Sunday, February 23, 2014

Champagne Uncorked

How good are the big-selling bruts, and why is French Champagne so special?

By Jim Gordon

As the economy continues to boom and the millennium fast approaches, wine lovers may drink more Champagne in the next 19 months than they usually do in several years. In fact, they're already buying these bottles like they're going out of style. The Champagne industry reports a 14.5 percent increase in shipments to the United States in 1997, and 46 percent of this total is brut non-vintage Champagne.

Americans love to drink the basic bruts of Moët, Veuve Clicquot, Mumm and several other popular brands. But what exactly are you drinking when you pop the cork from a bottle of this high-priced but non-vintage category of wine? Made from a blend of different grapes from different vineyards and different years, brut non-vintage may be the world's most complicated wine.

We decided to examine the 10 biggest-selling French Champagne brands in the United States and spotlight their non-vintage bruts, the mainstay of each Champagne firm. What should you expect them to taste like? How good are they? And, ultimately, why must they be so different in concept from the other great wines of the world?

For this report, I visited each of the top 10 Champagne houses and interviewed the executives and cellar masters in charge. I have been blind-tasting their wines for many years, but I tried fresh samples of all their brut non-vintage wines blind in New York and again in Champagne. On the pages that follow are brief company profiles and my latest notes and scores to help you decide which style of Champagne suits your taste buds.

Beyond the buying advice, however, we also present an analytical piece that examines why Champagne is unique in the world. It brings festivity, romance, a sense of celebration to any occasion when it's uncorked. And yet it's a serious wine, too, one that's even more enjoyable when you understand where it comes from.

The Magic Formula

The 250-year-old recipe breaks all the rules--but should it?

You have to admire the moxie of the winemakers in Champagne. If any other wine region of the world tried to sell a product that starts at nearly $30 a bottle, there would be a few rules. For one, they'd have to put the vintage on the label. For another, they'd have to add the district, village or specific vineyard name. They might also have to tell you what grape varieties the wine is made from.

But not in the Champagne region of France. The most popular Champagnes--the non-vintage bruts--follow none of these rules.

From the wine lover's point of view, this goes against the grain of connoisseurship. Wine connoisseurs love to know all the details and follow a vineyard or winery through its ups and downs. They want to identify a wine with a place and a time. But non-vintage Champagne gives very little evidence of its origins. It's about as far removed from the concept of terroir, treasured in every other wine region of France, as a wine can get.

You could say Champagne is a victim of its own success. The region has been making sparkling wine using a unique formula for nearly 300 years, and promoting it as the beverage of celebration for at least 200. Some people buy Champagne purely for the cachet. Others really like the crisp, elegant style and complex flavor of Champagne, which has not been exactly duplicated elsewhere, despite fierce competition from California, Spain, Italy and other parts of France.

At its best, non-vintage brut combines subtlety and power. By law it is dry in style, containing a maximum of 1.5 percent sugar. It has a delicate flavor profile with an appetizingly crisp texture created by firm acidity that makes the flavors seem to accelerate and expand in the mouth, providing a lingering finish after you've swallowed. The secondary fermentation--which takes place in the bottle, producing the bubbles--and the long period of aging that follows make all bottle-fermented sparkling wines different. But these steps seem to intensify the other factors unique to the Champagne region, for a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. For all its imitators, real Champagne is still worth its high price if you choose your brut wisely.

It's a time of reexamination in the Champagne region, where despite booming sales many companies are not profitable. There, in the damp caves dug out of pure chalk and in the 200-year-old châteaus used as offices, some people are flirting with heresy. They want to change Champagne's carefully shaped image from that of a beverage of celebration to that of a fine wine.

Can the Champenois have it both ways? They want people to consider Champagne not just as something bubbly to drink out of starlets' slippers, but as a wine for meals, a wine to age--something serious, and thus worth an even higher price tag. More than one executive in Reims and Epernay told me that the goals for the immediate future are not in making more Champagne but in raising the price per bottle. Yet those in the Champagne establishment are moving very slowly to treat Champagne more like other wines. They could take steps to produce more vintage-dated Champagne, create more vineyard-designated Champagne (only a handful exist today) and give consumers more information on their labels.

Is Champagne a wine?

The idea is so elementary that at first it seems ridiculous. Of course, Champagne is a wine. It's made from wine grapes that have been fermented and aged. But the whole structure and culture of the Champagne business is bound to the idea that the wine of Champagne is not just a wine. Three centuries ago, pioneers in Champagne -- including the monk Dom Pérignon--perfected a winemaking method that turned this northerly region with a short growing season and thin, tart table wines into a source of appetizing and profitable sparkling wines.

The magic formula involved more than just the bubbles -- it was the blend. A blend of grape varieties, a blend of vineyards, a blend of vintages. By manipulating these variables and putting the resulting wine through a second fermentation, the winemakers of Champagne not only made a great-tasting wine, but they also cheated nature. If the Pinot Noir grapes failed to ripen, they could rely on the Pinot Meunier. If the vineyards of the Montagne de Reims were devastated by frost, they could use grapes from the Vallée de la Marne. If the base wine from 1698 was not so great because of a rainy September, they could blend in 20 percent of 1697 and 10 percent of the great 1695 vintage.

One house that's trying to put the wine back into Champagne is Charles Heidsieck. Later this year it plans to take a small step that wine lovers have been wanting for many years: dating its non-vintage brut with the year it began its second fermentation, which is the year after the harvest. At the very least, putting this date on the label will help consumers know how fresh the bottles are, and they may help people understand the quality of vintage years.

To Patrick Charpentier, general director of Champagne P. & C. Heidsieck, it's a positive marketing move. "Quality has not been part of the story about Champagne," says Charpentier, referring to the showbiz glitz and associations with artists, prime ministers and royalty that have traditionally been exploited to promote Champagne. "We want to emphasize quality and talk about it. Our objective is to give added value--something you can check, something that is real."

While Charles Heidsieck, owned by the giant spirits firm Rémy Cointreau, is on the opposite end of the corporate spectrum from family-owned Champagne Bollinger, both houses may be going in the same direction. In 1992, when Champagne was reeling from declining sales and sharp criticism of its wine quality in the English and French press, Bollinger took the bull by the horns and published a "Charter of Ethics and Quality." Bollinger declared that it made all its Champagne itself, while many other houses bought already-bottled wine and put their labels on it. Bollinger stated that it only used the first pressing of each batch of grapes, widely considered to provide the best juice, and not the juice from the next two pressings. Among many other points, Bollinger said it aged even its least expensive Champagne for three years "on the yeast" and at least another three months before releasing it.

Bollinger's initiative seemed to break the wall of secrecy that surrounded much of Champagne. Bollinger even put details of its winemaking practice on its labels. Since then, the executives and cellar masters at other houses have been more willing to talk about how Champagne is made. Several have also embraced Bollinger's rules on aging, on using the first pressing only and on refusing to buy ready-made Champagne. The trade organization representing growers and Champagne houses has also come out for tougher quality standards and more public education.

What's in a brut?

Differences in Champagne style are often subtle, but a knowledgeable wine lover can detect them. Yet there are so many variables in Champagne that it's difficult to sort out why a Champagne has a certain style. For example, you might expect those with a preponderance of Pinot Noir in the blend to be heartier and bolder in flavor, because Pinot Noir is a red wine grape. That holds true for the serious Bollinger, which is made from 60 percent Pinot Noir, but not for the extremely friendly, crisp Piper-Heidsieck, which contains 50 percent Pinot Noir.

The effects of aging, and of aged reserve wines that are added to the blend, often leave a stronger stamp on a Champagne than the grape varieties. The desirable aroma often cited as "doughy," "yeasty" or "toasty," because it smells like toasted bread, comes from the interaction of the wine with the yeast as it undergoes its second fermentation, in the bottle, and then rests with the yeast lees for two to three years. Champagnes with a higher percentage of Chardonnay seem to develop more of that sophisticated, prized, sometimes earthy "toast" character.

Bollinger and Louis Roederer are good examples of houses where the reserve wines add a distinctive character. Reserves are blended into the Champagne base wine a few months after the harvest and before the base wine goes into bottles for the second fermentation. This is a turning point in the wine's creation, as the cellar master and his staff taste dozens or even hundreds of sharp young still wines to decide how to assemble the blend. Reserves constitute from 10 percent to 40 percent of the base wine; 20 percent is average.

Bollinger uses reserve wines (in small quantities) as old as 15 years, which have been aging in magnums, gaining a mature character as do still wines. These help give Bollinger an attractive smoky or nutty nuance. Roederer's cellar master, Michel Pansu, underlines the importance of using oak-aged reserve wines. The subtle interaction between the oak and the wine usually gives a more mellow, less lively character. "That's what makes the Brut Premier taste more like a wine and less like a sparkling wine," Pansu says.

The Champenois say the real purpose of the reserve wine is not to make the non-vintage brut better, but to keep a brut's flavor profile the same from year to year. Reserve wines from sunnier, riper vintages can help smooth out an otherwise lean base wine from the most recent harvest, for example. But non-vintage bruts may not be immune to the effects of greater or lesser years. Most of these on sale today are based on the 1993 and 1994 vintages. These are good--if not great--years, and they may account for an apparent tick upward in my recent scoring of the bruts compared to the past couple of years, when the wines were based on the weaker 1991 and 1992 vintages. If true, this theory means we will be in for even better Champagne in another year or so, when bruts based on the fine 1995 and 1996 vintages arrive just in time for the millennium.

Jean-Claude Rouzaud, owner of Roederer, says some consumers can taste the difference when the Brut Premier based on one year is replaced in wine shops by the one based on the following year. But he says the difference comes from the fact that the first shipments of a newer bottling have spent several months' less time aging on the yeast than have the last shipments of the previous bottling. Champagne houses typically don't release all of a bottling at once, as do still wine producers. They prepare their wines for shipment by disgorging them in waves. Disgorging is the process of expelling the yeast lees, topping up the bottle with a bit of sweetened wine called the dosage and applying the cork, foil and label. The bottles should spend three to six months more in the cellars after disgorging before being shipped, the cellar masters say.

Will the magic disappear?

It all adds up to a long and complicated trip from the grape grower to the person who pops the cork. The top-selling brut non-vintage Champagnes on the market now are two to three years older than the current releases of most table wines. This long aging process amplifies the other unusual techniques that make Champagne a unique wine.

There's no denying the enjoyment, the festivity or the romance captured in a bottle of brut. Many Champagne makers seem to think that this magic will disappear if people look too closely at how the magic is performed. The wine world, however, is getting increasingly competitive. Partly because of the Champagne houses' own efforts in other countries, Champagne no longer has an exclusive hold on producing high-quality sparkling wine.

Today's wine lovers don't have to buy Champagne. They are better educated about wine than ever before, and they know that there are alternatives. They buy their bubbly based on taste, and they want to understand how it came to taste that way. And they continue to enjoy Champagne because it embodies such a masterful blend of poetry and production techniques. Taking more of the mystery out of Champagne would only add to its appreciation, not take away its mystique.

Comparing the Top-Selling Bruts

Wine / Score / Price

Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve NV / 91 / $34
G.H. Mumm Brut Cordon Rouge NV / 90 / $25
Bollinger Brut Special Cuvée NV / 89 / $30
Taittinger Brut La Française NV / 89 / $38
Veuve Clicquot Brut NV / 88 / $45
Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut NV / 87 / $28
Louis Roederer Brut Premier NV / 87 / $42
Piper-Heidsieck Brut NV / 86 / $28
Pol Roger Brut NV / 85 / $35
Laurent-Perrier Brut L.P. NV / 84 / $25
Moët & Chandon Brut Impérial NV / 84 / $40

Piper-Heidsieck & Charles Heidsieck

The life of the party and the best of the top-selling bruts

Keeping track of the Heidsiecks of Champagne has been like following the Kennedy clan in politics. They both started from nuclear families, but have splintered, argued and occasionally reunited when it served their interests.

Since 1989, Piper-Heidsieck and Charles Heidsieck have been firmly joined together under the ownership of Rémy Cointreau. Employees of the company refer to these two houses by their first names, and to show how close Piper and Charles are today, the company is now known as Champagne P. & C. Heidsieck (pronounced HIDE-sick).

Although Piper and Charles share the same owner; the same cellar master, Daniel Thibault; and the same dazzling new $10 million winery outside Reims, they maintain studiously different styles of wine. For Champagne drinkers accustomed to Moët and Veuve Clicquot, Piper and Charles offer refreshing differences.

Think of Piper as the life of the party and Charles as the suave dinner guest. Piper-Heidsieck Brut NV(rated 86 points) is deliberately made to be lively and exuberant--and it is. Of all the Champagne houses in this report, only Piper admits to aging its brut for as little as two years on the yeast before disgorging (the minimum by law is one year). Most houses take pride in a longer period of maturity, but enologist Cecile Rivault says, "We are looking for freshness and youth in Piper."

The core taste of Piper comes from its heavy reliance on Pinot Noir, usually 50 percent, plus 30 percent Pinot Meunier and 20 percent Chardonnay. But Piper's brut tastes less sober and staid than other Pinot-based Champagnes, possibly because a high percentage of its grapes comes from the southernmost part of Champagne, the Aube district. No one describes the Aube vineyards as being the best, but they work well in Piper's blend.

In contrast, Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve NV (91, $34) is a fully developed, luscious and flavorful style of Champagne that you want to linger over. In my view, it's the best non-vintage brut of the top 10 brands. It's more of a wine than a refreshment, showing all the complexity and creamy texture of a nicely mature table wine, but with the fine-beaded effervescence and firm acidity for which Champagne is famous. Roughly equal parts of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay go into the Brut Réserve, but an unusually large proportion of reserve wine from older years is used--as much as 40 percent.

Rivault says that if Piper's style is like an inverted pyramid, where the first impression is an accessible breadth of flavor, then Charles' style is like a regular pyramid, with tantalizing peaks of flavor at the first sip, but great depth to explore as you continue to taste and enjoy it.

It's a corporate environment at P. & C. Heidsieck, but the company is pushing fresh ideas as well as high-quality Champagnes. For one thing, Charles Heidsieck is introducing a revolutionary new way to label its non-vintage wines. Beginning this fall in the United States, you will see bottles of Brut Réserve with dates on them. A sticker on the neck will say "Mis en Cave" followed by a year. This means the wine was "put in the cellar" in a certain year, and essentially tells you that the "vintage" of this non-vintage product is the year before the year printed. Thus, if a bottle says "Mis en Cave 1994," it means that the majority of the wine in the blend came from the 1993 harvest. Champagnes go into bottles for their secondary fermentation during the winter following a harvest.

While most wine regions would yawn at such a concept, it's truly unusual in Champagne, where the concept of non-vintage blends and maintaining consistent house styles from year to year has taken precedence over vintage quality for a very long time.

At the very least, consumers of Charles Heidsieck will know how old a bottle is when they purchase it. But Patrick Charpentier, general director of the firm, says the idea goes beyond that. Three-bottle sets will also be sold, featuring Brut Réserves from three consecutive years. Even older, fully mature and dated bottles will be available from time to time. A 1986 (based on the great 1985 vintage) that I tasted in Reims was gorgeous: complex, subtle, intricate and layered, yet still quite fresh.

Owner Rémy Cointreau
Vineyards owned 190 acres (total)
Annual production 584,000 cases
Shipped to U.S. in 1997 50,000 cases
86 Brut Champagne NV $28 Fresh and lively in texture, exuberant and slightly spicy in flavor. It's light but well balanced. Better than previously reviewed.
93 Brut Champagne Rare 1988 $66
89 Brut Rosé Champagne NV $48
89 Extra Dry Champagne NV $28

Owner Rémy Cointreau
Vineyards owned 190 acres (total)
Annual production 160,000 cases
Shipped to U.S. in 1997 5,000 cases
91 Brut Champagne Réserve NV $34 Luxurious and inviting in style, this has toasty, vanillin aromas, compelling and complex fruit flavors, a creamy, smooth texture and a lingering finish. Much better than when tasted for the Oct. 31, 1997, issue.
95 Brut Rosé Champagne 1985 $55
94 Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Blanc des Millénaires 1985 $70
88 Brut Champagne 1990 $48

G.H. Mumm

The details all add up for Cordon Rouge

Who says you can't havequality and quantity at the same time? In Champagne, where the craft of blending a cuvée from diverse batches of base wine is revered, it's practically a commandment that the two do indeed go together. And G.H. Mumm proves the point as well as any Champagne house.

Mumm is the No. 4 Champagne house in exports to the United States. Its Cordon Rouge ("red ribbon") non-vintage, first produced in 1875, is the company's standard-bearer--accounting for 85 percent of Mumm's production--and it is also one of the best non-vintage Champagnes from the big firms. In two out of the last three years I have rated it 90 points in blind tastings, and the "off" year still earned a very good 86 score.

While Mumm has long provided good quality, its performance in recent years seems special. New cellar master Dominique Demarville is refining innovations begun in the early 1990s. There's no one secret to Mumm's success, says Jean-Marie Barillere, vice president of operations, but Mumm uses the latest technology and applies its own research to continually refine its approach.

Cordon Rouge is made from a relatively high percentage of Pinot Noir--40 percent--plus 20 percent Chardonnay, 20 percent Pinot Meunier and 20 percent reserve wines from previous years. That blend is not so different from Moët's and several of the other big Champagne firms' formulas, but Mumm seems to get more richness of flavor and creaminess of texture from the mix.

Barillere says Cordon Rouge has to be more than just bubbles. "It's the wine qualities we are looking for," he says, especially the power and length of flavor that come from firm acidity in the base wine and a high percentage of Pinot Noir.

Mumm and Perrier-Jouët are both owned by the New York-based Seagram Château & Estate Wines Co., but they maintain separate winemaking staffs and facilities. They do share the same vineyard team and a research group that investigates such topics as new vine-training methods and the improvement of yeast strains for the second fermentation. These "techie" details don't make as romantic a story as those of more traditional houses that use barrel fermentation or hand-riddling, but each bottle of Cordon Rouge tells such a good story by itself that it doesn't matter.

Owner Seagram Château & Estate Wines Co.
Vineyards owned 525 acres
Annual production 625,000 cases
Shipped to U.S. in 1997 100,000 cases
90 Brut Champagne Cordon Rouge NV $25 A most distinctive Champagne, with an extra dimension that makes it stand out from the pack. It offers pungent earthy, toasty aromas that melt on the palate into opulent, creamy flavors that linger with richness on the finish.
85 Extra Dry Champagne Carte Classique NV $25
84 Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Mumm de Cramant NV $40


A most distinctive, mature, Pinot Noir style of Champagne

Bollinger occupies a special place in the hearts of its devotees, because its Champagnes are unique in style and its methods are extremely traditional. Offer a glass of Moët non-vintage and a glass of Bollinger Special Cuvée NV to a novice wine drinker and he or she will easily note the difference.

That's not to say that everyone will prefer the Bollinger. Its toasty, sometimes smoky aromas and nutty, honeylike flavors are too aggressive for some, but there's no denying the distinctiveness of this wine. With a whopping 60 percent Pinot Noir in the blend and the use of well-aged reserve wines, Bollinger Special Cuvée (rated 89) has a serious character that puts it at the far end of the style spectrum.

The family-owned company has been outspokenly adamant about preserving traditional elements of the Champagne-making process. Much of the base wine for its vintage bottlings, for instance, is still barrel-fermented, a very unusual practice in the region today. Bottles of vintage and reserve wines are still topped with corks instead of modern metal caps as they undergo more than four years of aging on the yeast. A great-grandson of cofounder Jacques Bollinger, Ghislaine de Montgolfier, is president of the company.

Special Cuvée is fermented in stainless steel tanks, but it does benefit from the addition of reserve wines that have been aging in magnums resting "on the cork" in Bollinger's cellars near Epernay for up to 15 years. Another factor in the quality equation is that Bollinger relies on 360 acres of its own vineyards--70 percent of its needs--for its annual output of 120,000 cases of Champagne.

Bollinger made its boldest statement on behalf of tradition in 1992, when it published a "Charter of Ethics and Quality," laying out its winemaking standards and practices and challenging other Champagne houses to meet the same standards. This charter helped renew interest in quality winemaking in Champagne. Now, cellar masters at several other houses say they have adopted many of these standards.

No discussion of Bollinger would be complete without mention of its consistently outstanding vintage Champagnes (93 points for both the 1988 and 1989) and the R.D. ("recently disgorged") releases. These wines are older vintages that have been aged a minimum of eight years before release, and they exhibit a fascinating marriage of mature flavors and fresh texture. The current R.D. offering is 1985 (rated 92).

Owner Descendants of Jacques Bollinger
Vineyards owned 360 acres
Annual production 120,000 cases
Shipped to U.S. in 1997 13,000 cases
89 Brut Champagne Special Cuvée NV $30 A full-flavored, robust and mature style of Champagne that blends nutty, toasty aromas with rich honey and nut flavors. Shows fine depth, a great texture and lingering finish.
93 Brut Champagne Grande Année 1989 $70
92 Brut Rosé Champagne 1988 $60
92 Extra Brut Champagne R.D. 1985 $135


A relative newcomer emphasizes the elegance of Chardonnay

Taittinger is a youngster among the gray-haired eminences of Champagne. The brand is "only" 60 years old, but it has established a deserved reputation for Champagnes of consistency and style.

That style is tied to the company's emphasis on Chardonnay. From the Taittinger Brut non-vintage, known as La Française, to the prestige cuvée, Comtes de Champagne, a high percentage of Chardonnay helps give Taittinger wines a distinct personality--assertively toasty, vanillin aromas followed by crisp, citruslike flavors and an elegant texture.

The brut non-vintage, made of 45 percent Chardonnay, has been extremely consistent in my blind tastings since 1994, scoring 88, 88, 86, 88 and 89. Taittinger keeps its brut in the caves for three to four years, and this extended aging tends to bring that toasty, spicy character out of the Chardonnay. The Comtes de Champagne takes the Chardonnay idea even further--it is a Blanc de Blancs, made solely from Chardonnay.

Although Taittinger is not one of the giants in the Champagne region, it is the most prominent family-owned Champagne in the United States, trailing just behind the brands of LVMH and Seagram in sales volume.

Claude Taittinger's father founded the firm. Claude began working for Taittinger after World War II and has directed the Champagne house since 1960. This puts him in the same league as Bernard de Nonancourt of Laurent-Perrier when it comes to longevity on the job, each having 50-plus years of experience.

The Taittinger family owns a holding company called the Taittinger Group, whose diversified interests also include Concorde Hotels--the most famous of which is the Crillon in Paris--as well as the Société du Louvre and a Loire Valley sparkling wine company called Bouvet-Labuday. Taittinger also operates the Napa Valley winery Domaine Carneros, which makes sparkling and still wines.

Despite the Taittinger brand's relative youth, it has the cachet of aristocracy. Part of it stems from the high quality of the wines, but it also comes from its grand properties in Champagne, including historic buildings, Roman-era caves and 600 acres of vines. A picture-postcard vineyard estate near Epernay called Château de la Marquetterie was acquired by Pierre Taittinger in 1932, a year after he bought the Champagne firm of Forest-Forneau.

Owner Taittinger family
Vineyards owned 600 acres
Annual production 350,000 cases
Shipped to U.S. in 1997 58,800 cases
89 Brut Champagne La Française NV $38 A complete Champagne that pulls it all together: the vivid fruit flavors, the plush texture, the spicy-toasty nuances and the long finish. Even better than when last tasted.
89 Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Comtes de Champagne 1989 $113
89 Brut Rosé Champagne Comtes de Champagne 1993 $152
87 Brut Champagne Millésime 1991 $52
87 Brut Rosé Champagne Cuvée Prestige NV $48

Veuve Clicquot

The "yellow label" is second only to Moët in popularity

The business of selling Champagne is almost as entrenched as the soft-drink business. The big brands, established long ago, seem to glide along on the strength of their marketing inertia. So when Veuve Clicquot became the No. 2 best-selling Champagne in the United States in 1995, it was big news in the wine trade--as if Royal Crown Cola suddenly beat Pepsi to stand alongside Coke.

Now Veuve Clicquot (pronounced vuhv klee-KOH) is second only to its sister Champagne house, Moët & Chandon, in popularity among Americans. The two houses together easily sell more bottles in the United States than all their competitors combined.

In the late 1980s, Veuve Clicquot began to establish a cult following here based on the fine quality of its brut non-vintage, also known as the "yellow label" (even though the label is orange). Then a savvy but subtle marketing campaign took over, and a few short years later, people from Pensacola to Portland could pronounce the name and enjoy the wine.

The quality of the yellow label brut slumped slightly in recent years, but consumers haven't seemed to mind. It appears, however, that the quality level is on the rise again. I rated this brut 85 points in the last published review (Nov. 15, 1997), but in a recent blind sample it seemed noticeably better, and now gets an 88 score--exceptionally good for a wine shipped here in quantities of about 170,000 cases. The current release is more complex and creamy, more long-lasting on the finish than were its last four incarnations.

Pinot Noir makes up between 50 and 55 percent of the brut, Chardonnay 30 percent and Pinot Meunier the remainder. Cellar master Jacques Peters says that Pinot Noir sets the style of Veuve Clicquot all the way from the yellow label to the La Grand Dame prestige cuvée. One unusual aspect of Veuve Clicquot's brut is that Peters uses a high percentage of reserve wines to round out the blend, usually about a third. He says that several factors may account for the wine's improvement, including better contracts with the independent grape growers who supply about 75 percent of his needs, newer technology in the winery and a good run of vintages that allowed him to set aside better reserves.

The word veuve in Veuve Clicquot, meaning widow, refers to Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, the woman who took over her husband's small wine business after his death in 1805.

Owner LVMH Moët-Hennessy Louis Vuitton
Vineyards owned 700 acres
Annual production 700,000-900,000 cases
Shipped to U.S. in 1997 170,000 cases
88 Brut Champagne NV $45 Beautifully refreshing and fruity in character, creamy in texture and with a lingering, toasty finish. Improved since our last tasting.
94 Brut Champagne La Grande Dame 1989 $100
94 Brut Rosé Champagne La Grande Dame 1988 $195
89 Brut Rosé Champagne Réserve 1988 $60
84 Brut Champagne Réserve 1989 $50
84 Demi-Sec Champagne NV $45


Why buy the "flower bottle" when the Grand Brut non-vintage is so good?

Like most of the largest Champagne houses, Perrier-Jouët owns a minority of the vineyards from which it receives grapes. The 161 acres that it does own provide only about 25 percent of the firm's needs, but these holdings nevertheless establish Perrier-Jouët's wine style.

Most of what it owns is planted to Chardonnay, including a large holding of 90 acres in the coveted village of Cramant. Perrier-Jouët (pronounced PEHR-ee-ay zhew-EHT) puts 50 percent Chardonnay in its vintage-dated prestige cuvée, the Fleur de Champagne. The Grand Brut non-vintage has just 20 percent Chardonnay, but company president Thierry Budin says, "Chardonnay gives us the elegance, the lightness, the finesse that we want. This has been our style forever."

The Grand Brut (rated 87) is not a lightweight, however, because it can smell toasty and rich, but the Chardonnay shows itself through a slightly buttery flavor that blends nicely with a clean, bright fruit character. The Cuvée Belle Epoque takes the Chardonnay factor further, adding a creamy texture and pastrylike flavors that make it easy to appreciate in the 1989 vintage (also rated 87). This cuvée is better known as the "flower bottle" because of its ara-besque design created for Perrier-Jouët in 1902 by artist Emile Galle.

Perrier-Jouët has been owned by the Seagram Château & Estate Wines Co. since 1959. This branch of Seagram's international drinks business also owns the Champagne house of G.H. Mumm. The Perrier-Jouët brand has grown from a mere 500 cases in the United States in 1975 to 103,000 cases today, but it still operates like a family winery in many ways. In fact, Budin is the sixth generation of his family to work at Perrier-Jouët's Epernay cellars.

Budin says that the Fleur de Champagne is especially popular in the United States, which is Perrier-Jouët's most important market, but that the firm's pride is tied up in the non-vintage brut. "Our philosophy is that if we are to be recognized as a grande marque **great brand**, it must be on the quality of the Grand Brut."

In my estimation, the Grand Brut is similar in quality to the much more expensive flower bottle. So if price is a consideration and your interest lies more in taste than in packaging, the Grand Brut makes a better purchase.

Owner Seagram Château & Estate Wines Co.
Vineyards owned 161 acres
Annual production 230,000 cases
Shipped to U.S. in 1997 103,000 cases
87 Brut Champagne Grand Brut NV $28 Rich in texture and full-flavored, this packs more punch than the usual Champagne. Combines bright fruit flavors with an attractive buttery character that lingers on the finish.
88 Brut Rosé Champagne Fleur de Champagne Belle Epoque 1988 $110
87 Brut Champagne Fleur de Champagne Belle Epoque 1989 $100
86 Brut Champagne Grand Brut 1989 $35

Louis Roederer

A winning formula based on vineyard ownership and a classic style

Jean-Claude Rouzaud, ownerof Champagne Louis Roederer, speaks with conviction about the quality of his Brut Premier non-vintage. "We are one of the companies, if not the company, where the consistency of the Brut Premier is certain."

It's difficult to argue with him when my ratings of the Brut Premier over the past four years have tracked about as flat as Kansas: 88, 89, 87, 87, 87. Roederer makes a classic style of Champagne, always solid but not showy in fruit flavor, nuanced with cinnamon and vanilla, and wrapped in a distinctly smooth texture with a lingering finish. Given samples of two different years' blends of Brut Premier to taste blind, the only difference I could detect was a slightly more toasty aroma in the sample that turned out to be a year older.

The consistency is due in large part to Rouzaud's ownership of 470 acres of vineyard, 95 percent of what is needed for his production. A blend that averages two-thirds Pinot Noir gives Roederer a tangy, often appley character. The use of mature reserve wines that have been aged in large, ornately carved oak casks for several years helps to add complexity and depth, he says.

"The goal is to achieve this paradox between the freshness of the fruit flavors and the roundness and maturity," Rouzaud says. "The Brut Premier is an old young man or a young old man."

Krug and Bollinger are the two other well-known Champagne houses that still use wood casks, but in different ways. Roederer cellar master Michel Pansu characterizes Krug's style as more powerful, Bollinger's as more mature, but Roederer's as having more finesse and more wine character.

Besides the Brut Premier, Roederer's vintage-dated prestige cuvée, Cristal, accounts for 17.5 percent of Roederer's annual 41,000-case sales here--and that's at $150 per bottle. I gave the 1990 Cristal 87 points last fall, but tasted again this spring after six more months of aging, it seemed measurably better.

Other executives in Champagne admire family-owned Roederer for its business success as well as its wines. Rouzaud claims that the firm has been the most profitable company in Champagne for the last 20 years and has no debt. On top of that, he says all of Roederer's wines are presold to the wine trade, yet he doesn't want to increase his production.

So how has the company been able to grow? It developed a highly regarded sparkling wine property in California's Anderson Valley, Roederer Estate, and bought the firms of Deutz in Champagne and Delas in the Rhône Valley, along with two estates in Bordeaux and one in Portugal.

Owner Rouzaud family
Vineyards owned 470 acres
Annual production 225,000 cases
Shipped to U.S. in 1997 41,000 cases
87 Brut Champagne Brut Premier NV $42 A crisp and appetizing Champagne that emphasizes lemon and apple flavors with accents of vanilla and cinnamon. Elegant in its completeness and smooth texture.
91 Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne 1990 $54
87 Brut Champagne Cristal 1990 $150
87 Brut Rosé Champagne Cristal 1988 $215

Pol Roger

The past lives on at Churchill's favorite Champagne house

Tradition pervades the atmos-phere at Pol Roger's cellars and mansion in Epernay. The family that founded the firm in 1849 still owns and runs it. Skilled cellarmen in the deep caves carved out of chalk still riddle, or turn, all the bottles by hand. Women in the bottling room still laboriously paste the labels on oversized bottles without mechanical help. And the house winemaking style is still influenced by one of Pol Roger's most famous former customers: Winston Churchill.

Churchill began buying Pol Roger as a young man, and by the time of World War II it was a staple of his diet, says Christian Pol-Roger, a member of the fourth generation to run the business. In 1984, Pol Roger created a posthumous tribute to the prime minister with the release of a vintage-dated Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill.

In great years, such as 1985, this Pinot Noir-based Champagne can be one of the boldest and most memorable wines from the whole region. Pol Roger's Brut NV (85 points) is much more subdued in character. Christian Pol-Roger says it has a family resemblance to the Churchill Cuvée, but relies on more Pinot Meunier grapes in the blend, among other differences. "Pinot Meunier is like the Merlot of Champagne," he says, meaning that it softens the Pinot Noir when blended with it, as Merlot softens Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux.

The brut non-vintage reaps additional benefits, he says, from an unusual extra step in the fermentation process employed by cellar master James Coffinet. All the juice is allowed to settle for an extended period at 43š F before fermentation begins.

An average of three years of bottle age before disgorgement makes Pol Roger Brut one of the more mature non-vintage Champagnes available. The currently available brut spent an even longer time on the yeast, based as it is on the 1992 vintage. Sometimes the brut strikes me as assertively toasty and earthy in aroma, but it is rather light in style otherwise, usually marked by apple or lemon flavors and a clean but short finish.

A relatively large proportion of Pol Roger's 110,000-case annual output, 25 percent, is vintage Champagne. Fans of Pol Roger should stand by for the release of the Brut Vintage 1990 and the Churchill Cuvée 1988, both with outstanding potential.

Owner Pol-Roger and de Billy families
Vineyards owned 200 acres
Annual production 110,000 cases
Shipped to U.S. in 1997 11,300 cases
85 Brut Champagne NV $35 Starts out with the rich, toasty aroma of well-aged Champagne, followed by floral, appley flavors and a soft texture that lets the flavors turn lean on the finish.
88 Brut Champagne Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 1986 $100


Bernard de Nonancourt's 50-year tenure makes a difference

Laurent-Perrier is an atypical Champagne house because it is both big and family-owned. Bernard de Nonancourt has been in charge since 1948, slowly building the company's production from nearly nothing to 80,000 cases in 1966 and 540,000 cases today. It's now the fifth-largest Champagne brand in the world.

De Nonancourt's longevity is especially helpful in getting the best vineyard contracts, he says, through the many personal contacts he has developed over the years. He quotes an old saying that "a good contract is better than owning a bad vine." Laurent-Perrier relies on contracts with independent vineyards for 90 percent of its grapes.

Laurent-Perrier has also developed a wide range of Champagnes over the years, with everything from a bone-dry Ultra Brut non-vintage (90 points the last time it was rated, Nov. 30, 1995) to a terrific top-of-the-line La Cuvée Grand Siècle. This prestige cuvée is unusual in that it is non-vintage, as well as for its use of fully mature base wines--a concept similar to that used in the making of Krug's Grande Cuvée. Sadly, the Grand Siècle is not sold in the United States now.

Brut L.P. is Laurent-Perrier's non-vintage mainstay. In my tastings over the past four years, it has been erratic but always pleasant, scoring 90 the first two times and 84 the next two. It's consistently fresh, fruity, clean and well balanced, but the recent cuvées have seemed rather light in concentration.

Typically blended from a whopping 200 different base wines, the Brut L.P. is "the most difficult of our Champagnes to produce, and the most important," says cellar master Alain Terrier, who has been on the job for 23 years. Terrier's blend is predominantly Chardonnay (45 percent), Pinot Noir (40 percent) and Pinot Meunier.

While most Champagne houses are located in either the city of Reims or the smaller city of Epernay, Laurent-Perrier's cellars are out in the countryside, in the village of Tours-sur-Marne. Grandly decorated hospitality rooms and immaculate winemaking facilities give the impression that it's a very meticulous operation, right down to the white lab coat worn by Terrier.

Owner de Nonancourt family
Vineyards owned 250 acres
Annual production 540,000 cases
Shipped to U.S. in 1997 25,000 cases
84 Brut Champagne Brut L.P. NV $25 An all-around good sparkler with fresh fruit flavors, a smooth texture and lively balance.
88 Brut Rosé Champagne Grand Siècle Alexandra 1988 $110
84 Brut Rosé Champagne NV $40

Moët & Chandon

Ubiquitous Moët goes down easy--and often

When Americans think Champagne, they think Moët more often than any other brand. Something about the easy drinkability of Moët & Chandon's non-vintage Champagnes, or perhaps the fame that Moët has acquired over the decades, prompts consumption of nearly 600,000 cases of Moët a year.

Moët (pronounced mo-EHT) is the biggest of four branches on the Champagne tree owned by luxury goods conglomerate LVMH Moët-Hennessy Louis Vuitton. The group, which also includes Veuve Clicquot, Mercier and Ruinart, accounts for 2.75 million cases a year, or 12 percent of the total output of the Champagne region. To say that Moët dominates U.S. sales of Champagne is an understatement, as it accounts for about 40 percent of the Champagne bottles sold here.

Moët's biggest seller in the United States is White Star, a simple but well-made Champagne in the sweet style. Brut Impérial is Moët's best-selling dry cuvée. While not the most distinctive or flavorful non-vintage Champagne you can buy, it consistently scores "good" to "very good" in my blind tastings because of an attractive, light fruit character balanced out by fresh acidity and an agreeable texture.

Richard Geoffroy, cellar master for Dom Pérignon, Moët & Chandon's prestige cuvée, says the Brut Impérial gets its flavor characteristics mostly from the black grapes Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, though Chardonnay typically makes up 20 percent of the blend. "The Moët style is rich and generous without being opulent or showy," he says. "And I always stress the importance of the mouthfeel, a nice rounded forwardness that comes from the combination of Pinot Meunier with Chardonnay."

Moët makes a full range of Champagnes, 12 cuvées in all. At the top of this pyramid is Dom Pérignon, which has an exclusive image but plenty of bottles to go around. The company won't say, but Champagne insiders estimate the production is about 200,000 cases.

The current Dom Pérignon is the 1990 (rated 89 points), and Geoffroy is proud that his bosses let him skip the 1989 vintage. He thought it was not up to snuff, disagreeing with many other cellar masters who bottled their 1989 prestige cuvées. Moët's new president, Jean-Marie Laborde, acknowledges that the company wants to stay on top in terms of quantity, but says that goal cannot be achieved if Moët doesn't take the advice of its winemakers and keep the quality level high. "I am running the company to make money," he says, "but in the long run, to make money I have to listen to these people."

Owner LVMH Moët-Hennessy Louis Vuitton
Vineyards owned 1,910 acres
Annual production 2,000,000 cases
Shipped to U.S. in 1997 555,000 cases
84 Brut Champagne Impérial NV $40 Straightforward style of Champagne with crisp, appley flavors, fine balance and toasty, buttery undertones. Better than previously reviewed.
91 Brut Rosé Champagne Cuvée Dom Pérignon 1986 $190
89 Brut Champagne Cuvée Dom Pérignon 1990 $110
89 Brut Rosé Champagne Impérial NV $40
88 Brut Rosé Champagne Impérial 1992 $55
85 Brut Champagne Impérial 1992 $48
84 Demi-Sec Champagne Nectar Impérial NV $38


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