Tue 11 Jan 2011
Following a godlike whim, I sprang for a bottle of Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut 1998 for New Year’s Eve, and while you may call be a creature touched by the wing of madness, I’m not sorry, nor is LL. We reveled in the damned stuff!
Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne is one of the region’s legendary luxury products, along with such hallowed tête de cuvée or grand marque Champagnes as Moët et Chandon’s Dom Perignon; Louis Roederer Cristal; Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill; Krug Clos de Mesnil; Veuve Cliquot La Grande Dame; Perrier-Jouët Fleur de Champagne; Laurent-Perrier Grand Siecle “La Cuvée”; Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Françaises; and, perhaps in a class by itself, Salon. These rare and costly bottles of bubbly are the stuff of dreams and well-tended expense accounts, beloved by hip-hop artists and soccer idols, tsars and potentates.
What makes a truly great Champagne great are the same factors that make any wine truly great: the most impressive character, tone and presence derived from exceptional vineyards and wedded to impeccable craftsmanship. Sounds easy!
Taittinger traces its origin to 1743 and founder Jacques Fourneaux. Almost 200 years later, that is in 1932, the house was acquired by Pierre Taittinger, who was also able, because of the hard times, to buy a number of important vineyards, as well as the 13th Century chateau of the Comtes de Champagne. Taittinger first produced its flagship Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut, named for Thibaut IV whose device appears on the label and neck, from the vintage of 1952. It is made completely from chardonnay grapes, primarily from Grand Cru vineyards, though not all owned by the company. The Champagnes of Taittinger are more notable for finesse and elegance than for power and substance, yet while Comtes de Champagne evokes that principle it expands on those qualities into awesome realms of intensity, purity and dimension.
Tom Stevenson, in World Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine (Wine Appreciation Guild, revised and updated edition, 2003), says, ” … it is a crime to drink this wine before its tenth birthday; 15 to 20 years is the optimum window to show both freshness and complexity, and the best vintages keep improving for at least 30 years.” Vintage 1998 was excellent in Champagne, though perhaps not spectacular like 1996. At least by popping the cork after 12 years we weren’t committing infanticide.
Our bottle of Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut 1998 — which we accompanied with 1.06 ounces of Royal Osetra caviar from Petrossian in New York on lightly toasted slices of baguette — opened almost shyly. At 12 years old, the color was still pale gold but radiant, while the surge of tiny, foaming bubbles was shamelessly prolific and entrancing. The bouquet, however, took a few moments to gently unfurl its seductive aromas of apple and pear, roasted lemon and acacia flower, all ensconced in an immense manifestation of cinnamon toast and freshly baked biscuits slathered with honey; in three words — To Die For. All right, I used the word “honey,” though my implication is not sweetness but richness, and richness that’s fairly tightly focused, rather than broad and general, since this is a Champagne composed of myriad tissues of delicacies woven into a fabric that wonderfully balances — oops, I automatically switched tenses for a sense of immediacy! — the ephemeral and evanescent and elegant with a dynamic structure of staggering acidity and monumental (but ever so lacy) limestone. So in body and flavor that feeling and form of balance toes the line from beginning to end: bracing as a sea-breeze over a salt marsh yet succulent as hazelnut cream and warm brioche; earthy as a crushed walnut yet dainty as a petal of orange blossom. My point is the whatever profundities Comtes de Champagne 1998 embodies, it remains the epitome of grace and refinement and high style. Drink now through 2018 to ’20. Exceptional.
As to price, I paid $179, but around the country Comtes de Champagne 1998 can be found as low as $150 and as towering as $300. Seen in those terms, I sort of got a bargain.
Imported by Kobrand Corp., New York.