Tuesday, February 15, 2005

What are the Top Five Champagnes?

In our opinion the five most famous and highly regarded Champagne houses are Louis Roederer, Moet & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Bollinger, and Taittinger.

Louis Roederer makes one of the most expensive Champagnes on the market, Cristal. The Cristal Cuvee was created in 1876, when Louis Cristal II created the Cristal for Tsar Alexander II. Today, Cristal remains the most sought after Champagnes in the world, often the bubbly of choice by Hollywood elite and socialites. Cristal is made according to the strictest criteria, based on a drastic process of selection applying to the vintage, the cru, the village, the grapes and finally the wines. Only Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes from the Louis Roederer’s 10 most celebrated crus are used in the production of Cristal. The top vintages of Louis Roederer Cristal are 1975, 1979, 1982, 1985, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1993, 1995, and 1996. The best Cristal Champagnes made come from the 1988, 1990, and 1996 vintages. Of the 1990 Louis Roederer Cristal, Robert Parker says “The Louis Roederer 1990 Cristal is awesome! A classic of power and finesse, richness and delicacy, it may be the greatest Cristal I have ever tasted!” and gives it 97 points. Cristal is considerably more expensive than most other champagnes with the current vintage of 1997 ranging in price from $150-300.

Moet & Chandon is best known for Dom Perignon, or simply “Dom” as it is lovingly referred to. Current releases of Dom Perignon generally sell for $85-150 depending on the vintage. The best vintages of Dom Perignon during the past 30 years are 1975, 1979, 1982, 1985, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1993, 1995, and 1996. Some people will argue that the finest Dom Perignon made in recent years is the 1996 vintage, followed by 1985 and 1990. The Wine Spectator scores the ’96 Dom Perignon vintage 93 points and Robert Parker gives it 98 points and says “I have had a lot of great vintages of Dom Perignon, but I do not remember any as impressive as the 1996. Even richer than the brilliant 1990, the 1996 is still tightly wound, but reveals tremendous aromatic intensity, offering hints of bread dough, Wheat Thins, tropical fruits, and roasted hazelnuts…” Currently, the retail price for the 1996 Dom Perignon is just under $100 and the complete price range is $89-160. Considering this is one of the finest Champagnes produced from 1996, the price is actually reasonable. As a comparison, a red wine from Bordeaux of equal stature and quality would be priced at around $300, such as the 1996 Lafite Rothschild; a white wine from Burgundy, for example the 1996 Sauzet Montrachet, is around $400; your typical high quality red wine from Napa, such as the 1996 Opus One, is $200. Suddenly, $100 for one of the finest Champagnes in the world is not so bad. And keep in mind, that to make vintage Champagne is a costly and very time consuming ordeal. For instance, the 1996 Dom Perignon is still the most current release from Moet & Chandon, while on the non-bubbly market, most other fine wines have released their 2002 vintage.

Another great Champagne house is Veuve Clicquot. Their Prestige Cuvee is the Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame. The best vintages of La Grande Dame are considered to be 1975, 1979, 1982, 1985, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1993, 1995, and 1996. In recent years, the best La Grande Dame made are considered the 1985, 1990, and 1995 vintages. Of the 1995 Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame, the Wine Spectator calls it “Very distinctive. Bold and complex, exhibiting roasted elements of toasted bread, nuts and coffee, along with dried fruit and citrus nuances. The structure is firm and fresh, with a super long finish evoking walnuts…” and gives it 94 points. This Champagne will probably last another 5-10 years. The price range for the current vintage of La Grande Dame, which is 1996, is about $85-140. The distinctive yellow-orange label of Veuve Clicquot has always been a consumer favorite and today, Veuve Clicquot is one of the world’s top selling Champagnes.

Bollinger, one of the last family-owned and independent houses of the Champagne trade, makes several famous cuvees. One Cuvee, created back in the 1960’s is the Bollinger R.D. (Recently Disgorged). Remaining for a minimum of eight years on its lees, the R.D. acquires a greater aromatic complexity and length. On the other hand, the recent disgorging - the date of disgorging is inscribed on the back label - gives the wine an exceptional freshness. The best vintages of Bollinger R.D. are 1975, 1979, 1981, 1985, 1988, and 1990. The single best Bollinger R.D. is considered by many to be 1990, of which the Wine Spectator says “A full-bodied, powerful Champagne featuring biscuit and ginger aromas and flavors, picking up a grilled nut character on the finish. Very firmly structured and dry, yet with the flavor intensity and fine texture to match, this is a tour de force. Endless finish…” and gives it 97 points. Relative to the Cristal, the Bollinger R.D. is fairly well priced with a retail price range of $125-200.

Taittinger, established back in 1734, makes a premium cuvee called Taittinger Comtes de Champagne. This Champagne is made entirely from the Chardonnay grape and like the other Champagnes we have discussed is only made in select vintages. The best vintages of Taittinger Comtes de Champagne are 1979, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1985, 1988, 1990, and 1995. The current vintage, 1995, goes for around $90-150 per bottle. The Wine Spectator scores it 94 points and says “Absolutely delicious. A combination of intensity and impeccable balance is the hallmark of this 1995 blanc de blancs. Precise aromas and flavors of citrus confit, vanilla pastry and hazelnut get a boost from the firm structure, and it keeps unraveling its charms through the long finish…” For whatever reason, Taittinger has not been able to establish quite the same level of fame as the other Champagnes we have mentioned and thus, the price is on the lower end of the spectrum. We consider this champagne to be a “sleeper” champagne at a high end, yet more affordable price comparable to the others in its class.