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Super-Premium Champagnes: A New Category?
By Ed McCarthy
Oct 31, 2017
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Does the wine world need super-premium Champagnes, which by the category name itself suggest “expensive”?  Champagne lovers apparently think so, because these elite Champagnes, made in small quantities, are selling well.  Strictly speaking, Super-Premiums are not a new category, but an evolving category that has been growing larger.  Only a few super-premium Champagnes currently exist, but more are coming this year, and even more in the near future.

How often have you heard someone say, “I just had a bottle of Dom Pérignon (or Cristal) and I didn’t think it was so great.”  I hear this all the time, and my answer is always the same:  “You probably drank it too soon; these prestige Champagnes need to be aged for quite a few years to develop and mature.”

Most wine drinkers realize that a great Bordeaux or Barolo needs aging to show its stuff, but apparently many people are not aware that the same rule applies to Champagnes--particularly Vintage and Prestige Champagnes. 

To solve this problem, some of the top Champagne houses are doing something about it; they are aging a small quantity of their better Champagnes for you, and releasing them to the market when they reach their peak of maturity.

Probably the first house to create a super-premium Champagne was the very prestigious, rather small Champagne Krug.  Its 1979 Clos du Mesnil, a single-vineyard Blanc de Blancs, was released, after seven years of aging, in 1986.  It was the first major Champagne to retail for $1,000 when first released.  Of course, it is a unique wine, different from other super-premium Champagnes that followed, but its cost puts Krug Clos du Mesnil in the super-premium category.

In the early 1980s, Krug introduced its Krug Collection Champagnes, a re-release of some of Krug’s great vintages, going back to 1959.  As great as these Champagnes were and still are, they come at really high prices, going into thousands of dollars.  Champagne Dom Pérignon would follow, but at more reasonable prices.  Krug also released its most expensive Champagne in 2007, a small quantity of its new 1995 Clos d’Ambonnay, a single-vineyard Pinot Noir-based Champagne costing $2,400 retail--already aged for 12 years.  I tried it once; as good as it was, for me the Clos du Mesnil is better, for a mere $1,000.

Champagne Dom Pérignon (which is part of the gigantic LVMH company but separately run) set the tone of the super-premium Champagnes to follow.  In 2000, Richard Geoffroy, the legendary winemaker of Dom Pérignon, launched the  Oenothèque program, designed to re-release great vintages of Dom Pérignon from vintage 1959 through1996.  Geoffroy described Dom Pérignon as going through three stages of development, or what he calls “plenitudes,” P1, when it is first released, still needing development; P2, when Dom Pérignon reaches its first stage of maturity and is ready to drink; and P3, when the Champagne reaches its final stage of maturity, fully developed.  The length of years it takes to reach P2 or P3 depends on the vintage.  Champagne Dom Pérignon recently dropped the “Oenothèque” term and now simply refers to P2 and P3 on the re-released Dom Pérignons. 

Vintages of Dom Pérignon from the newly released 2009 through 2002 are still at the first (P1) stage (P1 is not used on the labels).  Starting with 2000 and down to 1996, Dom Pérignon is now at the P2 level, and re-released DPs do show P2 from those vintages on the label.  Beginning with the magnificent 1995, Dom Pérignon is now at the P3 level.  I recently tasted several vintages with Geoffroy in Hautvillers, the village that was the home of the still-standing Hautvillers Abbey where Dom Pérignon worked.  I was astonished by the greatness of the P3 1995 Dom Pérignon, which outshone the 1996 P2 Dom Pérignon, the latter still a bit young (not at P3 level yet).  We tasted P3 Doms back to 1973 on this occasion.  On previous visits, I have tasted 1964 P3 and 1959 P3.  The 1964 Dom Pérignon is drinking magnificently; the 1959 is showing a bit of age for my palate, but some tasters thought it was fine.

If you are shopping for a 1998 Dom Pérignon, I would definitely recommend that you buy a P2 1998, aged longer in the winery cellars in Epernay, rather than buy a 1998 that has been stored in this country since its release; the retail price currently is about the same ($300) for both the 1998 DPs.  However, the most current DP P2 in the U.S., the 2000, is as much as $100 more than non-P2 2000s; the same is true for 1996 P2s (a great vintage).  The price depends on the quantities available.

This year, three fine Champagne houses, Louis Roederer, Henriot, and Ruinart, are releasing their versions of Super-Premium Champagnes in the U.S.  Champagne Louis Roederer put aside a small quantity of its 1995 Cristal, aged the wines for 14 years in its cellars, disgorged the bottles, and then aged them for another seven years.  Only 600 bottles of the 1995 Cristal Vinothèque (as it is known) is coming to the U.S. this year, and President Frédéric Rouzard announced that it will retail for $1,000.  I tasted it last week, and was stunned by its depth and complexity.  Its label is slightly different from the existing Cristal, containing more gold, with the word “Vinothèque” on the front label.  It is one of the greatest Champagnes I have ever tasted. Its price will be almost three times the retail price of non-Vinothèque 1995 Cristal, which in any case is very difficult to find at this time.  Champagne Louis Roederer plans to have a 1996 Cristal Vinothèque and a 2002 as well.

The late Joseph Henriot had his own idea of developing a super-premium Champagne.  In 1990, Henriot decided that Champagne Henriot, a house specializing in Chardonnay-driven Champagnes, would set aside a small amount of its Chardonnay each vintage, blend and age the succeeding Chardonnay vintages together, in solera fashion, and create a Super Blanc de Blancs.  Champagne Henriot blended 19 harvests--from 1990 to 2008--and bottled the Champagne in 2010.  It is called it Cuve 38--also known as the ”Perpetual Cuvée.”  The first Cuve was released from its cellars in 2015.

Cuve 38 is made from grapes of four great Grand Cru villages in the Côte des Blancs.  It is bottled only in magnums; 1,000 bottles will be produced each vintage.  It will be aged for a minimum of five years on its lees, and always have less than 5 g/l residual sugar.  The current Cuve 38 has only 3.7 g/l RS.  I tasted Cuve 38 just a few days ago; it is creamy, with great texture, and has great length on the palate.  It is arguably the greatest Champagne Henriot has ever produced.  Perhaps the best news is the price, $600 per magnum (eqivalent to $300 if in a 750ml bottle), a value for a Champagne of this quality.  Cuve 38 has the words La Reserve Perpetvelle (The Perpetual Reserve) on its front label.

Not to be outdone, Champagne Ruinart, renowned for its superb Blanc de Blancs, Dom Ruinart, has produced its own super-premium Blanc de Blancs: La Reserve, beginning with the 1998 vintage.  I tasted it in June at the winery, but I do not believe that it has been released yet, at least not in the U.S.  Chef de Cave Frédéric Panaïotis told me that only 100 bottles of the 1998 Reserve, its first vintage, were made, but he is extremely enthusiastic about La Reserve’s future.  Ruinart’s 1998 La Reserve is rich and creamy, with opulent, carmel, biscuity flavors.  It is more full-flavored, with more depth, than the Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs.  Panaïotis believes that Ruinart’s La Reserve will be very long-lived.  No information on its price at this time.

For most of us, these Super-Premium Champagnes will be special-occasion wines.  But it’s nice to know they exist.  I am looking forward to my next “special occasion” to share a bottle with special friends and family.