A lot of time we talk about Champagne as though it is all the same. The truth is though that the only thing most Champagnes have in common is the fact that they are fizzy.
Each house has a different approach which makes for a wide array of Champagne styles. Some are rich, Pinot Noir dominated and barrel fermented, whereas others are citric and light as air – with lots of variety in between.
No, in reality Champagne is as varied as any other wine, but because the fundamental nature of the different wines is similar the differences are often nuanced. However, because the palate of grapes is very small – really just 3, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, although there are some old plantings of other grapes still in production – the variety is quite astonishing. Much like music, which is all written with 7 notes, Champagne is all created with a tiny repertoire of raw material, which just makes the differences all the more remarkable.
Not many of us get to taste a huge variety of Champagnes – sadly. So I cherish the moments that I can and recently I have been doing some tastings of the Taittinger range and I thought it might interest some of you to know about their different cuvées.
When people say they have had a bottle of Taittinger – or indeed Moët et Chandon, Laurent-Perrier or Bollinger et al – they usually mean that they drank the standard offering – the standard bearer of the house. This is normally the Non Vintage Brut, but almost all houses produce a much wider range than that, making rosés, vintages, a cuvée de prestige and even sweeter or drier Champagnes and these are all often worthy of much more attention as they can provide fabulous wine drinking experiences and give a fuller picture of this amazing wine region.
So, it is always a pleasure to lead tasters through the complete Taittinger range as the wines are all so different and take them by surprise. I really like them too, which is always good.
I like the whole feel and ethos of Taittinger, the name is quite hard for a Brit to say, but luckily there are 3 acceptable versions – as far as I can see:
Thai-Ton-Jay would appear to be the proper French pronunciation of Taittinger, but to achieve that I have to concentrate hard and get my tongue in the right place first!
Luckily it seems that we Anglo-Saxons are perfectly ok saying Tatt-inger – phew!
However as the family originally hailed from Austria, way back in history, then a Germanic Thai-ting-er could also be considered quite proper.
Take your pick, but whichever you choose to say, do try the whole range.
Taittinger is a rare beast for a Champagne house, in being owned and managed by the family whose name is on the label. This is no mean feat in the modern world when Champagne is often seen as a luxury rand product rather than a wine as such, as far as I am aware Bollinger is the only other world famous Champagne house to remain a family company. It must focus the mind somewhat having your name on every bottle and being ultimately responsible for the quality and style of wine that your family produces and under the management of Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger I think the wines have evolved and the quality has really shone.
Everyone knows that Champagne is fundamentally dry and that Brut means a dry Champagne, but what many people do not seem to know is that Brut Champagne is a relatively new concept. It first appeared in the late nineteenth century and was aimed at the British market which had always favoured a drier Champagne style. It caught on slowly and the idea of producing more pure styles of Champagne that were more like wines than the sweeter cuvées of the past – many nineteenth century Champagnes had sugar levels akin to dessert wines – was one of the ideas that caught Pierre-Charles Taittinger’s imagination in 1931 when he bought and completely overhauled the venerable Champagne house of Jacques Fourneaux which had been founded in 1734.
So, right from the beginning the idea was to make elegant and pure Champagnes that were dry and in order to do that the Taittingers decided to concentrate on using Chardonnay, as they felt that gave them the lightness, but complexity that they wanted.
They don’t stand still though, in recent years they have made their wines drier still – their Brut wines are now just 9 grams per litre of residual sugar, which I think really shows their purity and finesse – and introduced 2 new exciting cuvées to the range. What’s more I am convinced that the quality has got even better in recent years, with more depth, complexity and elegance, so let’s take a look:
Taittinger Brut Réserve Non-Vintage
40% Chardonnay dominates the wine together with 35% Pinot Noir, 25% Pinot Meunier blended from vineyards across the region and then aged 3 years on the lees.
I really enjoy this wine because it light, fresh and vibrant, but has depth of flavour too. There is a creaminess running all the way through it, as well as citrus, green apple and a touch of peach. There is crisp, but not startling acidity and the mousse is soft and creamy without being frothy. There is also a touch of caramel and digestive biscuit to the palate that gives a nice smack of complexity, but the finish is dry and clean.
It is a wine that you can focus attention on and savour its subtle charms, or just enjoy it and let those charms wash over you. 90/100 points.
Widely available in the UK @ £38.99 per bottle.
Taittinger Prestige Rosé Brut Non-Vintage
35% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Meunier with 15% of the Pinot Noir being red to give the colour – the Pinot comes from Ambonnay, Bouzy & Les Riceys. The finished wine is aged 3 years on the lees.
This is a real charmer of a wine, the colour is a deep wild salmon meets strawberry and the richness of red fruit makes the wine seem much less dry and acidic than it actually is. So if you like a softer style of Champagne then this could be for you, certainly the palate gives lots of red fruit, raspberry and even blood orange. If you age it for a few years the fruit mellows somewhat to a more rose petal quality making the wine quite different, but just as lovely. 90/100 points.
Widely available in the UK @ £47.00 per bottle.
Taittinger Nocturne Sec Non-Vintage
40% Chardonnay together with 35% Pinot Noir, 25% Pinot Meunier, aged 4 years on the lees. Much of the fruit comes from Taittinger’s own estates including some from their Château de la Marquetterie.
The idea here is to make a soft Champagne that is drinkable after dinner and long into the night – or indeed any other time, I find it’s good at breakfast! People often assume that this will be sweet, but it isn’t at all. There is 17.5 grams per litre of residual sugar, but remember how high the acidity is in Champagne, well here the acidity and the sugar balance each other perfectly, so the wine finishes clean and balanced. It is soft, not sweet at all, the palate is creamy and there is a gentle nectarine quality to it and and an eating apple crunch. This might be perfect if acidity is not your thing, or if you want a Champagne that can withstand traces of something sweet on your palate. 90/100 points.
Widely available in the UK @ £47.00 per bottle.
What makes the differences?
Firstly the climate of the Champagne region is not very generous, look where it is on the map, the conditions are very like England actually, but with more extreme winters from the Continental climate, so not every year produces a great harvest – this was especially true in the past before modern viticulture and winemaking gave greater control. As a consequence the tradition developed of holding back stocks of the good years to blend with the more ordinary ones and to create a house style rather than the normal way of making a wine every year. That is why most Champagnes are sold without a year on their label and this method has done wonders for the region and allowed them to create more complex and fascinating wines than would otherwise be the case – in my opinion.
Champagne is about as far north as France can comfortably make wine, so growing grapes there is quite marginal and it isn’t easy to always coax good ripeness out of them, but every now and again – 2, 3 or 4 times a decade and seemingly becoming more frequent – they have a great year and declare a Vintage and sell some of that year as Vintage Champagne which is all the product of that single harvest. As you might imagine these Champagnes are richer and more concentrated and the winemakers let the style of the year shine, rather than their house style.
Other differences can come from the choice of grapes, with 3 to choose from, on the whole anyway, it might seem pretty limited, but a pure Chardonnay – a Blanc de Blancs – Champagne will be very different from a pure Pinot Noir or Pinot Meaner – a Blanc de Noir – Champagne which will tend to be darker in colour and richer on the palate with more red fruit notes.
The use of oak can make a big difference, barrel fermented Champagnes are very different from the fresher, lighter styles, try Krug, Bollinger or Alfred Gratien if you have never tasted one made that way.
Different Cuvées can be very different from each other too. Really cuvée means blend and different blends of grapes will indeed give very different Champagnes, but the word is also used to designate one wine from another, so just as a producer’s non vintage will taste different from their vintage Champagne, then their other cuvées will be different again. Most famously of course the majority of houses create a top end Cuvée de Prestige made from the finest fruit and usually from a single harvest – although Laurent-Perrier’s Cuvée Grand Siècle is a non vintage cuvee de prestige. These wines are normally from the finest grapes – often from Grand Cru vineyards – or from the best vineyards avaialabe to the house. They are normally made from the first pressings only, which are the most gentle and thought to produce the purest Champagnes. Then to top it off they are bottled and riddled by hand and to prove it – as well as look enticing – these wines are usually bottled in a replica old style bottle that does not fit the machines.
Sweetness of course can make a big difference in how a Champagne tastes and just before the bottles are sealed with a cork a little cane sugar is added – dosage- to each bottle to determine how dry the wine is. Brut is the normal which can vary between 5 and 12 grams per litre – although Taittinger are now 9. This is done mainly to balance the high acidity in the wines rather than to make them sweet and Brut Champagnes seem totally dry, although Exra Brut is drier and Non Dosage has no sugar added at all.
Ageing can also make a big difference to the style and taste of a Champagne. In Champagne this means ageing in the bottle on the lees, which are the dead year cells left over from fermentation. The legal minimum for non vintage is 15 months – 36 for vintage – and the longer you age it the more flavour, complexity and richness you get. Ageing on the lees develops that yeast autolysis character that gives, yeast, bread, brioche and, flaky pastry and digestive biscuit characters.
So as you can see there are many more variables than most occasional drinkers of Champagne realise – back to Taittinger’s wines:
Taittinger Brut Vintage 2005
50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir from mainly Grand Cru villages in the Côte des Blancs for the Chardonnay and the Montagne de Reims for the Pinot and then aged 5 years on the lees.
If you are ever feeling jaded and tired of life then this wine has a wonderfully restorative quality. The sensations here are of concentrated fruit as the vintage is only made in occasional exceptional years, however not only is the fruit more powerful, but the acidity is fresher and the weight is greater too, so this is a very intense wine. Red fruit notes and ripe peach vie with each other on your senses, while the savoury, nutty, brioche lees characters add more depth and the rich seam of acidity keeps it all fresh and elegant too – a glorious Champagne with a firm and steady mousse and a wonderful feeling of tension running through it giving it poise and elegance. 92/100 points.
Widely available in the UK @ £53.00 per bottle.
Taittinger Folies de la Marquetterie Brut Non-Vintage
A single vineyard Champagne – a very rare beast indeed – from the vineyards around Taittinger’s own Château de la Marquetterie in Pierry near Epernay, which quite apart from being a beautiful place has a south and southwest exposure and so creates beautifully ripe fruit.
The blend is 55% Pinot Noir to 45% Chardonnay a small portion of the latter is fermented in oak vats which lends a subtle toasty spice to the finish as well as weight to the palate. It is aged for 5 years on the lees.
This is an exciting Champagne with more richness and savoury qualities than the others. Again it is concentrated, but has bigger bolder characters and in some ways feels like a mature vintage Champagne. Personally I do not regard this as a Champagne to drink while standing and nibbling twiglets, for me this needs a meal – although feel free to serve it to me with nibbles – and would be perfect with a lovely piece of good quality fish. 92/100 points.
Widely available in the UK @ £55.00 per bottle.
Taittinger Prélude Grands Cru Brut Non-Vintage
What to do? You want vintage Champagne with all that richness and savoury brioche character, but cannot be doing with ageing some and anyway you want a slightly softer fruit character to give a touch of the frivolous, yet still keep it elegant and refined. You probably guessed it, you drink this.
50% Chardonnay grapes from the Côte des Blancs – including Avize and Le Mesnil sur Oger – blended with 50% Pinot Noir from the Montagne de Reims – including Mailly & Ambonnay. The finished wine is aged 5 years on the lees.
Another glorious cuvée that manages to be intense and soft all at the same time. This makes it very appealing with rich fruit and similarly rich leesy characters and complexity. The mousse is markedly softer than on the vintage, yet firmer and more precise than on the Brut Réserve Non-Vintage. 92/100 points.
Widely available in the UK @ £49.00 per bottle.
Taittinger Comtes De Champagne Blanc De Blancs Brut 2005
One of the greats of Champagne this cuvée de prestige is 100% Chardonnay from the Grand Cru villages of Avize, Le Mesnil sur Oger, Oger and Chouilly in the Côte des Blancs. 5% is aged in new oak barrels for 4 months to add complexity and richness and the finished wine is aged for at least 7 years on the lees before release.
James Bond fans will know this was the favoured Champagne of Ian Fleming’s spy in the early books and I for one can see why – JFK seemed to enjoy it too. This is the most delicate. mineral and fine Chamapagne that I have ever tasted. It oozes finesse and breeding and subtlety, but has many more obvious charms too. I often think this is the most ‘wine-like’ Champagne that I know, it sort of seems like the finest Chablis you can imagine, but with a delicate and taut mousse. 94/100 points.
Widely available in the UK @ £147.00 per bottle.
So you see there is enormous variety just from one Champagne house, which is good isn’t it. Something to suit every mood, food or occasion and so much more to enjoy.
In the spirit of openness, I do sometimes do some presenting work for Taittinger, but this is my genuine and unsolicited opinion. I happen to like their Champagnes very much indeed.