Back in the crazy days of the mid 00s, I attended a dinner for the launch of an etiquette guide by a well-known magazine editor. Tracey Emin was there, as was someone from Duran Duran and I sat next to Celia Walden, soon to be Mrs Piers Morgan. It was that kind of party. There seemed to be an unlimited supply of Dom Perignon which everyone was putting away with abandon. I remember feeling a twinge of puritanism about the sheer waste. We could have been drinking Aldi cava and nobody would have noticed.
Being a bit of a wine bore, even then, I tried to focus on the wine. When else was I going to get this much DP? But drunk much too young and ice cold out of flutes surrounded by celebrities, it was hard to discern much beyond the bubbles and powerful acidity.
Prestige cuvée champagne has a disconnect between the image and the wine itself
Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to try older vintages in calmer surroundings and it can be very impressive wine. Frederic Rouzaud from Roederer was accused of racism when, in a 2006 interview, he seemed less than pleased about American rappers’ love for Cristal, the firm’s prestige cuvée, but one can see his point. It is a shame to see such fine wines drunk so carelessly. You don’t see people opening young vintages of Quinta do Noval Nacional or Lafite and swigging them out of bottles. Or maybe they do at the kinds of parties I’m not invited to.
The concept of a “prestige cuvée” was pretty much invented by Moët & Chandon in 1935 with the release of Dom Perignon 1921, named after the monk who almost certainly didn’t invent sparkling champagne. It was followed by Cristal from Roederer, Grand Siecle from Laurent-Perrier, Comtes de Champagne from Taittinger, Winston Churchill from Pol Roger et al.
The idea is to take the finest grapes from the most prestigious vineyards in only the top vintages, and make the best wine possible, no expense spared. Wine bores tend to get upset about Dom Perignon because it doesn’t correspond with their idea of what a fine wine should be: made in small quantities from a specific patch of land. DP makes millions of bottles a year, buying up grapes from all over Champagne, but not even terroir fundamentalists can deny the quality.
Expect to pay about £200 a bottle, depending on age, which sounds like a lot but compared with first growth claret or grand cru Burgundy, the prices aren’t ludicrous. Not like Krug’s single vineyard Clos d’Ambonnay which comes in at around £2500 a bottle. Meanwhile, all the rappers have moved over to Jay Z’s very own Armand de Brignac which comes in ultra-bling bottles – Tom Stevenson in Christie’s Champagne Encyclopaedia described it as “overpriced for the quality.” But then again, the absolute quality of the wine doesn’t really matter for most of its customers.
Prestige cuvée champagne has a disconnect between the image, which tells you to enjoy it frivolously, and the wine itself which usually deserves to be drunk with a degree of reverence. Its other problem is that the “ordinary” vintage champagnes are often so good and better for drinking younger, that I can’t see the point in buying the more expensive bottles even if I could afford them. My advice is to buy the vintage wine from houses such as Pol Roger, Roederer or Bollinger, especially in a great year like 2008 or 2012, and you’re not going to be disappointed. Just don’t serve them too cold or in the company of B-list celebrities.
Here are some champagnes I’ve enjoyed recently:
Taittinger Comte de Champagne Rose 2007 (The Finest Bubble £142)
Now here’s a prestige cuvée that I think is worth splashing out on. Drinking beautifully now, this is packed full of red fruits, orange peel and meaty yeasty notes. This is what my wife and I toasted in the new year with.
Pol Roger Blanc de Blanc 2012 (The Wine Society £75)
Sometimes all Chardonnay Pol Roger can be a bit austere on release but this is just gorgeous, like a lemon meringue pie with a toasty nutty finish. It’ll get even better if you can wait a few years.
Moët & Chandon 2012 Brut (The Finest Bubble £58)
Don’t turn your nose up at Moët just because it’s ubiquitous, this is serious stuff. Initially lean and elegant, it fills out beautifully on the finish. Very gastronomic, this would be great with shellfish.
Drappier Premier Cru Brut NV (Majestic £29.99)
A lesser-known house that really over delivers for the money. I saw online that someone had compared this to Bollinger and that’s not far off. It’s rich and developed with a creamy pastry type texture with fresh zingy fruit.
Tesco Finest Premier Cru Brut NV (Tesco £20)
Most cheap champagne is swill but I’ve had dozens of bottles of this and it’s always superb: think baked apples and hazelnuts. I have no idea how Tesco manage to buy a wine this good for the money, and frankly I don’t want to know.
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