We are now deep in December, which means deep in the holidays, which means deep, deep, deep in the contemplation and purchase, gifting and consuming, of Champagnes. The two wine-journalist groups I belong to, the Wine Media Guild and the New York Wine Press, always sponsor Champagne lunches this month. My friend and colleague in both organizations, Ed McCarthy, who is the author of Champagne for Dummies and the American authority on Champagne, selects and arranges the wines for both events. The NYWP event, coming up soon, this year features rosé Champagnes. For the WMG event, which occurred two weeks ago, Ed chose têtes de cuvées – the top-tier wine of each Champagne house.
All the grandes marques – the great Champagne houses – and most of the smaller producers have a tête de cuvée. This will typically be the best wine they offer, blended from the best vats from the best vineyards in the most prized areas. It may be a blanc de blancs or a blanc de noirs, it may be a single-vineyard wine – but more often it is a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot noir from many different vineyards in Champagne, analogous to each house’s basic non-vintage brut but selected – commonly from a single fine vintage – and fine-tuned to reach an altitude of quality – and price, alas – well above that of the house’s basic wine.
Each house intends its tête de cuvée as the ultimate holiday gift, the peak holiday drink, the perfect, inevitable special-occasion toast. The wondrous thing is that they most often succeed, producing nectars so lovely, so attention-grabbing, that the most novice winos immediately realize that whatever that is that they have just put in their mouths is something special indeed.
It’s even harder to describe the taste of têtes de cuvées than it is regular Champagnes, because you are dealing with a degree of refinement, almost rarefaction, that operates for most palates in a realm of nuance and complication. Don’t look for frontal assaults: these are wines that appeal primarily by insinuation, intrigue, intimacy. Sure, the basic elements of Champagne are there – the enlivening sparkle, the wheaty, toasty flavors, the gentle taste of berries, the hints of mineral – but they are there simultaneously both vivid and subtilized, forward yet etherealized. Têtes de cuvée Champagnes have to be tasted with attention: They deserve it and reward it.
And note well: Têtes de cuvées always reward and often demand cellaring. They improve with age, integrating their many flavor components and growing in complexity and depth. The best of them get even better with the passing of time.
The 14 wines presented at the WMG luncheon at Felidia challenged ranking and discrimination. There were of course differences in each house’s style and differences of vintages, but the quality level was so high as to render any sort of standard assignment of points futile, if not fictional. So I’ve simply divided them into three groups: those that pleased me most; those that pleased me slightly less; and those that pleased me less than that. I add the emphatic caveat that those that pleased least (on this one day, in these special and unusual circumstances) still pleased me a great deal: There wasn’t a single wine here I couldn’t happily drink.
The wines in each group are listed in alphabetical order, along with their suggested retail prices.
Gosset, Celebris 1998, $150-$160. Ed pronounced this one young and needing time, but “Celebris is always good.”
Alfred Gratien, Cuvée Paradis nv; $130. A rare non-vintage wine at this level: Krug is another major house to do similarly – but Krug of course does not make an ordinary Champagne (if there is any such thing).
Henriot, Cuvée des Enchanteleurs 1995; $140-$150. This wine was Ed’s favorite of the day: he called it, simply, “outstanding.”
Mumm, Cuvée René Lalou; $160-$175. “Drinking perfectly now” was Ed’s judgment.
Pol Roger, Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 1999; $190-200. Normally one of my very favorite Champagnes, this day it tasted closed: needs time.
Roederer, Cristal, 2004; $190-$200. Ed: “The magic of Cristal comes out with age; this one needs 15 years.”
Charles Heidsieck, Blanc des Millénaires 1995; $179-$190.
Laurent-Perrier, Grand Siecle NV; $110-$120.
Paillard, N.P.U. 1995; $240
Perrier-Jouët, Fleur de Champagne 2002; $150-$165.
Piper-Heidsieck, Rare 2002; $168-$188. Ed described 2002 as “a great vintage in Champagne.”
Taittinger, Comtes de Champagne 2000; $130-$135.