Prestige Cuvée Champagnes ~ Part 1 – Lighter-Bodied, Elegant Prestige Cuvées

4th August 2014

Prestige Cuvée Champagnes ~ Part 1 – Lighter-Bodied, Elegant Prestige Cuvées

What is a “Prestige Cuvée” Champagne?  It is the finest Champagne that a producer makes, from the finest grapes in Champagne’s best vineyards.  In most cases, a prestige cuvée is a premium Vintage Champagne–but a few producers do make a non-vintage prestige cuvée.  The French term for prestige cuvées is Têtes de Cuvée.

Almost every Champagne négociant house and many grower-producers make a prestige cuvée annually, except in below-average vintages.  One of the sure signs of a prestige cuvée Champagne is its retail price:  Invariably, it costs over $100, and in a few cases, over $200, with the average price in the $140 to $150 range.  Grower-producers’ prestige cuvées typically are less expensive than those of the Champagne houses.

Some of the larger houses produce two and even three prestige cuvées (an additional rosé and/or a blanc de blancs prestige cuvée).  The two most renowned prestige cuvées are Moët & Chandon’s Dom Pérignon and Louis Roederer’s Cristal.  In general, prestige cuvée Champagnes are more complex in flavor than other Champagnes and they are capable of aging the longest.  They are kept longer in producers’ cellars (five to eight years) than other Champagnes, and they also need more time to mature before they are at their best; most prestige cuvées can benefit from 10 to 15 years of aging before they are at their peak.  I always suggest that you not buy a young prestige cuvée with the intention of drinking it right away; a young prestige cuvée cannot possibly show its true potential in its youth.

Each December, the Wine Media Guild, a group of wine writers and journalists in the New York Metropolitan area, holds a Champagne luncheon in a New York restaurant.  Last year’s theme happened to be Prestige Cuvée Champagnes and a special guest producer Bruno Paillard, was the speaker.  What follows is my report on 17 prestige cuvées we tasted at the luncheon (2013), plus another seven I have tasted previously on other occasions.

I have grouped the Champagnes according to their style; often a producer’s style for its prestige cuvée is different from the style of its other Champagnes; for example, although Champagne Louis Roederer typically produces full-bodied Champagnes, its Cristal is distinctly more elegant and less full-bodied.  Average retail prices are listed for each Champagne:

Lighter-Bodied, Elegant Prestige Cuvées

Champagne Ayala, Cuvée Perle d’Ayala 2002:  Ayala has two fabulous prestige cuvées, its ethereal Perle d’Ayala, and its rarer Perle d’Ayala Nature (with no dosage added).  Although now owned by Champagne Bollinger and located close to Bollinger in the village of Aÿ, Champagne Ayala’s style for all of its wines is very different from Bollinger; Ayala specializes in elegant, very dry, light-bodied Champagnes.  Chardonnay plays a key role in both Perle d’Ayalas, both being 80 percent Chardonnay and 20 percent Pinot Noir.  The 2002 vintage is turning out to be outstanding: rich, with good acidity, and long-lived.  The 2002 Perle d’Ayala is one of Ayaa’s best Champagnes yet, made from the grapes of five Grand Cru villages, with very low dosage, and well-priced at $125.  (Perle d’Ayala Nature 2002 is $150).

Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte, Palmes d’Or 2002:  No Champagne brand has grown so remarkably as Nicolas Feuillatte, which is the leading brand name Champagne of the huge Centre Vinicole, composed of 85 co-operatives.  Nicolas Feuillatte has existed as a brand since only 1976, and yet it’s the third-largest selling Champagne in the world today.  Its prestige cuvée, Palmes d’Or, made from all Grand Cru and Premier Cru grapes, and 60 percent Chardonnay, 40 percent Pinot Noir, is lively and flavorful, the best Palmes d’Or since the excellent 1996.  $110-$120.

Champagne G.H. Mumm, Cuvée R. Lalou 1998:  Mumm has re-introduced René Lalou, its successful prestige cuvée from 1966 to 1985, named after its legendary president who spent 50 years with Mumm.  Quality slipped at Mumm when it was sold to Seagram’s in 1985.  But the house, still fourth-largest, had a renaissance when Dominique Demarville became Chef de Cave in 1998.  Currently, Didier Mariotti is carrying on ably in his place. (Seagram’s sold G.H. Mumm in 1999; it is now owned by Pernod).  The R. Lalou 1998, 50 percent Chardonnay, 50 percent Pinot Noir, is a soft, easy-drinking Champagne that is now at its peak.  $150.

Champagne Perrier-Jouët, Cuvée Belle Epoque 2004:  Perrier-Jouët produces three Belle Epoque (a.k.a. Fleur de Champagne) prestige cuvées, with a stunning Epoque Rosé as part of the trio, all in its beautiful signature “flower bottle.”  The 2004 Belle Epoque has 50 percent of old-vine Chardonnay grapes from the Grand Cru village of Cramant on the Côtes des Blanc, which contributes creaminess and depth.  It is an elegant, delicate masterpiece.  Belle Epoque 2004 is drinking well now, but will improve with another few years aging.  $140-$150.  (The Belle Epoque Rosé 2004, $300).

Champagne Perrier-Jouët, Cuvée Belle Epoque Blanc de Blancs 2002:  As good as P-J’s Belle Epoque is, its 100 percent Chardonnay Belle Epoque Blanc de Blancs 2002 is even better.  The stunning Belle Epoque Blanc de Blancs, always in short supply, truly defines what a prestige cuvée is all about; it is creamy, lemony and complex, truly one of the best Champagnes I have tasted all year.  2002 is proving to be an excellent vintage.  $333.

Champagne Piper-Heidsieck, Rare 2002:  Piper-Heidsieck is a seriously underrated Champagne house because of its image as a mass market “commercial” brand, which it was 30 years ago.  Although Piper-Heidsieck is still a large house (seventh-largest), I am happy to report that Piper is now making excellent Champagne, from its Brut NV on up to its outstanding prestige cuvée, called Rare.  The 2002 Rare is simply great, perhaps the finest Rare that Piper-Heidsieck has ever made since the first Rare vintage in 1976—even better than its excellent 1988 Rare.  Made from 70 percent Chardonnay and 30 percent Pinot Noir, Rare, with the delicious, vibrant 2002, has established itself as one of the great prestige cuvées.  $150-$170.

Champagne Pommery, Cuvée Louise 1999:  When Champagne Pommery was sold to the huge Vranken Company in 2002, many followers of Pommery feared for the house’s future.  The good news is that Vranken held on to the vineyards that produced Pommery’s prestige cuvée, Louise–which has always been Pommery’s shining star.  Louise is a dry, classy Champagne that ages magnificently.  Some of my greatest Champagne memories are of Louise and its sister, Louise Rosé, always drinking well, with lots of finesse even in lesser vintages.  $130-$140.  (Louise Rosé 1999, $140).

Shared by Ed McCarthy

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