Prestige cuvees: Rarest of rare champagne blends which is limited in access and price is steep
Across the ocean in England, they found to their amazement, the royal court had already gone head over heels sipping the twinkling stars in the French wine.
Till the 17th century, distillers in France's Champagne region had done everything to contain the sparkling bubbles that rose from their wines until one day they realised their mistake. The very bubbles they wanted to go away were to bring in unprecedented riches in the years to come.
Across the ocean in England, they found to their amazement, the royal court had already gone head over heels sipping the twinkling stars in the French wine. Soon the sparkling blend from Champagne became a rage among royals and aristocrats in Europe. The bubbles were here to stay.
Still, right from the early days of that new sensation named champagne, wine makers had been looking for ways to create a supreme expression of the already-perfect drink that could be aspired only by the society's elite.
Enter the prestige cuvee.
The cuvee is a proprietary blended sparkling wine created by a champagne producer with pride. Moet's Dom Perignon, Roederer's Cristal, Perrier Jouet's Flower Bottle, Taittinger's Comtes de Champagne, Veuve Clicquot's La Grande Dame... ever heard of these names?
The roll call is not long, and access is not only limited by steep prices but also by availability. Not for all, they seem to say. Still each of the great champagne houses in France have made it a point to create prestige cuvees.
It all began in 1876 when the House of Louis Roederer created a special edition of a champagne crafted for the Russian imperial court. Legend has it that Tsar Alexander II sipped the cuvee from a crystal bottle an unusual practice that time. Hence that particular cuvee was named Cristal.
But France, champagne¡¦s home, still had to wait till the 1920s to bring the cuvee into global limelight.
The first prestige cuvee that hit the market was Moet & Chandon's Dom Perignon. It came out in 1936 with the 1921 vintage. Its success prompted other houses to expand production and earmark the best of their ingredients and skills to making top quality champagne the cuvee prestige. The result was the setting up of a new standard in sparkling wine.
In order to etch a fresh image in the minds of the customers, the wine houses packaged the new product in special bottles that recalled the vintage era of champagne production. The aim was to exude a hitherto unseen statement of quality, subtlety, joie de vivre and elegance.
So what makes the cuvee the best and the most prestigious and, of course, the most expensive? Is all the glamour just peripheral?
The story begins with the fruit the distiller chooses for a cuvee. The grapes in prestige cuvees such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay come from 17 grand cru villages of the 250-odd villages in the Champagne region. While Pinot Noir grapes give the champagne its body and structure, Chardonnay gives it elegance and structure.
And even in a grand cru village such as Verzenay, not all grapes harvested from 400 hectares of vineyards go to make a grand or prestige cuvee. Of course they fall inside the Champagne region but not all sites get the same kind of sun, shade, air and soil, which makes all the difference. No wonder the prestige cuvees account for less than 5% of the total champagne production.
Though there are no laws governing the production of prestige cuvees, champagne houses apply rigorous standards in their production since the results should show top quality and elegance.
Usually in the production of champagne, grapes are pressed three times. But for a prestige cuvee, the juice from only the first pressing tete de cuvee (head of the cuvee) is used. This amounts to a very small quantity. Add to this the infrequent release of this special edition of champagne.
Prestige cuvees are not made every year. You have to wait until a vintage year which comes only a few times in a decade. Once distilled, these premium wines are ladled on to the best oak barrels before they are finally poured into the most expensive bottles in the market.
Ageing is another major phase in the creation of prestige cuvees. How long should the champagne sit in a barrel? By law, a nonvintage champagne must be kept in a barrel for at least one year while the vintage one goes up to a minimum of three years. For prestige cuvee, the standards are different. Every additional year the wine spends in an oak barrel adds to its appeal and value and many do not see daylight for at least a decade.
Prestige cuvee's price also is one of its attractions. But once you taste it with senses that can discern elegance, you may understand that the price is justified.
Treat a cuvee like fine white Burgundy wine, drawing the drink straight from a wide tulip-shaped glass. If the wine is over-chilled, your numbed tongue may find it hard to hit the subtle aromas and flavours unique to a prestige cuvee. But once you taste it, you may want to start a relationship with the cuvee that lasts forever. But it will be a very expensive relationship.
(The writer is based in Kerala)