarDirect.com.

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