When Thomas Paine declared, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” he wasn’t talking about the American economy but the American Revolution. It was Christmas 1776 when he published that resonant phrase, said to give courage to the embattled troops. In a similar spirit, this holiday season, I’ve been thinking about what sort of wine might lend my friends consolation, if not courage, in these uncertain economic times.
The obvious answer might seem to be “Cheap wine, and lots of it,” but my inclination is actually the opposite: I’d rather buy the best wine I can, even if it’s just a single bottle, and share it with my friends. I’m not talking about a first-growth Bordeaux or a grand cru Burgundy; those are wines I couldn’t afford even when times weren’t so tough. I’m thinking about Champagne.
Of course I realize that Champagne is a luxury, a token of celebration or prosperity—which for many people is either untrue or unseemly these days. And yet, when I recall my most joyous dinners and parties, I recall that the wine we drank most often was Champagne, mainly excellent nonvintage bottles that cost as little as $35, but sometimes têtes de cuvée priced considerably higher.
Têtes de cuvée, also known as prestige cuvées, are the top wines produced by a Champagne house or grower, made from the very best grapes in the very best years—at least theoretically (more on that later). They’re also often objects of beauty, packaged in fancy bottles with filigreed labels that would fit in nicely on a shelf of perfumes. In fact, that’s where I once kept an old beveled-glass bottle of G.H. Mumm’s Cuvée René Lalou, which looked like a perfume bottle from Jean Patou. (René Lalou was discontinued for a couple of decades but was recently revived...in a much plainer bottle.)
Têtes de cuvée are now sought after by wealthy Russians, who are more willing (or able) to pay the high prices than Americans are these days. According to the Champagne producers I talked with over the past several months, Russia is the single most important market for these wines today. The elaborate bottles are one reason (Russians love gilt and filigree, as a rule). Indeed, Russians adore famous prestige cuvées like Krug and Salon, which now cost up to $500 a bottle, if not much more. (Krug’s special Pinot Noir–based Clos d’Ambonnay debuted earlier this year at $3,500—and quickly sold out.)
Champagne makers claim that these high prices have to do with the euro-dollar imbalance and the current scarcity of wine (there’s been an enormous upsurge in demand, not just from Russia but East Asia, as well). And yet some producers have more than doubled the prices of their prestige cuvées recently, merely to boost the world’s perception of them. A Seattle wine retailer confided to me, “We were told that Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle deserves to be considered a peer to Dom Pérignon, and that’s why the Grand Siècle we’re selling for $80 right now will cost $180 if we reorder it.” This kind of fiscal maneuvering gives credence to critics who contend that the high prices of têtes de cuvée have more to do with marketing than actual wine. As Roberto Rogness, the outspoken manager of Wine Expo in Santa Monica, California (a.k.a. “Champagne World Headquarters”), opined, “The high prices of prestige cuvées pay for the four guys in suits who walk into my store to sell me those Champagnes.” Rogness carries only Champagnes from small growers (whose salesmen are, one assumes, more casually attired).
Indeed, many people perceive Champagne as a brand, not a wine. Even my most wine-knowledgeable friends, the ones who can name every premier and grand cru vineyard in Burgundy (and the little lieux-dits besides), talk only in terms of famous names like Salon, Krug and Dom Pérignon, rather than key subregions like the Côte des Blancs or small producers like Pierre Gimonnet et Fils.
That may be why the wine fanatics who frequent Veritas restaurant in New York—the same men who spend thousands of dollars on a bottle of Burgundy—will rarely spend that much money on Champagne: There just isn’t the same sense of connoisseurship. “There’s the feeling that if you come into the restaurant and order Dom Pérignon, you may not know very much about wine,” says Veritas’s wine director, Tim Kopec. “It’s not like you came in and ordered a great bottle of Échezeaux.”
A Champagne producer’s name, or brand, in this case, is synonymous with an identifiable style. Krug is characteristically toasty and rich; Salon is minerally and can resemble a great white Burgundy. Styles are achieved through a series of blends. First, there’s the blending of grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (though some Champagnes may be made from just one or two grape varieties). Second is the blending of vintages; even the most basic nonvintage cuvées are a combination of several years. And, with the exception of growers who make wines with grapes from their own vineyards, a Champagne may be a blend of grapes from all over the region of Champagne. (Most big Champagne houses have comparatively small vineyard holdings and buy a lot of their fruit.)
A prestige cuvée is, presumably, the apogee of the masterful blend. “Presumably” is the operative word, though, as there are no guidelines or restrictions as to what a prestige cuvée must be. It may be a vintage wine or a nonvintage cuvée, it may be made from grand cru grapes, premier cru grapes or grapes that aren’t rated at all. It may be a rosé, a brut or a Blanc de Blancs. It’s all up to the individual producer.
In a country as highly regulated as France, this seems surprising. How can Champagne’s producers be trusted to make their best wine, that costs the most money, if no one is monitoring it? In St-Émilion, by contrast, château owners have to put their cru classé properties up for review every 10 years.
I put the question to Ghislain de Montgolfier, who is not only the scion of Bollinger Champagne but also the president of the Union des Maisons de Champagne. “All prestige cuvées are the very best wine that the house makes, from the very best grapes,” he replied. However, hedging a bit, he added, “A prestige cuvée can be whatever the Champagne house decides it should be.”
The first prestige cuvée, Champagne Louis Roederer Cristal, was, fittingly, the inspiration of a wealthy Russian, czar Alexander II. The czar was a big fan of Champagne, but he wanted something special, something all for himself. That’s why Roederer produced Cristal in 1876, creating not only the first prestige cuvée but also the first Champagne to be sold in fancy packaging (crystal bottle, gold label—the signature cellophane wrapping came later). The clear crystal bottle wasn’t just for decoration but also bomb detection: A lot of people wanted to kill the czar, and hiding an explosive in a Champagne bottle was a possible way. (Alas, Alexander only had a few years to drink his Cristal; he was in fact killed by a bomb in 1881—but not, it should be noted, one in a Champagne bottle.)
Though the czars disappeared with the Russian Revolution in 1917, Cristal was not offered to the general public until 1924; the most famous tête de cuvée in the world, Dom Pérignon from Moët & Chandon, debuted 12 years later. Although it came out in the middle of the Depression and cost twice as much as the basic nonvintage wine, Dom Pérignon made an immediate impression and has been a hit ever since.
Oddly, Dom Pérignon wasn’t the inspiration of a Frenchman either, but an Englishman, Laurence Venn. Sadly for all subsequent Venns, their clever ancestor didn’t claim royalties for the idea, as Dom became one of the greatest success stories in the history of wine—not only is its name famous, but it is made in such large quantities that no one at Moët will confirm how much is actually produced. (I’ve seen the number placed at one or two million bottles, though Dom is still an “allocated” wine.)
And yet, regardless of whether these numbers are true (again, no one at Moët will confirm or deny), the fact is that Dom Pérignon is a remarkable wine, even more so if the production numbers are truly that high. As that same Seattle wine merchant said to me, “If they’re making that much wine and the quality is that good, they should be proud.” Even my friend Daniel Johnnes, wine director of the Daniel Boulud restaurant group and a profound Burgundy snob, conceded upon tasting the 1993 Dom Pérignon Oenothèque ($450), “It’s one thing to make a few hundred cases of Burgundy; it’s another thing altogether to make a million bottles of a wine this good.”
Dom Pérignon is one of the wines that Gary Westby is recommending that his customers purchase as an investment, because its value is likely to increase over time—more than can be said about mortgage-backed securities. Westby is the Champagne buyer for K&L Wine Merchants, located in a San Francisco suburb, which is one of America’s leading purveyors of Champagne. “Compared to blue-chip wines like Bordeaux, têtes de cuvée are affordable. Compare a 1996 Dom Pérignon priced at $150 to a 2005 first-growth Bordeaux that sells for thousands of dollars, and the value is staggering.” Mannie Berk, whose Rare Wine Co. in Sonoma carries many old Champagnes, agrees, particularly in regard to the most famous têtes de cuvée. “I bought all the 1996s that I could,” Mannie reported. “They are a great value.”
Value might seem like an odd word to describe a $150 wine, yet I considered what the two men had said: If the têtes de cuvée were truly profound, were they not only a value in investment terms but also in their capacity to uplift and console? And furthermore, could they do that much more than nonvintage Champagne?
I decided to taste and compare. I began collecting wines, both têtes de cuvée and nonvintage Champagnes. When I’d amassed a fair number of bottles, I called my friends—both wine professionals and passionate amateurs—and asked if they wanted to assist in my mission. The collective response was near instantaneous: “Yes, of course. I love Champagne.” No one asked for names or vintages, as they surely would have had I been tasting Bordeaux or Burgundy. One did have a specific request, though. “I want Krug,” said one friend, a former four-star chef. But everyone else petitioned to taste “everything.”
My first tasting was fairly informal; I’d been invited to visit some friends in the Hamptons. Although they themselves are wine pros, their other guests were merely avid Champagne drinkers. Yet no one present, including a morning-television star (whom I assumed could well afford têtes de cuvée), drank what they called “fancy Champagne.” They were “just too expensive,” the TV star said.
I’d brought prestige and nonvintage cuvées from Taittinger, the grande marque Champagne house, as well as Pierre Peters, a small grower in the Côtes des Blancs region of Champagne. Both turn out great Chardonnay-based Champagnes, albeit on a much different scale. (Peters’s output is about 13,300 cases, while Taittinger makes about 25 times as much.) I poured the têtes de cuvée and nonvintages from both producers. There was some initial skepticism about the Peters: “Who, or what, is Peters?” several dinner guests wondered, though their skepticism disappeared when they tasted the wines.
The Pierre Peters nonvintage Blanc de Blancs ($60) was roundly admired for its purity and finesse, while the prestige cuvée, the 1999 Pierre Peters Cuvée Spéciale Blanc de Blancs Brut ($100), was deemed equally fine, with more richness and depth and a wonderfully floral aroma. Both were quite good, we concluded, though the prestige cuvée had the edge.
The choice between the three Taittingers was much easier, as it turned out. The basic nonvintage ($45) was sweet and a bit coarse, while one of the two têtes de cuvée, the 1998 Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs ($220), was enticingly bright and pure. The other tête de cuvée, the 2003 Comtes de Champagne Rosé ($350), was truly seductive, a beautiful, albeit rather low-acid, example.
My next tasting, with a group of self-proclaimed “Champagne addicts,” yielded more mixed results. Overall, it was better news for nonvintage drinkers than buyers of têtes de cuvée, though several producers, such as Pol Roger and Jean Milan, made great wines in both categories.
Pol Roger, a small, consistently high-quality Champagne house based in Épernay, makes not only a reasonably priced, gorgeously balanced nonvintage wine ($35) but also an impressive prestige bottling, Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill ($185). The 1998 release was particularly rich and complex, with a nutty, biscuity character, and it was a steal compared to some of the têtes de cuvée I tasted later that cost twice as much. (The bottle, however, is decidedly nonshowy; in fact, it’s a bit dreary, draped in black to honor the late, great British prime minister. I’m guessing it’s not a big seller in Russia.)
On the other hand, the 2002 Perrier-Jouët Rosé Fleur de Champagne ($300) was a thrill both to taste and to behold (the bottle is famously festooned with enameled garlands of flowers). It was amazingly lush— perhaps not profound, but flat-out delicious. Or, as one of my friends (a wine professional) declared, “I could absolutely be seduced by this wine. In fact, I could fall in love with someone who brought me this wine,” she added. “And I’d say $300 is a cheap way to find true love.” The nonvintage version proved a pale imitation in both taste and appearance.
My next several tastings went much the same way: enormous initial excitement (“Champagne!”) followed by distinct deflation or tremendous surprise. “How could that tête de cuvée be so ordinary?” my friends wondered. Or, “How could a nonvintage Champagne from an unknown like Alfred Gratien be so good?”
Over and over, I was struck by the extremes of emotion that Champagne incited in people. The lows were much lower, and the highs were higher, when something turned out to disappoint or to wow (like the $500 1997 Champagne Salon prestige cuvée or the $55 nonvintage Philipponnat Brut Royale Réserve). Perhaps this is why Champagne is a wine of emotion rather than reason (unlike, say Bordeaux); it’s love and not intellect.
My final tasting, this time with my friends Charles and Kareem Massoud, the father-and-son winemaking team at Long Island, New York’s Paumanok Vineyards, ended on an appropriately emotional note. The family had invited some people to dinner, and I’d offered to bring Champagne. Like everyone else, the Massouds did not drink prestige cuvées very often, but they professed excitement at the prospect.
I decided to bring the nonvintage Louis Roederer Brut Premier ($47) and the 2002 Louis Roederer Cristal ($289), along with a few other Champagnes. I served both the Roederers blind and, though I didn’t give my friends the name of the producer, I told them one was a nonvintage and the other was a prestige cuvée. “I’m not good at this,” Charles protested, though he identified the prestige wine straightaway: “This one has a more doughy, yeasty character,” he said of the Cristal. Kareem preferred the “high-toned aromas” of the nonvintage wine and found it to be more complex—as, in fact, did most of my friends. When I revealed the identities of both bottles, everyone laughed. The nonvintage showed beautifully (big and rich, with great length) and the other, well, even if it wasn’t as great as it should have been (soft and a bit sweet), all agreed it was a privilege just to taste Cristal. “It was like someone offering to drive me around in a Maserati,” Charles exclaimed.
If there was a lesson to be learned, some 70 wines later, it was that there are great bargains among nonvintage Champagnes, as well as truly profound têtes de cuvée—some famous, some not, all offering some form of vinous transcendence. And even the wines that didn’t quite accomplish that had at least brought me together with my friends.
Thomas Paine, by the way, was not only a successful political writer (his pamphlet Common Sense was the most popular piece of writing in America in 1776, or as one source rather oddly described it, “as popular as the Super Bowl is today”), he was also a wine drinker. Indeed, Paine was known for his love of the fortified wine Madeira, which he was said to have ingested in “liberal quantities” while working on his treatise Rights of Man. And so, in the spirit of Paine, if not precisely with the same beverage, I’ll be drinking Champagne this season—in liberal quantities, if sharing with friends.