The 21 Champagnes of my life

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A great Champagne leaves an unforgettable memory for those who are lucky enough to appreciate it. Michel Bettane, who has had the chance to taste many of them, recalls his most extraordinary emotions.

Choosing twenty-one Champagnes in one’s life as a taster undoubtedly obliges one to make many omissions, but it also allows one to better understand what fascinates in this extraordinary wine, a national pride, a world beverage, which is nevertheless underestimated, unfortunately, by many amateurs. It is often accused of being in principle an out of the ground manipulation, a cleverly marketed wine resulting from a shamefully productivist viticulture. Certain sensibilities have skirted around the issue by opposing the wine of small producers, closer to the truth of the terroir, and that of the big or less big brands. But for the nearly forty years that I have been tasting, comparing or drinking several hundred wines, or even a thousand, with each new harvest, after having surveyed the vineyards in all directions and having met at least two generations of cellar masters, it is the blended wines that remain most engraved in my memory. However, I am far from having neglected the production of the growers and makers and I am proud to have been one of the first, if not the first, to have made known the work of Anselme Selosse, Francis Egly, Xavier Gonnet and many others. However, with a few exceptions that I have the pleasure of sharing with our readers, I can only confirm that, after sufficient ageing, it is the prestige vintages produced by the demanding blends of the great Champagne houses that express most forcefully the gift of nature, interpreted with immense human know-how. Whether chalky or clayey, the Champagne terroir remains, despite global warming, a source of constant difficulties: steep slopes, climatic hazards and, above all, a raw material different from all others since it is during its second fermentation in the bottle that the wine is created and distinguishes itself. The famous classification on a scale of 100 is misleading to judge the potential of the wines since it includes the whole village, top, middle, bottom of the slope, South, West, East, even North exposure, which means nothing. But it is true that in the heart of a Grand Cru or a very good Premier Cru, the wine reaches a superior finesse and complexity if one knows how to correctly assemble the product of the different grape varieties, of the innumerable origins (often more than fifty for the flagship vintages) and even of different vintages thanks to the genius of the reserve wines. These blends increase the character of the wine with ageing, even if they make it more difficult to understand at birth. This does not exclude the importance of viticulture, nor the irreplaceable character of a few rare localities capable of producing a complete wine, sufficient in itself, but in necessarily reduced quantity and incapable of shining in the world, except with a few rich speculators. Our little world, so quick to criticize, often discusses the question of dosage. The dosage or non-dosage is an integral part of the product, it is an aesthetic choice more than an industrial one. It is suspected that it hides defects, but at the same time it is claimed that it increases them, which does not seem logical. In fact, with experience, a dosage proportional to the raw material, and therefore lower today than in the past due to the greater maturity of the grapes, offers a small comfort margin which allows the flavour to be extended after eight or ten years: a few grams of sugar, two, three, six at the most, are sufficient. The wines that are not dosed generally have an abrupt finish that can please at 9 o’clock in the morning and less so at 4 o’clock. Indeed, we do not perceive the balances in the same way during the day and, especially, between the pure tasting and the gastronomic tasting of the wine at table. One can imagine the headache for a good cellar master when he has to make the necessary trade-offs for the universal use of wine. Intelligent dosage has won the loyalty of millions of consumers around the world, starting with the signatory of these lines!

POL ROGER 1921. They are obviously proud of this mythical vintage at Pol Roger, who has kept a few bottles for special occasions. I remember that in the early 1980s at Steven Spurrier’s, Christian Pol Roger put it at the end of the tasting. The naive me had raised my hand and asked Christian, elegance and politeness incarnate, why the recent wines were not as good. He smiled and never blamed me. Another style of viticulture, no doubt, the work of time and the prodigious longevity allowed by the great terroirs of Champagne.

BOLLINGER, R.D. 1959. I “learned” about champagnes in the 1970s with Guy Adam, Bollinger’s remarkable cellar master. He had me on the ropes and generously introduced me to the great style of the house blend. But I didn’t understand the R.D. label, which strangely designated the longest aged blends on point, with no connection to a recent disgorgement. I even thought that, just after disgorging, the wine was more oxidative than five years later. So I brought a 1959 R.D., disgorged in 1975, which had cost me a fortune at Nicolas to compare it with Guy’s same 1959, but disgorged six months earlier. There was no comparison and you can imagine how proud I was that Guy shared my point of view. I have not changed my mind since then, but the sumptuous 1959, if there is any left, will outlive me, R.D. or not R.D.!

KRUG 1961. Krug and its great style, from the Private Cuvée – now Grande Cuvée – which must be left to age for at least three or four years after disgorgement, to all the vintages that have marked my life as a taster and continue to earn my admiration. I remember the 1961 because Rémi Krug, more than a quarter of a century ago, put it on the menu of a big lunch to accompany ortolans, the only occasion until now when I have been able to eat these, with the rite of the napkin covering the head. It was divine, food and wine. And no other wine could have done better.

LANSON 1976 (IN MAGNUM). In its heyday, lavish and probably a bit arrogant, remember the baroque “Lanson l’enchanteur” clips when you could still advertise a wine on TV, Lanson had a magnificent vineyard, which now enriches Dom Pérignon. The wines had a strong personality, linked to the voluntary absence of malolactic fermentation, and a great longevity. The House has kept a few magnums from this glorious past and sometimes offers them for sale. It was thought at the time of its birth that the 1976, a year of heatwave and drought, would age badly. What a mistake. Five years ago, it developed a magnificent bouquet, tertiary and toasted, but without weakness, with an energy that proves once again that it is the substance that makes whites age, and not the acidity. We wish the recent wines the same fate.

VEUVE CLICQUOT, ROSÉ 1978. The classic cellar managers did not like to make rosé or considered that colour should not determine taste and that in a black glass no one should make a difference. This has obviously changed, and we are overwhelmed with more or less accomplished cuvées, with no unity of style. But the great rosé is not a recent creation. Endowed with a magnificent plot of land in Bouzy, Veuve Clicquot has always obtained the red wine capable of transcending a blend and giving a Champagne as original as it is complex, in its aromatic strength, as well as in its persistence. The 1978s recently released in a small collection series are simply prodigious. Some great Houses continue to refine their elaboration, Veuve Clicquot in the lead with its latest cuvees La Grande Dame.

KRUG, CLOS DU MESNIL 1979. A great House is above all a house that knows how to assemble grape varieties, terroirs and vintages to reach a certain ideal that can be reproduced over the long term. But there are accidents that lead you in a completely different direction. The single-vintage, single-barrel Krug. Originally, the Krugs bought this Clos du Mesnil to put in their vintage, but the character of the wine is such that it does not let itself be taken in. Kept separately, the 1979 enchants with its vigour, its refinement and its length in the mouth. The Clos is reborn, Mesnil it will be, and if many vintages since then equal this 1979, none has surpassed it. Commercially, it is a good boy because of its rarity and its price.

DOM PÉRIGNON 1983. It is fashionable to be indifferent or to play the critic in front of the millions of bottles of the flagship Champagne. It is only fair to admit that, since 2003, under the influence of the brilliant Richard Geoffroy and his haute couture without couture concept, the wine has gained in class. But when one ages the older blends, and without even giving them a second life, one notices the perfect Pinot-Chardonnay balance that his predecessors, the Coulon-Foulon duo, with the same skill, had perfected. We also see the benefits of a reductive vinification that keeps the impetus of the game intact thirty-five years later. I have fond memories of the last bottle in my cellar in this vintage, with a finesse and brilliance that no other Champagne of the vintage has achieved.

PALMER & CO, BLANC DE BLANCS 1985. Cooperative wineries play an important yet underrated role in the Champagne world, both the small commune cooperatives and those capable of having created their own brand and style. None have done so with such consistency and modesty as Palmer. 1985 was a great vintage of a very small crop and great wines abound, but in a comparative tasting that made a lasting impression on me, the blanc de blancs from this model cooperative stood up to the most renowned prestige vintages. An admirable toasty bouquet, without the heaviness of what is somewhat perfunctorily called “the English taste”, and a remarkable chalky brightness, although the Chardonnays come in good proportion from Trépail and Villers-Marmery, more harmonious than saline in principle. There was a great cellar master at work, Michel Davesne, who has since moved to Deutz with the success that we know.

CHARLES HEIDSIECK, BLANC DES MILLÉNAIRES 1985. The other great blanc de blancs of this vintage is undoubtedly this champagne made from the Grands Crus of the Côte des Blancs, but especially aged in the chalky cellars of Reims. I am convinced that the magnificent chalky character that we admire in this cuvée as well as in Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne comes from these chalk pits, their humidity and temperature, and the perfume of their atmosphere, intimately linked to the character of the kimmeridgian soil of the great terroirs. And what skill in the dosage of the dosage, contrary to the fashionable brutal bruts, that lengthens, refines, dresses, textures, what would otherwise be only phantom bubbles.

SALON 1985. The genius of Le Mesnil, this indomitable vintage when it comes from the best plots, has never been so brilliant as in this Salon vintage. There are notes of white flowers, and also chanterelle and butter created by the second fermentation, but from the ferments and style of the original still wines, and an incredible energy that I have not found since with the same consistency. We said goodbye to it two years ago, but there must be a few bottles left at Delamotte!

PIERRE MONCUIT, CUVÉE NICOLE MONCUIT 1988. Always this Mesnil so dear to my heart and, for once, plot-based, in the famous Chétillons area where the incomparable marl of the hillside emerges at the bottom of the slope. An old vineyard, a viticulture that is certainly not organic but attentive, a vinification that is not a fuss or a more or less abstruse philosophical concept, but without laziness or routine. No wood or tongue-in-cheek, but race, an obviously non-racist concept that defines the intensity in the originality of true great terroirs. And a female hand holding the reins, from grandmother to granddaughter.

EGLY-OURIET, BLANC DE NOIRS GRAND CRU. Another cuvée that has become a cult wine and yet was born accidentally. In the mid-1980s, no one claimed the official appellation of blanc de noirs, in the midst of the ascending fashion for blanc de blancs and no doubt for fear of the oxymoron and its racist or anti-racist interpretation. But at Michel and Francis Egly’s, the wines coming from the place called Les Crayères in Ambonnay were too strong headed and did not want to be blended with anything and were “tracing”, as they say over there. So they set them apart and, from the very first tastings, they were a worldwide success. Since then, the number of blanc de noirs, even those made with Meuniers, has multiplied, but very few have reached the excellence that has been renewed since 1989, non-vintage (it is always a blend of two vintages) and recognized by all, amateurs and professionals alike. The great comeback of Pinot Noir starts here.

POMMERY, CUVÉE LOUISE 1990. There are great blends that don’t require you to look around. You take the best plots of Aÿ, Avize and Cramant, which for a long time made the glory of Pommery and now lengthen and refine Dom Pérignon, an attentive cellar master, Thierry Gasco, inspired by the example of Guy de Polignac, and without much surprise you compose a Champagne of exquisite finesse, which does not exclude intensity, but above all, which is striking for the delicacy of the bubbles, which is incomparable, and above all, for their chalky texture, just as much as for that of the wine. In fact, a perfect fusion of the two. I understand that the “recipe” has not changed, with practically the same sources, and so much the better because without Louise, Champagne would not be what it is.

LAURENT-PERRIER, GRAND SIÈCLE ITÉRATION N°17. The curious word iteration, repetition of the same, is a recent marketing idea but really based on the very principle of this prestigious cuvée model. Since its creation, and in order to maintain the constancy of its style, the House has assembled three vintages of pure Grand Crus, half Pinot, half Chardonnay, and obviously keeps bottles of each blend. By numbering them and re-releasing them in very small quantities, Laurent-Perrier wants to show that it’s a winning combination, even if today vintage wines are more popular, which I often regret. The magnificent iteration 17, for me perhaps the purest of all, brings together 1990, 1993 and 1995. But the current n°24 is not bad either.

WILLIAM DEUTZ, LA CÔTE GLACIÈRE 2012. Another great parcel-based cuvee, infinitely more intense and racy than most of the others, which obey too much of a fashion born of immediate consumption and the Burgundian model, less suited to Champagne. This “côte”, which adjoins the house buildings, has the strength of all the hearts of grand cru terroir, plus the unequalled elegance of the wines of Aÿ, and is sufficient in itself by its balance and above all its capacity to become more and more complex with age. Very old, the vineyard was used in the elaboration of the normal William Deutz cuvée, which is so highly esteemed, and rightly so, by our best sommeliers. Fabrice Rosset, the owner of the house, wanted to make this cuvée even more exclusive and stick as closely as possible to the terroir. He succeeded.

TAITTINGER, COMTES DE CHAMPAGNE 1995. I have never hidden my weakness for this cuvée, admirable for its style, its consistency and its way of giving a fullness of texture and flavour to the chardonnay that is particularly suited to great gastronomy and its most delicious products, from turbot to lobster, from Bresse to Challans. What is less well known, but which shows the strength of the terroir, is that a large part of the cuvée comes from the ideally located plots of Avize cooperators, which have practically never changed, obviously vinified according to the criteria of the house and, above all, matured in crayères with the inimitable patina that they bring to the wine. The 1995 is at its peak, a true marvel.

JACQUESSON, AŸ – VAUZELLES TERME 1996. The Chiquet brothers have progressively led this brand so full of history to the highest level of production of wines of place and character. On their small plots of land in Aÿ, they sometimes produce a wine with a strong identity, which in 1996 found ideal conditions in terms of maturity and acidity. The magical terroir of Aÿ expresses itself at the highest level of finesse, intensity and complexity, with that special mineral character that brings together Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the same saline impulse. Few 1996s have aged with the same consistency, despite all the hopes formulated at the birth of the vintage. Nowadays, the house prefers to integrate the wine from these plots into its non-vintage but numbered cuvée, the pillar of the brand. It obviously gains from this, but without ever equalling the originality of pure Aÿ.

PIPER-HEIDSIECK, RARE 1998. The glitz of the bottle, made to please a certain clientele, may be considered over-the-top, but this should not prevent us from admiring this prestigious wine with its transcendent aromatic finesse. On numerous occasions, as a judge, I have given it the highest blind score in my champagne tastings, and I was not alone in Tokyo for this 1998. This cuvée offers the kind of toasty, tender, yet intense reduction that appeals to the most jaded and the least knowledgeable consumer alike, but without prejudice, and one can trust Régis Camus, the house’s great cellar master, to perpetuate its rare perfection.

PHILIPPONNAT, LES CINTRES 2008. No vineyard in Champagne is more spectacular than the Clos des Goisses, whose vertiginous slope overlooks the Marne canal in Mareuil. Thanks to its limestone soil and ideal exposure, the wine reaches a fullness recognized by all since it is vinified separately. I have always considered Pinot Noir to be superior to Chardonnay in expressing the strength of the terroir, and I am pleased that Charles Philipponnat has gradually isolated a few plots of pure Pinot Noir to produce this astonishing and rare cuvée, a meeting of the “petits cintres” and the “grands cintres”, in the heart of the Clos. Nothing in Champagne can match the power and majesty of the constitution of these two plots, the apotheosis of the blanc de noirs. The apogee of the blanc de noirs can be expected around 2028.

WILLIAM DEUTZ, LA CÔTE GLACIÈRE 2012. Another great plot-based cuvée, infinitely more intense and racy than most of the others, which follow too closely the fashion of immediate consumption and the Burgundian model, less adapted to Champagne. This “côte”, which adjoins the house buildings, has the strength of all the hearts of Grand Cru terroir, plus the unequalled elegance of the wines of Aÿ, and is sufficient in itself by its balance and above all its capacity to become more and more complex with age. Very old, the vineyard was used in the elaboration of the normal William Deutz cuvée, which is so highly esteemed, and rightly so, by our best sommeliers. Fabrice Rosset, the owner of the house, wanted to make this cuvée even more exclusive and stick as closely as possible to the terroir. He succeeded.

GUIBORAT, DE CAURES À MONT-AIGU 2014. I have always had a soft spot for the wines of Cramant, wonderful in still wine, at Roederer or Dom Pérignon, before blending. Many disappointments, however, with wines from other brands, either too heavy or too acidic, except for those blended with neighbouring wines from Cuis. A new generation practising a much more precise and less productivist viticulture is progressively giving them back all their strength. Richard Fouquet is one of them and, with each new vintage, refines the style of his Cramant wines. Montaigu, officially on Chouilly, is simply an extension to the north of the Cramant hillsides, including the delicious Caures, whose mineral purity it matches and sometimes surpasses. The crystalline quality of this 2014, a blend of the two lieux-dits, is truly irresistible and places the Guiborat brand – named after Richard’s grandmother – at the top of the elite of the Côte des Blancs growers-blenderss. All the more so as even the entry-level wines have this transparency.

 

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