“The Best Champagne Tasting”

Wednesday of this week, I had the good fortune to be invited to the Wine Media Guild of New York “Prestige Cuvée Champagnes” tasting, presented by Ed McCarthy, one of North America’s leading bubbly experts.

Some of New York’s top wine writers came out for this dégustation of twenty-three Champagnes, nearly all of them “prestige cuvées.”* Everyone agreed — and sports and wine writer Paul Zimmerman loudly pronounced — that this event was “probably the best Champagne tasting” any of us had ever attended.

Above: they-don’t-make-em-like-that-anymore Ed McCarthy.

Highlights (for me) were 1999 Perrier-Jouët “Fleur de Champagne” Blanc de Blancs (beautifully balanced and nuanced), 1997 Nicolas Feuillatte “Palmes d’Or” Brut (a difficult vintage in Champagne… a surprising stand-alone wine, with intensely seductive aromas), 1999 Bollinger Grande Année Brut (always my favorite, always distinctive), 1998 Deutz “Cuvée William Deutz” Brut (a house I had never tasted… good balance of yeast and fruit flavors), and N[on]V[intage] Krug “Grande Cuvée” Brut (so good… who doesn’t like this wine?).

When it’s good (and there’s a lot of mediocre over-priced wine out there), Champagne can be so alluring, complex and structured yet light and bright. Getting to taste with Ed McCarthy and hear him speak was a thrill for me: Ed, with his white locks and friendly manner, is an American original, a character out of a Studs Terkel story, a wine authority and one of the country’s most adored wine writers (check out this profile of Ed).

Above: it’s always fun to taste with the jovial John Foy (standing, center), who writes for
The Star Ledger. Needless to say, the mood was mirthful at this extraordinary tasting.

Here are some of my notes from Ed’s talk:

“Chardonnay is the world’s most maligned grape variety. In Champagne it is at its best” (referring to blanc de blancs, i.e., Champagne made from 100% Chardonnay).

“Prestige cuvées need time, 10-15 years.”

“The wider the glass, the better for tasting prestige cuvées.”

“’88, ’96, and possibly ’02 are the best vintages for Champagne. Drink 2000 now because it is a precocious vintage” (using the term precocious in the true sense of the word, advanced or mature in development).

He also noted that Americans tend to favor “vintage-dated” Champagne, while the French have a greater appreciation of non-vintage Champagne (i.e., wine blended using top cuvées from different vintages). Don’t underestimate non-vintage Champagne, he said.

“1996 Krug is mind-boggling. If you must have only one Champagne before you die, make it ’96 Krug.”

Above: the main course for lunch was a whole, roasted salmon.

Needles to say, the mood was mirthful at this extraordinary tasting and whenever this many vintage, white-haired tasters get together, you are sure to hear epic tales of great wines and unforgettable meals. The best anecdote came from that great defender of traditional-style Italian wine, Charles Scicolone, a board-member of the guild and master of ceremonies (look for my post, “A Night on the Town with Charles Scicolone,” next week). A few years ago, he recounted, he and his wife Michele spent New Year’s eve with Ed and his wife Mary Mulligan in the home of a prominent wine importer. Ed brought a six-liter bottle of Louis Roederer Cristal that had been given to him by the winery. Not knowing where to chill the large bottle, their host filled the toilette with ice and placed the bottle in the bowl. Just before the clock struck midnight, the guests were dispatched to the bathroom to retrieve the wine and discovered that this prestigious bottle had “ended up in the toilette.” Despite this odd juxtaposition, said Charles, the wine tasted great.

Above: the beautiful color of the salmon paled in comparison to the hue of the 2000 Taittinger “Comtes de Champagne” Brut Rosé poured at my table (that’s 1999 Perrier-Jouët “Fleur de Champagne” Blanc de Blancs in my glass to the left).

* The term cuvée denotes “The contents of a vat of wine; a particular blend or batch of wine” (OED, online edition). In Champagne, a cuvée is a superior “blend or batch.”

5 thoughts on ““The Best Champagne Tasting”

  1. Jeremy,
    Alyson Careaga passed your review of Wedneday’s bacchanal event on to me. Thanks for the kind words. It’s always interesting to see ourselves through others’ eyes. I am sort of a throwback to another time, I guess. But i like that. Thanks for pointing it out to me.

    Warm regards,

  2. Ed will never be a “throw back” in my book. Jeremy, thanks for this accurate and nicely illustrated account of our Wine Media Guild lunch. The Champagne was truly unparalled and the company was great. Pat Savoie, Co-Chair, Wine Media Guild.

  3. Pingback: Wine Media Guild » December Champagne lunch plays to a packed house

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