As synonymous as France is with baguettes (I prefer the ‘tradition’ style of bread personally), croissant, cheese, wine and foie gras….mmmmmmm cue Homer Simpson style drooling, perhaps its most famous export though would have to be Champagne. Real Champagne, none of this sparking wine stuff, but real bubbles directly from the Champagne region of France. What best way to indulge in the very beautiful liquid gold substance, then to attend a Champagne tasting. No ordinary Champagne tasting though, but a private event of Les Grand Curvées de Champagne. All in the name of blog research of course.
With the festive season fast approaching, Paris is awash with Champagne, with virtually all bottle stores and supermarkets having sales on bubbly. As a member of one of Paris’s best wine stores, Lavinia, they are also getting in on the act and I was recently invited to Dégustration Privée (a private tasting) of Les Grand Cuvées de Champagne. This is no ordinary tasting of your stock standard Champagnes. Les Grand Cuvées are the Champagne house’s finest drops, their best productions, also sold at their ‘best’ price. This was an event that I couldn’t miss.
During my stay in Paris, I’ve unashamedly become a Champagne devotee. Yes, you can get ‘sparkling wine’ here too which is not made in Champagne, but why the hell would you? Thanks to my lovely friend Sarah, who bought me a book on the history of Madame Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin, one of the most tremendously astute businesswomen in the wine/Champagne marking industry to date, I’ve become enchanted and mesmerised by the bubbles. So of course, it is with Sarah that I trotted along to Lavinia one Tuesday evening recently to meet some of her lovely friends, for a night of luxurious liquid.
So why is Les Grand Cuvées so special? There are three major types of Champagne:
§ Non-vintage: A blend of two or more harvests, with 60 to 80 percent base wine from the current harvest and 20 to 40 percent wine from previous vintages. More than 80% of the Champagne produced is not vintage dated. This means they are blends of several years’ wines.
§ Vintage: From a single vintage. That is, vintage champagne must contain 100% of that vintage year’s harvest.
§ Grand (or “Prestige”) Cuvée: From a single vintage with longer aging requirements.
What’s the difference between Vintage and Grand Cuvée? I hear you ask. Grand Cuvée meet the following requirements:
§ Made from the best grapes of the highest-rated villages in the region of Champagne
§ Made from the first pressing of the grapes, this is what is meant by the word cuvée
§ It is spent more time aging in the bottle than non-vintage Champagnes
§ Made only in vintage years. Not every year is a vintage year though. In recent times 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2004 were vintage years. However, each Champagne house makes its own determination on whether or not to declare a vintage year.
§ Made in small quantity, and the demand is high. Thus, the classic law of supply and demand dictates the price.
So now you see, not only was I tasting delightful Champagne, but the Grand Cuvée of Champagne mostly from 2002 and 2004, although with an odd 1998 thrown in for good measure.
Lavinia kindly provides you with a tasting booklet which sets out the Champagnes you’ll be sampling so that you can jot down your tasting notes. In reviewing my notes, I must say that they were getting decidedly more scribbly as the night progressed.
As I flicked through the tasting booklet I had commented to Sarah as we were waiting to enter the dégustation that I hadn’t tried Cristal before. My associations with Cristal are that it is the Champagne of choice of the rich and famous in Hollywood, particular the RnB / Gangsta Rap set. I’m sure I’ve seen a music video with P.Diddy popping open a bottle. Ok – straight to Table 8 we go once we get our tasting glass.
The story of Cristal goes that in 1876 at the request of Tsar Alexander II (actually the Russian aristocracy were quite influential in making Champagne the global success that it is today) he asked Louis Roederer to create a wine bottle unique in its quality. Louis responded with a selection of seven of his best champagnes, presented in none other than a crystal bottle. So at €185 I had high hopes. To my surprise I found it to be light and fruity, almost too light for my palette.
|The famous Cristal label|
No matter, straight on to Table 9, where we sampled Bollinger La Grande Année 2002 at the more reasonably price of €99. On first sip I immediately knew that Bollinger is far more to my liking. The Champagne had body and wasn’t as light as the Cristal with a yeasty/nutty palette. Yep this is the type of Champagne I enjoy.
Since we were close by to Table 7 we thought we’d try Billecart-Salmon and their François Nicolas Billecart 2000 next, even more reasonably priced at €87. This particular Champagne was created in 1964 in honour of the founder of the Champagne house, yep you guessed it good ol’ François Nicolas. It is actually a blend of two areas in the Champagne region, the first is Côte des Blancs (Chardonnay) and the second of Montagne de Reims (Pinot Noir). A quick side note, all Champagne except for Blanc de Blancs (100% Chardonnay) is made with some quantity of the red grape variety of Pinot Noir. Interestingly enough, on tasting this Champagne I noted that it had bigger bubbles with a citrus palette. I decided then that I don’t much like bigger bubbles, give me fine delicate bubbles thanks. Hmm, was I starting to turn into a Champagne snob already after only my third table?
|The bubbles are simply too big|
Sarah and I decided that we should then make a strategic bee-line for the other side of the room for the likes of Dom Pérignon. Predictably there was a bit of crowd milling about the table as everyone was waiting patiently whilst the woman was explaining the finer points of the Vintage 2002.
|The classic Dom Perignon|
The Dom Pérignon was established in 1936 by the house of Moët & Chandon in tribute of the great figure in Champagne, the monk (Dom) Pérignon who discovered that his wines had developed bubbles. Not to create any controversy, and it’s a long story, but some allege that Dom Pérignon should not be attributed as the founder of Champagne. Yes he discovered bubbles in his wine, but in actual fact he was trying to get rid of them because he thought it spoiled the wine. Meanwhile, across the channel in fair England, the Brits were trying to determine how to cultivate more bubbles in their wine as they thought it tasted better. Hmmmm
Back to the more important matter at hand, Dom Pérignon Vintage 2002. It had the loveliest nose of cashews and a palette which was buttery yet light. At €135 a bottle this was certainly a Champagne that was elevated quickly to the top of my list.
|Dom Perignon 100% delicious|
The next table right beside was yet another iconic label of Champagne, Veuve Clicquot with its offering of the La Grande Dame 1998. The great lady, as the name of the Champagne suggests, was named in memory of the Madame Clicquot, who had an obsession with quality, thus only their finest vintage is given the title La Grande Dame. Considered by many connoisseurs as one of the best champagnes in the world I thought it was a very fine drop indeed at €155. With a toasty nose and buttery and yeasty palette it was most definitely an enjoyable Champagne, but I wasn’t sure if it was the best of the evening.
|The great lady herself|
Moving right along to the very next table, was the famed Krug with their offering of Grande Cuvée. At this stage, Lavinia also put on an impressive two course spread of canapés to start, and then more substantial nibbles afterwards. Sarah and I being the true Aussies that we are, thought that this was our perfect opportunity to pounce on the Krug which had been surrounded by a lot of people the whole evening, whilst everyone was off hoeing into delightful morsels of food.
Standing their patiently with our glasses at the ready, I realised the large number of people that had been milling about was because the host of the table, complete with a turtle neck sweater, was incredibly passionate about the Champagne and would go off into long monologues espousing its virtues before pouring the tasting.
Finally, however, I did manage to try some and it was much different to all others thus far. I thought it had quite a floral nose and a light zesty palette. Interestingly the Lavinia tasting booklet suggests that it is rich and subtle and that it combines floral characteristics with a hint of hazelnut and toast. Hmmm, I guess we all have different palettes.
|Krug, yes please!|
Yet another strategic move was in order, back over to the other side of the room as it wasn’t long before the end of the tasting and the other side of the room usually closes off first. As we made our way across the room we noted that a number of gentlemen were wearing velvet jackets that evening. A winter fashion trend perhaps? One of Sarah’s friends, who loves velvet and had to restrain herself from touching random men’s jackets, quite aptly commented “There are velvet jackets for good, and there a velvet jackets for evil”.
We proceeded to try the very good Champagnes of Pommery Cuvée Louise 1999 (€138), Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque 2004 (€125), Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 1995 (€119) and Ruinart Dom Ruinart 2002 (€126) which my tasting notes assure me that they were all good with variations amongst them. However, of course because we were on that side of the room we had to have another taste of the Bollinger just to make sure it was as good as I thought it was at the beginning of the evening and sure enough it was.
|Sarah making sure that it was as good as we thought|
Crossing back over to the other side we managed to squeeze in a taste of Tattinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2000 (€112), Joseph Perrier Cuvée Josephine 2004 (€92) and Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle (€119) before the end of the evening.
As the dégustation was drawing to a close we found ourselves talking to Mr Turtleneck Krug, who I mentioned incidentally to him, his evident ‘passion and enthusiasm’, really meaning that he talked a lot and probably didn’t pour enough. This subsequently triggered another lengthy monologue about his career…riiiiiight, iiiiinteresting.
|Mr Turtleneck Krug with some of Sarah's friends|
The evening ended with myself, Sarah and her friend visiting a local wine bar for night-cap which included nibbling on some delicious foie gras. A brilliant Parisian evening!
My top picks from the dégustation:
1. Dom Pérignon Vintage 2002
2. Bollinger La Grande Année 2002
3. Krug Grand Cuvée
4. Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 1998
5. Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2000
Madame Lily Bollinger described it best when asked by a London reporter about when she drank Champagne:
“I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty”