For three months, I've been sitting on two interviews from Champagne for different reasons.
I love the wines by both Taittinger and Perrier-Jouët. Taittinger makes one of the best entry-level large-production Champagnes, while Perrier-Jouët makes one of the best wines I tasted all year.
My problems with using either interview were these.
Perrier-Jouët cellarmaster Hervé Deschamps, a gracious man, is a humble craftsman, good at a job that he loves but not given to bragging about it. He's just not a great quote.
Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, by contrast, unleashed a torrent of anti-US sentiment, leavened occasionally by sudden praise for Eisenhower or Obama. It's a sharp, interesting interview, but it doesn't make Taittinger look good, and my purpose today is to write about two readily available Champagnes that I like.
Ultimately I decided I can't write that Taittinger Brut Champagne NV, for under $40, is a great value without publishing the quotes that pissed me off; that would be dishonest. And I really like the wine: Toastier and richer than most entry-level Champagnes, with golden apple fruit and full mouthfeel. Pierre-Emmanuel takes pride in this wine.
"For me, a great house is carried by the non-vintage," he says. "The honor of our name is shown by the non-vintage."
Now, imagine yourself with a glass of Taittinger Brut Rosé, pretty and fruity with a hint of tannin, when the man who rescued the winery from the disinterested clutches of a hotel group in 2006 takes the conversation in this direction: "In the United States you drink Champagne with the breakfast," Taittinger says. "In other countries it's another time. I have seen people in the United States mixing Champagne with Coca-Cola. I have seen many times."
"Where in the United States?" I ask, not having seen this myself.
"Everywhere," he says. "But there is no critique in what I am saying. I can buy a beautiful Porsche tomorrow and crash it. It's permitted. I can paint it with concrete. It's OK. You do what you want. If you want to take a bath in Champagne, it's OK."
Taittinger tells us he drinks Champagne every day. As head of a house that makes 5 million bottles a year, why not? I ask him which of the company's Champagnes is his favorite.
"That is a typical American question," he says. "What's the biggest? What's the best?" Then, perhaps remembering that Taittinger exports 70% of its products and that a bottle mixed with Coca-Cola is still a bottle sold, he praises Gen. Eisenhower, who had his headquarters in Champagne's largest city, Reims. He calls Eisenhower "a very modest man."
He tells this story: "When I was in the United States, I met a billionaire and he said, 'Pierre, my favorite Champagne is the Taittinger Comtes de Champagne ($169). But I don't drink it anymore. It costs 50% less than the Dom Perignon. If I drink it, my friends will think I'm not rich enough. So I can't drink my favorite Champagne anymore."
Taittinger starts a rant about poverty: "You (me being the United States, as you all now how powerful I am here) run the world with China. What can we do? We (France) are a tiny country. You are perfectly happy when half of the world does not have food and water."
I ask him what percentage of his income he gives to charity. He goes on a rant about how the French system forces him to spend money on social services, and he's not allowed to give money to charity because he doesn't get a tax break.
Taittinger thinks we take food and wine too seriously.
"We treat it like religion," he says. "We pray in front of the bottle. We don't talk to each other. We pray in front of the plate."
He's an angry man for one who works with such a happy beverage, though he does realize the irony.
"The paradox of Champagne is we produce the wine of celebration, of peace, in a region where we had the worst battles of World War I," he says. "In this land full of blood, we produce the symbol of happiness."
* * *
I had a less bloody conversation with Deschamps over five Perrier-Jouët wines, all of which I liked, and which culminated with one of the best things I put in my mouth in 2012.
Perrier-Jouët, founded in 1811 and now owned by Pernod Ricard, claims to have invented the Brut style of Champagne in 1846, when the prevailing style was much sweeter.
Deschamps, 54, is just the seventh cellarmaster in Perrier-Jouët's history; he's been at it for 20 years already.
"In the beginning I worked with the previous cellarmaster to learn everything you don't learn at school," Deschamps said. "It's not enough to make a mathematics recipe. Every year you need a different recipe."
Deschamps says Pernod Ricard gives him the freedom to declassify off vintages like 2003. "It's very important to have the time to make the taste to decide if it's a vintage year and not have pressure from sales and marketing," he says.
Those are all the good quotes I got from him.
But oh, the wine: Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque Rosé 2004 costs nearly $300 a bottle, but if you're looking for an end-of-year splurge, it's amazing. It has lovely rose aromas, and you think it's going to be sweet. It leads with smoked strawberries, goes through a fresh strawberry stage, and then glides through one of the longest sparkling wine finishes I've ever experienced, with a richer apricot compote and rose jam mouthfeel before leaving a smoky and slightly salty impression. Every sip I took, I liked more.
This column is scheduled to run on the last day of the Mayan calendar. If you see fire raining from the sky, get to your local wine shop and grab a bottle of this; what will you need $300 for after the apocalypse? And what the hell, mix it with Coca-Cola if you want. That's what we do in the USA, right?