A Tale of Three Cuvées
The History of the prestige cuvée in Champagne
A brief overview of France's most prestigious sparkling wines
In glossary terms, a prestige cuvée is an exceptional Champagne, generally aged extensively and very carefully blended from the best parcels, which sell for a premium.
Historically speaking, and with some irony in the timing, the concept was developed by Robert-Jean de Vogüé, a director at Champagne Moët & Chandon during the Great Depression. He convinced the board of directors at Moët to create a luxury Champagne for the export market and name it “Dom Pérignon,” an unused brand the company had purchased from Mercier in 1930. The first 300 bottles of Dom Pérignon 1921 arrived in London in 1935 and 100 boxes were shipped to New York the following year. The cuvée was an instant hit, and brought solace (to some) in difficult times.
In hindsight, de Vogüé’s idea was a brilliant marketing coup. Moët & Chandon were after all the long standing owners of the ancient Abbey where Dom Pérignon once lived and worked. The 1947 vintage was the first specific “Dom Pérignon” blend; the five previous vintages were in fact Oenothèque releases (late disgorged, after reaching second or third peak maturity), which had been transferred in the special 18th century bottle. The current Dom Pérignon 2003 vintage, which was released in 2012, is only the 39th.
Patience and Selectivity
It’s no surprise. Dom Pérignon Cellar Master Richard Geoffroy told me that every year they try to create the vintage, but at time of blending, he will decide whether the blend is good enough to continue with the second fermentation and long aging on the lees. Dom Pérignon is aged for at least seven years on the lees. However, there are also still two Oenothèque releases, the first released 15 to 20 after harvest (the current vintage being 1996) and a second release after around 30 years on the lees.
The Oenothèque releases come from Geoffroy’s deep belief that Dom Pérignon go through three different stages of maturation. When it’s first released, the wine is but an infant: it’s vibrant and has the electric energy of a child. When it reaches its the second peak, the first “Oenothèque” release, the wine is in its prime, like a young adult—still energetic, but more layered and complex than the first release, the intensity very much focusing on the particulars of the specific vintage. At last release, or second Oenothèque release, the Champagne has reached its third peak, showing the true character of a fully mature wine. (Since 1959, Dom Pérignon has also made a rosé Champagne; 21 vintages have been released up till today, and Oenothèque releases also exist for this wine.)
The grapes used to produce Dom Pérignon come from the best sites in several Grand Cru villages. However, often some fruit from Hautvillers (Premier Cru), where Moët & Chandon have some fabulous south-facing vineyards, is added to blend as well. The blend is crucial to define the structure of the Champagne. But the extensive aging is at least as important, according to Geoffroy, who firmly believes that it’s the aging which uniquely allows the blend to fully express itself.
A Tale of Three Cuvées
Another take on the subject could pinpoint the Grande Cuvée by Krug as the first prestige cuvée. Johann Joseph Krug left his job as general manager of the largest Champagne house to create a Champagne unlike any other. He wanted to create a wine which would bring the greatest expression of pleasure, year after year. In order to do this, he decided to vinify plot per plot separately, as well as keep a large library of reserve wines. With this process, Krug produced two cuvées: the non-vintage Grande Cuvée, which he aimed to make every year, and, for exceptional years, a vintage which expressed those conditions. However, Krug firmly believed a vintage wine could never be the greatest expression of pleasure, as it was restricted to just the one year.
The first Krug wines hit the market in 1850, and the wine has been produced year after year up to today. Like the Dom Pérignon the Grande Cuvée is aged extensively; however, it is a non-vintage Champagne. As it has always been sold for a premium, some see it as the first prestige cuvée ever in Champagne.
Still others claim that Roederer’s Cristal really is the first prestige cuvée. First created in 1876 for Tsar Alexander II of Russia (who ordered it for his Three Emperor’s Dinner), the Champagne was originally made in an ultra-rich style to cater to the Russian’s sweet tooth, and was bottled in a clear bottle without a punt. The packaging requests had been made as the Tsar was petrified of being murdered; he wanted a clear bottle to see the wine, and a bottle without a punt to make sure no bombs could be hidden inside. The bottle was designed by a Flemish glass blower, and as the first bottles were in fact crystal, the cuvée was called Cristal. After the Russian revolution in 1918, production of the wine stopped until 1945, when the cuvée was first publicly released.
A Mini Cuvée Renaissance
In fact, from the 50s onwards, several houses launched a prestige cuvée: 1952 was the first vintage of Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagnes, and Laurent-Perrier’s Grand Siècle was first released in 1960. In the last 30 years, more prestige cuvées were launched by houses and cooperatives, as well as growers. Some better known examples here include Pol Roger’s Winston Churchill, which saw the light in 1984 (1975 vintage), Duval-Leroy Cuvée Femme, launched in in the late ‘90s (1990 vintage), Nicolas Feuillatte Cuvée Palme d’Or and Piper Heidsieck Cuvée Rare.
Smaller producers, such as Ayala, came out with the Perle d’Ayala. Charles Heidsieck produced their Champagne Charlie between 1979 and 1985, replacing it with the Blanc des Millenaires in 1983. And the high-end cooperative Goerg released their excellent and elegant Cuvée Lady in the nineties.
A last style of prestige cuvée is the single vineyard cuvée. Champagne is traditionally a blended wine and single vineyard cuvées are very unusual. One of the pioneers in the single vineyard prestige cuvée was Champagne Philipponnat, with Les Goisses in 1935. The wine was renamed Clos des Goisses in 1957 when Raymond Beaudoin, the founder of the “Revue du Vin de France” noted the vineyard was enclosed by a wall and was in fact a “clos.”
In the last 20 years, the single vineyard cuvée has become a little more popular, especially with wine growers. Pierre Larmandier, Anselme Selosse and Jean-Mary Tarlant started to produce some excellent single vineyard Champagnes in the 1980s. These wines are often rare as hen’s teeth, as only a certain number of bottles can be made, and they are not necessarily made every year. However, with the exception of some of Selosse’s wines, these wines are often bargains compared to the more traditional prestige cuvées. (It’s interesting to note Krug also started to make some single vineyard wines.) However, Le Clos du Mesnil and especially Le Clos d’Ambonnay are out of most consumers’ price range, retailing well over $1000.
All in all, prestige cuvée makes up a very small percentage of the total Champagne production, which makes sense considering they’ve been elaborated with the greatest care and are generally of outstanding quality. After all, the aim is to make the consumer feel extra special!
A few of my favorite prestige cuvées can be found here.