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The Best Champagnes

For one critic, New Year's Eve means the top-of-the-line Champagnes known as prestige cuvées. Here, his favorites.

Although the turn of the millennium is now just a memory, the same problem persists: What Champagne to drink on New Year's Eve? Personally, I'll be drinking only the best (again) and that means a prestige cuvée.

There are no regulations regarding what can be called a prestige cuvée (or tête de cuvée), but generally they're made almost exclusively from the grapes of a producer's own vineyards, either Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or a blend of both. Invariably packaged in fancy bottles and bearing some very high prices, they are intended to be the finest that a Champagne house can offer.

The most famous prestige cuvée, Dom Pérignon from Moët & Chandon, was also the first. Created in 1921, it was the inspiration of an English journalist—although the French don't like to be reminded of that—and America was the first country to import it. Today, Dom Pérignon is but one of some 2,000 prestige cuvées made by French Champagne houses. The ones that follow are some of my favorites.

Billecart-Salmon Cuvee Nicolas Francois ($100)
Purity and ripeness are Billecart-Salmon's trademarks, as are flavors that go on forever. This rich (but not heavy), complex (but not coarse) Champagne boasts layers and layers of delightful fruit. Also worth looking for: Billecart-Salmon's recently released late-disgorged Grande Cuvee ($175), which is equally sensational.

Bollinger Les Vieilles Vignes Francaises ($300)
Not all Blanc de Noirs (made from Pinot Noir) are the big, chewy, complex Champagnes they're cracked up to be, but the Beast of Bollinger, as this bottling is affectionately known, definitely is. Bollinger, which produces firm, full-flavored Champagnes, obtains the grapes for this wine from ungrafted vines grown on three tiny, exceptional sites. Their yield is minute, and the result is a super-concentrated wine of great scarcity.

Dom Ruinart Blanc De Blancs ($130)
This full-bodied Blanc de Blancs (100 percent Chardonnay) wine gets richer and toastier the longer it ages. Its rosé counterpart, the Dom Ruinart Rose ($140), is a Blanc de Blancs to which a small amount of red wine has been added. Interestingly, this wine develops even more Pinot Noir character than most pure Pinot Noir rosé Champagnes.

Krug Grande Cuvee ($150)
Krug's style is often compared to Bollinger's, although I'd argue that Krug's is a little more mellow. The Grande Cuvée has amazing class and complexity, but is unlike any other Champagne, while the Krug Rose ($210) is brimming over with delicious strawberry fruit. The Krug Collection ($350) may be cellared for 10 to 60 years; the Krug Collection concept is to offer old vintages that have never been moved from Krug's cellar. The Clos Du Mesnil ($300), made from 100 percent Chardonnay, is extraordinary.

Laurent-Perrier La Cuvee Grand Siecle ($130)
This is probably the most underrated prestige cuvée on the market: a light-bodied, elegant Champagne that should not be confused with Laurent-Perrier's vintage version by the same name. (It too is a first-rate Champagne, but not quite of the class of this beautiful three-vintage blend.)

Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque ($120)
Known variously as the Flower Bottle, Fleur de Champagne and Fleur Réserve, owing to the flowers enameled on the bottle (a 1902 design by Emile Gallé), this wine is often sold in a gift box along with two matching glasses. Although Chardonnay from the grand cru vineyards of Cramant makes up a minor part of this cuvée, it is a key element, eventually dominating the wine with its floral-toasty aromas. After 20 years or so, Belle Epoque Brut and Belle Epoque Rose ($150) become virtually indistinguishable, thanks to this Cramant component. Even the colors merge, as the brut deepens to old gold and the rosé lightens from flame gold to exactly the same hue, all hint of pink disappearing.

Pol Roger Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill ($165)
For some odd reason I've encountered an unbelievable variation in price for this wine. Nevertheless, it's the classiest prestige cuvée released in recent times by any house and a wine of great finesse from a producer noted for its extremely long-lived Champagnes.

Roederer Cristal ($180)
Although Cristal is not the most ageworthy prestige cuvée, it always benefits from an extra two or three years' aging. Worth noting: The 1993 Cristal is actually better than many wines from the famous 1990 vintage and without doubt the best 1993 Champagne released so far. Cristal Rose ($295) probably vies with Bollinger's Vieilles Vignes as the rarest prestige cuvée. It's also remarkably long-lived; I recently tasted the first vintage, 1974, and it was still in beautiful condition.

Taittinger Comtes De Champagne Blanc De Blancs ($190)
Although the Taittinger style is light, fruity and above all, elegant, there is nothing light about its prestige cuvée, especially when aged, yet its intrinsic elegance gives even the weightiest vintages of this Champagne extraordinary finesse. And as great as Dom Ruinart's Blanc de Blancs is, I'd give Taittinger the edge for finesse. Taittinger's Comtes De Champagne Rose ($225) really does need a few more years in bottle after purchase, and in this case it is the Dom Ruinart rosé that has the edge.

Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame ($150)
This has always been a great Champagne, but its once-dumpy bottle didn't attract much attention. Happily, the bottle's been redesigned and is now as stylish as the wine. La Grande Dame is lighter than Clicquot's regular vintage wines and it becomes toasty rather than biscuity as it ages. La Grande Dame Rose ($235) is a very recent addition to the line, but has quickly earned a reputation as one of the most stunning, fruit-driven pink Champagnes.

Tom Stevenson is the author of Christie's World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine (Wine Appreciation Guild) and the annual Champagne & Sparkling Wine Guide (DK Publishing, Inc.).

Published January 2001
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