The best of the best: James Lawrence examines what makes a prestige Champagne worth the extravagance
Words by wine expert James Lawrence
If the very mention of the name Champagne invokes celebration and specials occasions, then the Champagne cuvee prestige must be the ultimate symbol of luxury and glamour. The so called cuvee prestige Champagnes are the Dom Perignons and La Grande Années of this world, deluxe bottles that are only produced in the top vintages and can be found across the UK’s best restaurants and retail stores. There is, of course, a wide range of styles – oaky and full bodied, light and refined – but the best are among the finest white or rose wines in the world. They are never cheap, but the best really do merit their price tag, for that very special occasion.
Yet in these uncertain times, asking consumers to fork out for Champagne with a price point that typically hovers around £120 is no easy task. So the valid questions is: what makes Champagne qualify for the title of a deluxe bottling? And is it worth it? Well, other than the expensive packaging and branding involved, a cuvee prestige should only be made in the best vintages and are a major step up from standard NV Champagnes. The wine is given an extended ageing period on the lees – the yeasty sediment that remains after the wine has finished its second fermentation in the bottle – resulting in denser, richer Champagne of significantly greater structure and finesse.
These top Champagnes are made to last, and they develop so much depth, so many dimensions that they deserve to be cellared after release. It is the period of ageing, in fact, which determines the higher cost of these luxury wines – they are held in the Champagne House’s cellar for longer and cannot be sold without a minimum of five years ageing. But perhaps most importantly, the grapes will have come from the finest vineyard sites, and will have been hand selected and meticulously blended to give the best possible wine, whilst reflecting the house style. The end result? – A Champagne of considerable depth, complexity and elegance, if the house has done their job properly.
Bollinger is a classic case in point. This venerable house has been serving the British Court since 1884, when Queen Victoria granted the house its Royal Warrant. Today, British consumers know and love its flagship brand Special Cuvée, yet it is the prestige bottling, La Grande Année, which really excites wine lovers. The 2008 vintage of La Grande Année was launched earlier this year, and promptly sold out according to Bollinger’s marketing director Clement Ganier. The marketing of the brand was flawless; Bollinger continues to collaborate with leading chefs in the UK, each of which will focus on a signature ingredient to pair with La Grande Année 2008. The chef’s parings will be featured in their restaurants throughout 2019 and include: Ollie Dabbous – Crab (Hide); Gareth Ward – Cod (Ynyshir); Atul Kochhar – Duck (Benares) and Stephane Delourme – Lobster (Seafood Restaurant).
But aside from the marketing and hype, what is it about La Grande Année that makes it so utterly irresistible? For a start, it is fully barrel fermented and aged and closed with natural cork, making it one of the most complex and refined prestige Champagnes on the market. The 2008 is arguably the finest example yet – a merging of force and finesse, of supreme elegance with a hedonistic palate of honeysuckle, toast, brioche and lemon curd. I was privileged to taste the wine earlier this year, and I can confirm it is spectacular.
What are the other names to look for? Well, the most famous are Krug, Salon, Cristal and others, but this mega expensive end of the market is not the only place to look for special Champagne.
The following are my top three luxury Champagnes to enjoy this year
Bollinger La Grande Année 2007 and 2008
Where to buy: masterofmalt.com
More readily available than the 2008, the 2007 La Grand Année is also a real stunner, impeccably balanced and really starting to hit its stride with its rich, toasty complexity.
Dom Ruinart 2006 Blanc de Blancs
Where to buy: drinksupermarket.com
A gorgeous, mouthwateringly addictive cuvee prestige, the 2006 Dom Ruinart is produced from 100% Chardonnay and displays intense, richly perfumed citrus fruit, interwoven with flavours of pears, vanilla brioche, and a touch of carmel. It is the very epitome of elegance and power, giving pleasure now but could easily be cellared for another ten years. But then, who could wait?
La Grande Dame 2006
Where to buy: masterofmalt.com
La Grande Dame is exceptional Champagne, possessing immense weight, structure and a rich mouthful of brioche, vibrant red fruit and honey flavours that seems to last forever. It is Veuve Cliquot’s poster-child for luxury Champagne, a rich, heady blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that can age for decades. Superb and very moreish, La Grande Dame is the perfect proposition for food matching.
Don’t waste this as an aperitif!