Many of you will know that I have something of a thing for Grower Champagne. It comes from an interest in wines which express “place”, terroir wines, I suppose. But that doesn’t mean I ignore the so-called Grandes Marques. For almost as long as I can remember I’ve had a special relationship with Taittinger, perhaps ever since I visited their impressive chalk cellars in Reims (which, along with Ruinart, are probably the best in the city).
The whole philosophy behind a Grande Marque like Taittinger is that they claim to be able to reproduce wines in the same style every year. This is certainly true of their non-vintage cuvée. Their literature plays down vintage character, and yet Taittinger produces four very fine vintage wines. It’s just that two of them are not labelled as such.
This is because the whole of the marketing at Taittinger is to tell a story, one of ever decreasing elements in each wine which, logically, ends with a single vineyard at the Château de la Marquetterie, at Pierry, near Epernay, which Pierre Taittinger purchased after having been billeted there as a cavalry officer during WW1. I have no issue with this. It’s a good story to tell.
I was pleased to be able to go to this Taittinger Tasting at Solent Cellar in Lymington last Friday, and to taste through six wines from the range, tutored by Kevin McKee of Taittinger’s UK agent, Hatch Mansfield, where his role is UK Director – Family Taittinger.
Kevin McKee, UK Director – Family Taittinger
A little history first. As I mentioned above, the Taittinger family became involved in Champagne when Pierre Taittinger acquired the vineyard at the Château de la Marquetterie after WW1. In the 1930s Taittinger went on to purchase the old Champagne House, Forest-Fourneaux, changing its name to Taittinger.
Pierre went on to establish the name of Taittinger, basing operations in Reims at the Butte Saint-Niçaise. Below the ruins of the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Niçaise are the deep UNESCO “World Heritage” chalk crayères dug in Gallo-Roman times, which provide perfect conditions for making and storing Champagne.
The part of the Taittinger story they don’t emphasise is the company’s recent history. It gets in the way of the astonishing fact that not only is Taittinger one of the only family run Champagne Houses today, but it is (probably) unique in being run by the family named on the label. In 2006 Taittinger fell prey to a takeover by an American consortium with support from the French banking group, Crédit Agricole. In 2008 Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger managed to regain control of the House and now runs it along with his children, Clovis (exports) and Vitalie (marketing). Loïc Dupont has been Chef de Caves for 30 years. Although nearing retirement, the succession has been well in hand for some time.
Taittinger has the advantage, rare among the Grande Marque Houses, of vineyard ownership. The company is the second biggest owner of vines in the region, and their own estate provides half of their required fruit. This, along with the great work done by Pierre-Emmanuel and his team, has had a dramatic impact on both quality and consistency.
We began with the Prestige Rosé, a non-vintage rosé d’assemblage. Fifteen percent of still red Pinot Noir from the Montagne de Reims is added to control colour. This, like the wine which follows it, is in a lighter, fruity style. It offers consistent easy drinking as an apéritif, with refreshing red fruits. As a wine marketed in a clear glass bottle, further ageing might be risky except in dark conditions, but I’m not sure it needs it.
Brut Réserve is effectively cut from similar cloth. It’s light and fresh with just a hint of complexity, clean and easy going, always elegant. The blend is usually around 40% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir and 25% Meunier, and the wine we were tasting was from a 2012 base. This is Taittinger’s most important wine, production being around 70% of their 6 million bottle total. A lot of work has gone into Brut Réserve over the past eight or so years to improve consistency, and in this style I think it offers good value.
Expect clean citrus fruit, with developing brioche if you keep it six months or so after release. It is released after three years on lees, but whilst they will tell you all these wines are ready on release, I think we know that a little post-disgorgement ageing can improve them further, so long as the conditions for ageing are pretty good.
The Brut Vintage we tasted was the interesting 2009. Interesting because I’ve bought some of the 2008 and this wine is in contrast quite rounded at this stage, though still young. It is comprised of equal proportions of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with five to six years on lees. It will peak before the 2008. The next vintage to go on sale will be 2012 (which I’ve not seen but someone on the Wine Pages Forum mentioned they’d just bought some).
The story continues now with wines which are sourced from increasingly smaller selections of vineyards. Prélude, or more formally Prélude Grands Crus NV, is not in fact a non-vintage wine, or not according to Kevin McKee (my own assumption has always been that it is more or less fruit from one vintage).
I’ve always liked Prélude. It’s made up of fifty percent each of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the former from the Montagne and the latter from the Côte des Blancs. The cuvée was created for the millennium, the first release (magnums only) being from the 1996 vintage, whilst the current vintage we tasted is 2012. There is depth of fruit here, and a lovely fresh bouquet. The balance is really very good, with rich Pinot fruit and delicate Chardonnay. As a personal preference I will say that I often prefer Prélude to all but the best “vintage” cuvées at Taittinger. Those who benefited from Solent Cellar’s offer on the night (reduced to £36) were smart.
Of course, I’m not counting Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne there. This wine is one of my favourite prestige cuvées. Hand crafted finesse and, with age, considerable complexity. There is always a sense that this wine has had extended lees ageing, and in fact it sees nine or ten years on lees, but what drives it for me is always a pristine, almost crystalline, mineral acidity. This Blanc de Blancs is from Chardonnay fruit grown exclusively in some of the best sites on the Côte des Blancs. The 2006 tastes quite magnificent but do not be fooled. With decent ageing it will get very much more sophisticated and complex.
Although Comtes is not shy of food pairing, it is usually drunk on its own. If you want to drink Taittinger with food, my recommendation would be Folies de la Marquetterie. I like everything about this single vineyard wine. It comes, as I’ve said before, from the rather unique chequerboard vineyard, planted with alternating plots of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which surround the Taittinger family home, the Château de la Marquetterie near Pierry, in the valley of the Cubry, southwest of Epernay.
Folies is the vineyard numbered 2 on the Larmat map (reproduced from Peter Liem’s essential Champagne (Mitchell Beazley 2017))
Folies is different from the other Taittinger wines, not only in that it is a single vineyard, single vintage, cuvée, but in that it departs from Taittinger’s easy to drink style. It is broader than the rest of the range with more body, but it does retain the elegance of the House.
The vineyard is steep, and all the work here is done by horse. Around 20-to-25% of the fruit goes into 4,000-litre oak for the first fermentation, which must add to the weight. But the fruit is often quite exotic, as expressed on the nose. There is a very slight weighting of Pinot Noir over Chardonnay (55:45 in this 2012), which it seems to me is enough to give a Pinot character to the overall blend. For me, this extra weight along with its unique type of complexity (increased with age) makes this a gastronomic Champagne matched by few others.
Of course, 30,000 bottles produced makes it relatively easy to find in the UK, and with retail offers around £50, it makes it something of a bargain too (you’ll be lucky to find Comtes under £100, sometimes more like £110, at best). Even if, like me, you have a bit of a thing for the growers, you should forget this is made by a Grande Marque and take it on its merits, as a brilliant single vineyard, terroir, Champagne.
This is not the whole of the Taittinger range. Nocturne is a “sec” with double the dosage of the Brut Réserve. There is a pink version of Comtes, and Taittinger Collection is a limited edition, artist’s label, late disgorged vintage wine. The last release I saw was a 2002, released in 2011, but it is not the most recent (I understand a 2008 was released in time for the Rio Olympics in 2016).
Taittinger’s wines are all widely available and it is just a matter of finding the keenest prices, which are often found in the various supermarket “25% off six bottles” offers. I don’t see any significant discounting this Christmas, although it has happened in the past.
Taittinger’s Reims cellars are open to visitors at: 9, Place Saint-Niçaise, Reims (follow the rue du Barbatre east from the Cathedral and you are pretty much there). They are generally open seven days during the warmer months, with some weekend closing at other times.
Taittinger web site
Hosted tours (French or English) are charged, but they include a film and a tasting, for which different options are available. This is probably the best Champagne House tour which combines spectacular chalk cellars below the city with an accessible commentary for non-experts. There’s a little romance (when I went, albeit many years ago, they oddly kept the gyropalettes hidden), but I can recommend a visit here.