A trip to Perrier Jouët's headquarters in Épernay, France, just became an even headier experience. This fall, to celebrate the centennial of its flowered bottle, the Champagne house opened its Maison Belle Époque to the public for the first time. There's probably no place else on earth where ordinary people can touch museum-quality Belle Époque treasures, and certainly no place to do so while sipping flutes of Perrier Jouët. The company has been furnishing this 19th-century maison with one of the world's largest collections of objects by major French artisans, among them Hector Guimard (who designed many of Paris's Metro entrances), Louis Majorelle (renowned for his botanically accurate leafy furniture inlays) and Émile Gallé (who created the prototype for Perrier Jouët's anemone-pattern bottleon display at the maison). Everything in the mansion, from the woodwork to the beds, lamps and wine glasses, has been sculpted, etched or painted with nymphs and flora. On a full-day tour (about $435 per person, on weekdays and by reservation only, with a 10-guest maximum), visitors taste the current release of prestige cuvée at the maison; explore the gardens, vineyards and cellars; then sit down to a five-course luncheon in the dining room, featuring legendarily aphrodisiac foods, accompanied by different Champagnes. Perrier Jouët has also just started allowing drop-in visitors at its headquartersa boon to the budget-conscious or those pressed for time, who can stop by the tasting room on weekdays for about $9 per person (011-33-326-53-38-10 or email@example.com).
Eve M. Kahn
Every Champagne label has its fanatical followers. There are rock stars who have Dom Pérignon written into their contracts and connoisseurs who will drink mineral water if they can't get Krug. And who can forget the ladies of the TV show Absolutely Fabulous and their yen for Bollinger? (Or Bolly, as they called it.) But all devotees agree on one thing: Champagne tastes better in magnums. Though there's no scientific evidence to support the idea, even some veteran tasters swear it's true. The psychological lift is obvious: If a Champagne bottle is elegant and romantic, a magnum must be twice as much so. One theory some pundits have espoused holds that the amount of air in the neck of a Champagne bottle is the same regardless of how much wine is in the bottle. Ergo, the wine in a magnum ages more slowly and stays fresher. Maybe. It could just be that magnum lovers want more to drink.
Frank J. Prial
Historically, Champagne houses have taken pride in their nonvintage blends because they expressed the house style. But wine drinkers, especially newcomers, love vintage winesand Champagne producers eventually got the message. For example, in the 1950s four vintages were declared, and in the 1960s five were. In the next two decades, there were 11 vintage years, and, so far, in the 1990s, just about every year but 1991 has been declared a vintage.
Top-of-the-line vintage Champagne can cost three times as much as nonvintage. In many ways, the difference is justified: The best grapes go into the vintage wine, which must be aged for at least three yearscompared with 15 months for nonvintage Champagne. On the other hand, much of the high price goes for packaging, including hand-painted bottles and special cases.
In terms of available vintages, look for the 1990 vintage, a magnificent year, and the 1995, which is considered very good. The 1996 is also quite good, perhaps the finest since 1990 or 1985, although some 1996s, like Louis Roederer's Cristal and Veuve Clicquot's La Grande Dame, may not be available until next year. Champagne lovers will need to wait several years for the 1999s, and the very best wines probably won't turn up until 2006. For true fans, it's worth the wait: Preliminary reports on the vintage are encouraging.
Frank J. Prial
Champagne Price Wars
Stores sell more Champagne in the last quarter of the year than in all the other months combined. But given the current economic climate, no one knows quite what to expect this holiday season. One house, Laurent-Perrier, isn't waiting to find out. Its top-of-the-line wine, Grand Siècle, until recently priced at $120 a bottle, now costs just $79. Other top cuvées, such as Dom Pérignon and Louis Roederer's Cristal, have lowered their prices too, but none as dramatically as Laurent-Perrier. Bernard de Nonancourt, "le Grand Bernard," is credited with this groundbreaking move. Nonancourt, only recently retired, almost single-handedly transformed Laurent-Perrier from an obscure Champagne house to the fifth largest in France and is considered one of the great Champagne visionaries. His daughters, who sit on the company's board of directors, may follow in his footsteps; one has already contributed her name to Laurent-Perrier's best rosé: Grand Siècle Alexandra.
Frank J. Prial