Tete de Cuvee Champagne and Sparkling Wines
Too bad rap mogul Jay-Z couldn’t join us for this tasting panel, since earlier this year he was looking to replace his once-beloved Cristal with another Champagne par excellence. And that’s what we were sampling, the high-end cuvees from sparkling wine producers in Champagne and the United States.
These wines are generally sourced from the best vineyard sites, given the longest time on the lees and made with spare-no-expense winemaking. As you might expect, that’s all reflected in the price, though we found several terrific values among the 47 wines tasted.
Champagne is typically an opener to a meal. But most of these wines have a weight and intensity not found in standard nonvintage Champagnes, which makes them worth serving even with a main course, and a special one at that.
1999 Bollinger La Grande Annee > A super-refined take on Bollinger’s classic sharp-edged profile, crafted from small lots in old oak casks. Hints of fresh dough, spun sugar, white mineral, creamy peach and soft lemon. Surprisingly subtle, with signs of sweetness on the finish.
NV Charles Heidsieck Champagne Brut Reserve > A nearly even balance of the three main Champagne grapes, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, with at least three years’ aging. Opulent, with deep notes of toast, rich citrus and chalky mineral. Ends on a mineral note that seems to last forever. It even edged out its fancy cousin, the 1995 Heidsieck Blanc des Millenaires.
1998 Duval-Leroy Blanc de Chardonnay Brut > A blend of five Grand Crus from Avize, Cramant, Mesnil sur Oger, Oger and Chouilly. Very yeasty and sharp, with pepper, zippy apple and tart nectarine. Herbaceous in spots, but it lingers in an appealing way. Great value for the price.
1996 Gosset Celebris Brut > This old-fashioned house in Ay blends fruit from eight Grand Cru vineyards for its exquisite Chardonnay-dominant cuvee, and gives the wine up to eight years in the bottle before release. A wine of amazing balance and complexity, with croissant and sweet dough. Ripe notes of Meyer lemon, green apple and hints of berry. Simultaneously creamy and sharp, with an endless finish.
1996 Iron Horse LD Green Valley Blanc de Blancs > “LD” stands for “late-disgorged,” and this all-Chardonnay effort from relatively young Sonoma vines was released in December 2005, after more than eight years on lees. Dusky, yeasty and nutty, with brioche, baked apple, fig and caramel notes. Slightly oxidative, with a silky, voluptuous finish balanced by bright acidity. Strong, commanding, with a gripping finish. Stunning.
1995 Krug Brut > Krug’s wines are built for the ages, and even after a decade, this is just barely starting to show its stripes. But what stripes: A slight cocoa note, with dry bread, firm mineral and vibrant citrus. Incredibly high acidity, but it’s vinous, expansive and resilient, with a long, electric ending.
1997 Nicolas Feuillatte Cuvee Palmes d’Or > This producer’s co-op-owned brand achieves extraordinary heights with its top end, distinctive in its curvy, mottled-glass bottle. A hard mineral core, surrounded by tangy bread dough and hints of hazelnut. Rich, leesy and gorgeously vinous. Packed with umami, like a beautiful salted caramel in your throat.
1997 Nicolas Feuillatte Cuvee Palmes d’Or Rosé > Many rosé Champagnes include some white grapes, but this is 100 percent Pinot Noir. Rare, distinct Pinot-like aromas of white truffle, forest floor and fresh strawberry. Rich and full of Pinot flavors, with a gripping peacock-tail finish. A different approach from most rosés, but an appealing one. Current vintage is 2000.
1998 Piper-Hiedsieck Brut Vintage > Pinot Noir leads the way here at 60 percent to 40 percent Chardonnay. It’s earthy, with a slightly sugary overtone and lots of body. Hints of veal stock, toast and almond, with a clean chewy finish. Could easily be served with meat.
1999 Roederer Estate L’Ermitage Anderson Valley > Roederer’s top-level American wine, with 55 percent Chardonnay and the rest Pinot Noir, more than holds its own with its French cousins. Scents of gray flint dominate amid the dough and yeasty fruit. Its has sharp oxidative notes (the dosage wine was aged 9 years in oak casks) and it’s vibrantly, almost alarmingly, tangy. The sharpness lingers, with a compelling mix of red fruit, mushrooms and sherry.
Roederer Estate L’Ermitage Anderson Valley Brut Rosé > Still Chardonnay-dominant, even though it’s in the pink. Floral hints, with fresh strawberry and caramel. A hint of sweetness in the mix, but it’s lively, with precision and a fruity ending.
2000 Schramsberg Reserve > More than two-thirds Pinot Noir from Napa, Mendocino, Sonoma and Marin. Still young, but richly nutty, like a pie filling, with bright berry accents, ripe apple and baking spice. Grips you and carries you along, though it can be a touch uneven along the way. Perfumed and compelling.
1988 Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Rare Vintage > Seems to come from a completely different galaxy than the omnipresent Yellow Label. A true taste experience, opulently yeasty, with hazelnut, toast, lemon curd, apple, red berry and more, accented by strong sherry and brandy scents. The flavors just keep coming. Dazzlingly complex, heady and overpowering. Holds on and won’t let go. Note: Different from the 1988 Reserve.