The best of the big names

The best of the big names People & Places Articles
  • Tuesday 1 May 2001

The common belief that Champane's big brands don't match up to the smaller producers just isn't true, says TOM STEVENSON. He gives Decanter his rundown of the top Champagnes from the major houses

The common belief that Champane's big brands don't match up to the smaller producers just isn't true, says TOM STEVENSON. He gives Decanter his rundown of the top Champagnes from the major houses

Not so long ago Champagne was sold on brand and brand alone. The vast majority of Champagne drinkers believed that the bigger the brand, the better the quality. This mentality prevailed until as recently as the early 1990s, when attitudes began to change.

Now, among those who know something about wine, the complete reverse applies. The informed consumer today, it seems, not only avoids the bigger brands but is convinced that the larger the Champagne producer is, the poorer its quality will be. This is a shame because I have a feeling that an entire generation of otherwise discerning drinkers might be missing out on some of the finest Champagnes available.

So which ones are the biggest brands? The following figures (see over) show the number of bottles sold in millions by the biggest brands. These figures refer exclusively to the primary brand (some houses sell far more bottles but under different labels). Where houses regard this information as confidential (such as Veuve Clicquot), the figures given are based on informed estimates.

The best Non-Vintage

Basic non-vintage brut must be the stiffest test for those who distrust the largest brands, since this bread and butter cuvée accounts for the majority of any producer's sales. Luckily I'm quite happy to put my reputation on the line with the following big-brand recommendations. I'll kick off with Lanson Black Label, even though it is not showing as well now as it did in 1998 or 1999. It is still a banker, however, due to its great depth of flavour and invigorating acidity.

Jacquart Brut Mosaïque in magnum offers lovely toasty aromas with high acidity to keep the fruit crisp and snappy. I have been impressed by the creamy-rich, yeast-complexed fruit and excellent acidity in recent shipments of the Canard-Duchêne, with lot number L831 (laser-printed on the bottle) being the best I have ever tasted from this large, yet secondary, house.

Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label is a real favourite of mine, even though it is the second most popular non-vintage on the market. I often buy it and cellar it for at least three years, which you should do if you want to experience Clicquot's legendary biscuity complexity.

The creamy-rich Louis Roederer Brut Premier has been one of my favourites for ready drinking for more than 10 years now. Shipments last year tasted a bit young, but they were of a high quality and by the time you read this, these stocks should have mellowed. On the other hand, I've regularly knocked the Pommery Brut Royal, yet in the last year or so it has been beautifully fresh, crisp and elegant and is even more stunning in magnum.

When I'm asked to come out and declare what my out-and-out favourite of my big-brand favourites is, though, I never hesitate to nominate Charles Heidsieck Mis en Cave. This is fantastic, and the Mis en Cave 1996 is the best so far. Incidentally, you must remember that the year indicates when the wines are bottled and cellared, not the harvest year.

The art of special selection

Whereas the quality of a non-vintage brut must be the stiffest test any big brand can be put to, it is the large producer's ability to select something special from the vast volume of wine it processes that is the big brand's greatest asset. With strict selection, such producers should always be able to make something special – and indeed they do.

In production terms, Duval-Leroy is one of the biggest producers in Champagne today, turning out 7.5 million bottles a year, but only one third of this is sold under its own brand name. Selection thus kicks in at ground level with these wines.

Over the last 10 years, the quality of Duval-Leroy has soared and for a few years now it has been possible to claim that no other house can beat it for consistency of style – not even the greatest of the great. The house style is bursting with freshness and elegance, with all the cuvées expressive of fruit-driven Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs. This even applies to the NV Brut, despite the fact that it is a Blanc de Noirs without a single grape of that variety. My current favourites here are the non-vintage Rosé de Saignée, the 1995 Brut and the 1992 Extra Brut.

The best offering from Jacquart at the moment is its Mosaïque Blanc de Blancs 1992. In the Lanson range, the Gold Label 1993 started to mellow just as the 1994 was launched. The latter is not very interesting at the moment, but don't give up on the 1994 just yet. I never dismiss any Lanson vintage until it has had plenty of ageing, and Lanson's superb Noble Cuvée 1988 still needs time.

Although the 1993 at Laurent-Perrier cannot compare to its 1990 (still a stunning wine), it is one of the vintage's potentially longer-lived wines and should go toasty in a couple of years. This house is, however, best-known for its fabulous Grand Siècle La Cuvée, a non-vintage deluxe cuvée that attains a sumptuous biscuity finesse after two or three years.

Even the severest critics of Moët & Chandon have always praised its vintage Champagnes, which seldom have a dud year. The 1921 rates as one of the best half-dozen Champagnes I've ever tasted, but to get back to more available vintage offerings, Moët's 1993 ranks with the 1993s of Lanson and Laurent-Perrier. Of the 50 demi-sec Champagnes tasted in the last year, Moët & Chandon Nectar was the only one to stand out on the nose alone. This deliciously fresh and fruity cuvée was also the most elegant and luscious on the palate. It goes without saying that Dom Pérignon is, of course, sublime and I'm particularly impressed by the soft and seductive 1993.

Mumm back on track

At Mumm, the 1995 and 1996 vintages show how far this house has come under its new winemaker, Dominique Demarville. They also demonstrate how some critics still live in the past when they continue to write disparagingly about Mumm. True, these Champagnes used to be awful, but no longer.

The rot set in under André Carré, a once-gifted winemaker who had worked at Krug and went on to produce some of Mumm's finest vintages. He lost his touch, however, and during his last decade at Mumm many of his wines were so heavily influenced by malolactic that they stank of sauerkraut. The man had to go and his assistant winemaker, Pierre-Yves Harang, was given the unenviable task of weeding out as much decent wine as possible from the dross left by his former mentor.

Harang was a good man, but Mumm sensibly drew a line under this unfortunate era by employing a new winemaker with no connection to the Carré regime. The choice of Dominique Demarville was inspired. He is the youngest of all grande marque winemakers, truly gifted and in a very short time has become passionately committed to restoring Mumm's reputation.

When Allied Domecq purchased this house in January, Mumm had already turned the corner. Having tasted ahead, I can reveal that however good the 1995 and 1996 undoubtedly are, the 1997 and 1998 are even better. In these wines Demarville has managed to display the light, long and feathery freshness that was the hallmark of Mumm style when I first visited the house.

Its sister house Perrier-Jouët has never had a problem with reputation. However, anyone who seriously followed its wines was bound to notice a period a few years ago when it threatened to follow in Mumm's smelly footsteps. However, try the current Blason de France Rosé today and you will enjoy nothing but pure fruit. The 1992 Grand Brut is excellent, with good potential to improve in bottle, even though it's not from a truly top vintage.

The best cuvées at present are, not unsurprisingly, all Belle Epoque. There is hardly anything splitting the Brut 1995 from the Rosé 1989 in terms of quality, since both are classic renditions of Belle Epoque, although the Rosé 1989 was not showing very well a year or two ago. Just following these wines is the Belle Epoque Blanc de Blancs 1993, with a distinctive biscuitiness and exquisite citrussy-floral fruit. This is the first of this style to be released and is, in fact, a mono cru, being made exclusively from Chardonnay grown in Perrier-Jouët's finest Cramant vineyards.

Pommery is another house that is justly famous for the longevity of its vintage Champagnes, and its 1992 Brut Grand Cru ranks with Perrier-Jouët's, but the same wine in magnum has the edge over both. Notice that this huge producer makes its vintage Champagne entirely from grand cru grapes. Pommery's Louise Rosé 1990 is one of the best rosés I've tasted and the palate-blowing Veuve Pommery Flacon d'Excellence 1979 in magnum is the best-value old vintage available on the market.

Roederer's Cristal classic

The Louis Roederer name epitomises quality and this reputation is justified by the astonishing quality this house managed to squeeze out of the mediocre 1994 vintage, especially in its Cristal cuvée, which shows a finesse normally associated with the greatest of years. Although not in the same class, Roederer's Rosé Brut Vintage 1994 is certainly excellent.

Until LVMH took over Krug, Ruinart was the smallest producer in Champagne's largest group. It has a high quality reputation for a heavily toasty style. While Dom Ruinart in both Blanc de Blanc and Rosé are top-end Champagnes, and the R de Ruinart 1993 and 1995 are both excellent, my favourite cuvée of the moment is the non-vintage R de Ruinart Brut Rosé, with its delicious melange of strawberry and raspberry fruit.

Taittinger is a bigger, more successful house than many people imagine. Its 1996 Brut Millésimé is the best example released so far from this extraordinary vintage and Comtes de Champagne 1995 is the best Blanc de Blancs I have tasted over the last year. Even so, I must single out the Comtes de Champagne 1994 because its beautiful broad-brush Chardonnay fruit is remarkable for the year. This Champagne eclipses Roederer's rosé of the same year and gives Cristal a run for its money. Veuve Clicquot produced one of the very best wines of 1991 with its Brut Vintage Reserve and the racy red fruits and refreshing acidity in the 1995 Rosé Reserve make it mouthwateringly delicious to drink. However, the sensational wines here are Grande Dame 1990 and Grande Dame Rosé 1990. They both have stunning richness, length and finesse, although the rosé would benefit from a bit more ageing.

This certainly amounts to quite a selection, which just goes to show that it's time to put a stop to all this nonsense and give the big brands some good press for a change – not because they need a helping hand but because big can be beautiful and only a fool (or a snob) would try to deny it.

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