Guide to Italian Wines
Maison Belle Epoque
Maison Belle Epoque of Champagne Perrier-Jouet
Unknown Champagne Cuvées
© by Tom Hyland

Just about everyone loves Champagne, but judging from many retail shelves and restaurant wine lists, you might think most of us drink the same dozen or so cuvées all the time. That would be a shame as there are so many outstanding offerings on the market today in all styles and price ranges. That is one of the charms of Champagne; the usual non-vintage Brut many of us enjoy is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the variety of distinctive wines available from this glorious region.

As the holidays approach then, here is a list of some of the most undiscovered Champagne cuvées in release today. Some are from the famous houses; others come from smaller producers that are not as well known. Either way, all of these wines are excellent and are waiting to be discovered by Champagne lovers in America and the world over.

Dominique DeMarville
Dominique DeMarville, chef de caves (cellarmaster) at Champagne Mumm.

Champagne drinkers know Mumm for its famous Cordon Rouge, but here is the real star of this celebrated house. This is made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes from the Grand Cru village of Cramant, located in the Cote de Blancs district, south of Epernay. This has a beautiful citrus aroma with a creamy palate and a distinctive chalky finish that calls to mind the special soils of this area.

The wine is entirely from one year, but since the wine is not aged for the minimum time prescribed by law to label it as a vintage Champagne, it must be sold as a non-vintage. This shorter period of aging though yields a wine that is ultra-fresh with delicious Chardonnay fruit, but above all, this wine is all about elegance and finesse, which are the trademarks of all great Champagnes. (By the way, this wine is under less pressure than a traditional Champagne and is referred to as a "cremant." In fact, the wine used to be labeled as Mumm Cremant de Cramant, but the term "cremant" can now only be used in France for sparkling wines made outside of Champagne.) ($60)


As Moet & Chandon is the largest Champagne house and produces the single most famous cuvée - Dom Perignon - it is hard to think that this firm releases anything that is not well known. Yet here is a wine that few people associate with Moet. This NV rosé has a light copper color with a dried cherry, yeasty aroma and a round elegant finish that is not overly acidic. This would be a fine seafood wine (think halibut or even with some desserts such as lemon cake. ($40) PERRIER-JOUET NV GRAND BRUT

The most beautiful bottle in Champagne is the famous Perrier-Jouet "Flower Bottle" (known in France as "Belle Epoque" or the "Golden Age"). The bottle is stunning and the wine inside it is pretty special indeed! (Also look for the Flower Bottle Rosé, which is one of the most elegant and flavorful rosés available at any price.)

For this article though, we will consider the NV Grand Brut, which is one of the best NV bottlings available today. The latest cuvée is now in release and it is easy to spot with its round, bright golden label, which replaces the rectangular white label. This is a yeasty, lemony wine that is rich on the palate displaying ripe, forward fruit supported by great acidity in the finish. When I tasted this at the winery with Frédérique Baveret, public relations director for Perrier-Jouet, she told me that a group of Australian wine writers had commented that they could not believe this was the NV cuvée. They were right - it's that good! ($40)


Here is one of the most unknown great Champagne houses in this country. What a shame as everything here is first-rate! A typical classy cuvée from Pommery is the NV Rosé that beautifully displays the house style of intensity of flavor and roundness. Made from two-thirds red grapes and one-third Chardonnay with a gorgeous aroma of orange zest, white peach and brioche, this has great complexity on the palate and a touch of earthiness on the finish. The lively acidity makes this an inviting partner with foods ranging from salmon to duck a l'orange. ($50)


I am a huge fan of everything this house produces, especially the Cuvée William Deutz, one of the most powerful of all the prestige cuvées. So it is no surprise how good the current vintage Brut - the 1995 - is. Primarily Pinot Noir, this has an aroma of lemon, peaches and honey. Medium-full on the palate, this wine has great finesse and a long, subtle finish with a slight toastiness. Pair this with full-flavored seafood such as halibut or sea bass. ($52)


Here is one of the great success stories to emerge from the Champagne region in the last twenty years. Founded in 1981 by Bruno Paillard, a Champagne broker, this is the newest house in the region and one of the smallest, producing only about 350,00 bottles per year (the big houses produce several million bottles each year).

The current non-vintage offering from Paillard (the back label tells you the wine was disgorged in March 2001- a nice touch) has a lovely aroma of lemon zest, brioche and mandarin orange and is full-bodied with great richness on the palate. There is zesty acidity in the finish which is quite long. A very classy and complex wine (33% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir and 22% Pinot Meunier), this would work well with foods ranging from lemon sole in a butter sauce to roast hen. ($50)


"We are not the best-known, but we are known by the best," is the motto of Christian Pol-Roger. A first-class producer established in 1849, Pol Roger makes one of the finest non-vintage bottlings each year as well as the powerful Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill in the best vintages. Alongside these offerings, their other wines tend to get overlooked, especially the 1995 Brut Chardonnay. 100% Chardonnay entirely from Grand Cru villages, this has a distinctive aroma of lemon, brioche and toast. Medium to full-bodied with a great intensity of flavors on the palate, this is a subtle and elegant Champagne. Christian Pol-Roger loves this wine with a variety of foods, from truffles to sea bass to chicken and who am I to argue? ($74)


First-rate wines combined with first-rate marketing have spelled world-wide success for Veuve Clicquot. La Grande Dame is one of the best loved of all the prestige cuvées and when it comes to the famous "Yellow Label" NV Brut, well, how many retail stores don't carry this wine? The Demi-Sec ("half-dry') from this firm is something special as well. With an aroma of white peaches and a touch of yeast, this is very fresh and quite flavorful. There is only a touch of sweetness in the finish, unlike some examples of this type which have a considerable amount of residual sugar. While this is the answer to what to serve with a wedding cake, I prefer it with a simple desert of fresh strawberries and peaches.


One of Champagne's most revered houses, Taittinger is famed for its Blanc de Blancs known as Comtes de Champagne. It is a shame that their other cuvées do not get the same attention, especially the vintage Brut. The current release from 1996 is a delight, featuring a beautiful aroma of lemon, pear and dried flowers. Medium-full with wonderful concentration, this is very elegant with a long finish and would be ideal as an aperitif or served with sole. If you don't like this cuvée, you don't like Champagne! ($50)


I'm really not certain why this house is not better known in this country. Perhaps there are too many Champagnes with the Heidsieck name (Piper, Charles, etc.) - perhaps there is only room for a half dozen names on most wine lists. Whatever the reason, this is an excellent NV Brut that has great flavor and complexity. There is a touch of chalkiness and yeastiness in the finish, and while it may not be as finesseful as the finest Champagnes, this would be a fine partner for richer seafood. ($65)


A luxury cuvée as undiscovered? Well in this case it's true. Laurent-Perrier seems to have lost some of its glamour as of late and it seems the winery and its marketing people are out to change that. Of course, all the marketing in the world won't help if the wines aren't excellent and in this case, the latest release of the Grand Siecle is outstanding. A blend of wines from 1988, 1990 and 1993, this is full-bodied with a yeasty, toasty character and a long, round finish. Serve this with the richest seafood and even some roast meat. ($75)

Dec. 2, 2002

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