Elegance and Finesse: The Champagnes of Taittinger
Taittinger was founded in the 1930s with Pierre Taittinger’s acquisition of the remaining assets of the old Champagne house Forest-Fourneaux. It is thus the youngest of the region’s major houses. These days, following the family’s reacquisition of the house in 2006, I believe the quality of Taittinger’s current offerings is at an all time high.
As reported in my Champagne Buyer’s Guide here, Taittinger’s highest end bottlings—the elegant and delicate Comtes de Champagne, both the 2004 blanc and 2005 rosé—were among my top ranking tête de cuvées for the year (94+ and 96+ points respectively). This week I sampled the newest Comtes release, the 2005 Blanc de Blancs. I rate it as one of the greatest Comtes Blanc de Blancs ever (97+ points, U.S. average $203).
The house is also excelling with their lower priced offerings. The current vintage offering, the 2005 Brut Millésimé, is very strong, at 94 points ($80). I similarly rated the excellent non-vintage Prelude, a blend of Grand Cru village fruit (94 points, $80). The non-vintage rosé—Brut Prestige–is among the best of the category this year (93 points, $68). The non-vintage Brut Reserve is also quite good (92 points, $51).
I had the pleasure of visiting Taittinger—both the medieval caves in Reims used for aging the Comtes and La Marquetterie vineyard outside of Epernay with its 18th century château–this past September. Clovis Taittinger, the fourth generation family member who heads the house’s export efforts, met with my group of journalists in the morning in Reims and then had lunch with us at La Marquetterie. Some months previously, at the Pebble Beach Food & Wine Event in April, I participated in a vertical tasting of five vintages each of the Comtes Blanc and Rosé led by Clovis’s sister Vitalie.
Clovis and Vitalie are the children of Pierre-Emanuel Taittinger, who replaced his uncle Claude Taittinger as President of the company in 2006. Claude was the second son of the house’s founder, Pierre, to run the company. Pierre’s third son François greatly expanded the house’s operations and sales from 1945 until his death in a car accident in 1960. Claude then presided for 45 years until the house, and the family’s other extensive businesses—including the Concorde hotel chain, construction and printing companies–were acquired by the U.S. hotel group Starwood in July 2005.
Pierre-Emanuel and his branch of the family, with the support of Crédit Agricole Nord-East, bought back the Champagne house that bore the family’s name in May 2006 for 600 million Euros. Pierre-Emanuel is also chairman of Domaine Chandon, the family’s partnership with the Kopf family, the owners of Taittinger’s longtime U.S. distributor Kobrand, with vineyards in Carneros, California. Clovis, who had previously been involved in the hotel and real estate side of the family business, joined Taittinger in 2007 to head export sales. Vitalie, whose background is in art and design, and who happens to be a very beautiful and stylish young woman, figures prominently in some of the house’s new marketing campaigns and holds the position of Artistic Director.
I believe that a major factor giving rise to the high quality of Taittinger’s Champagnes, especially the Comtes, is the exceptional vineyard properties the family has collected. Taittinger owns 752 acres of vineyards which provide about half the fruit needed for production. Typically the grand marque Champagne houses own only about 10% of their vineyard sources. Most of the remaining fruit Taittinger requires is obtained under long term contracts with growers.
The family’s first and most historical vineyard acquisition is the one at La Marquetterie in Pierry outside of Epernay. This vineyard had already gained a strong reputation in the 14th century when it was owned by the Benedictine Order of Saint-Pierre aux Monts. The cultivation of this and other vineyards was the main source of income for the order. One of Champagne’s pioneers in developing sparkling wine, Frère Jean Oudart, worked in the cuverie here in the early 1700s. The vineyard is planted in alternating patches of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and thus, by harvest time, resembles the checkerboard-like squares of alternating light and dark wood veneer that is called marquetry, or marqueterie, in furniture making.
Starting in 1734, a chateau was built here for a wealthy family of clothiers who acquired the vineyard from the Benedictines. In the years before the French Revolution, the chateau was owned by French writer and philosopher Jacques Cazotte, whose most famous book is Le Diable Amoreaux (The Devil in Love). He was guillotined in 1792. In World War I, the chateau was used by General Castelnau as his headquarters during the Battle of Champagne in 1915.
According to differing accounts, Pierre Taittinger, who served in the war as a cavalry officer, either became acquainted with La Marquetterie when he participated in the Battle of Champagne or convalesced from battle injuries there. Perhaps both accounts are true. At any rate, Pierre was reportedly so taken with the property that he vowed to acquire it if it should ever become available.
Pierre, who came from a family of wine merchants originally based in Lorraine, purchased the chateau and its vineyard in 1932, just two years after having acquired Forest-Forneaux. The vineyard became the source of Taittinger’s first domaine bottling—Les Folies de la Marquetterie. Very unusual for Champagne, the current version of this wine is a single vineyard bottling that is non vintage. It is a blend of 55% Pinot Noir and 45% Chardonnay, and a portion of the wine is aged in oak foudres for 10 months.
In the 1930s, Pierre also purchased the 13th-century mansion on the Rue de Tambour in Reims which had once been home to Theobald IV, the Comtes de Champagne. It is in honor of this historical figure that the house named its tête de cuvée. The first vintage of the Comtes de Champagne, a Blanc de Blancs, was 1952. The rosé version followed in 1966.
Pierre was a noted gastronome who anticipated the change in culinary tastes from the traditional, often heavy, sauce laden dishes, to lighter, more natural preparations. He thought it was time for lighter style Champagnes that would better compliment this style of cooking, as opposed to the sweet style, high dosage offerings that had been popular in France, and elsewhere, up to that time, and that were then mainly enjoyed as an accompaniment to dessert or after a meal.
It was Pierre’s son François who further added to the house’s vineyard properties and oversaw replanting, with an emphasis on Chardonnay as key to a lighter, drier style. It was also François who acquired for the family the former cellars of the 13th century Abbey of Saint-Nicaise in Reims, that had been carved out of Gallo-Roman chalk pits dating back to the 4th century. The house currently uses this impressive network of caves for aging the Comtes.
François’s winemaker, or chef des caves, was Roger Lénique. Together they established the Taittinger style, using only high quality first pressings of fruit, adding a dosage based only on mature Champagne instead of brandies, and producing only fully dry Champagnes, noted for their elegance and delicacy. To this day, all of the wines also go through malolactic, which gives them roundness and creamy texture.
The chef des caves since 2000 is Loïc Dupont, who has worked at Taittinger for over 25 years. He has very much continued its house style. According to Clovis, Loïc is assisted by a tasting committee of eight to nine people, including three oenologists, Clovis and Vitalie, and marketing director Dominique Garreta. They begin their work each December by tasting the “vins clairs”–the young, still wines—to evaluate which might become a component of each of the house’s cuvées. Taittinger’s highly respected vineyard manager is Vincent Collard.
According to Clovis, production at Taittinger ranges from five to six million bottles per year. They expanded sales following the family’s reacquisition of the house in 2006 primarily through “on premises” consumption, at restaurants and hotels. They are now trying to reach a new generation of consumers by focusing on bars, night clubs and other youthful gathering places. The dominant players in those venues have up to now been Moët and Roederer. Clovis says they are also going after retail chains, for which they have updated their packaging and gift boxes. They have also been sponsors of such events s the Cannes Film Festival and the World Cup.
Below, you will find my tasting notes not only for Taittinger’s current releases, but also the vertical of the Comtes Blanc and Rosé that I sampled in April. These are delicious Champagnes that are well worth your attention if you have not yet had an opportunity to enjoy them. The Comtes, in particular, although pricey, is one of the region’s most impressive and delicious offerings these days. It would make both a generous gift as well as a delightful drink with which to welcome the arrival of 2014.
- 2006 Taittinger Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs Comtes de Champagne Pre-release (Fall 2015 release) – light lemon yellow color with few, tiny bubbles; very appealing, delicate, floral, bright lemon, lemon cream, pear nose; tight, very tart pear, tart apple, mineral, orange peel, light honey palate with high acidity; medium-plus finish (not yet disgorged for commercial release) 91-94 points
- 2005 Taittinger Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs Comtes de Champagne Light yellow color with abundant, steady, tiny bubbles; autolytic, hazelnut, almond, almond cream, brioche nose; tasty, rich, creamy textured, hazelnut, autolytic, brioche, almond cream, mineral palate; long finish 97+ points
- 2004 Taittinger Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs Comtes de Champagne Light green-tinged yellow color with abundant, steady, tiny bubbles; appealing, yeasty, lightly toasty, tart pear nose; tight, creamy textured, juicy, rich but elegant, lemon, mineral, tart pear palate with medium acidity; could use 5-plus years and should go 30+; long finish (9 grams dosage) 94+ points
- 2002 Taittinger Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs Comtes de Champagne Light yellow color with few, tiny bubbles; very appealing, tart pear, light ginger, yeasty, white chocolate, lemon cream nose; creamy textured, restrained, very tart lemon cream, lemon zest, mineral palate with brightness and lively acidity; long finish 94+ points
- 2000 Taittinger Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs Comtes de Champagne Light yellow color with few, tiny bubbles; yeasty, bread dough, lemon cream, white chocolate, lemon zest nose; very focused, tart lemon, lemon zest, mineral palate with bright, vibrant, medium acidity; medium-plus finish 93+ points
- 1996 Taittinger Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs Comtes de Champagne Light lemon yellow color with few, tiny bubbles; very appealing, yeasty, toasty, savory, light saffron, preserved lemon nose; very tasty, focused, savory, lemon drop, mineral, truffle, toasty, tart grapefruit palate; long finish 96+ points
Comtes de Champagne Rosé
- 2005 Taittinger Champagne Comtes de Champagne Rosé Brut Light peach pink color with abundant, steady, tiny bubbles; appealing, ripe orange, mandarin orange, golden raspberry nose; delicious, juicy, tart golden raspberry, orange slices, mineral, chalk palate; long finish (70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay; 13% red wine; 9 grams dosage; one of the best rosé Champagnes I’ve ever tasted) 96+ points
- 2004 Taittinger Champagne Comtes de Champagne Rosé Brut Light orange pink color with .75 millimeter clear meniscus; somewhat savory, ripe orange, ripe golden raspberry, floral nose; tasty, maturing, lightly savory, yeasty, orange peel, dried orange, mineral palate with medium-plus acidity; long finish (lighter and creamier than the ’05) 94 points
- 2003 Taittinger Champagne Comtes de Champagne Rosé Brut Light golden orange color with 1 millimeter clear meniscus; savory, light orange, dried orange, yeasty, saffron nose that eventually shows white chocolate; tasty, mature, tart baked orange, dried orange, pain grille palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (appealing now, for drinking in the near term) 93 points
- 2002 Taittinger Champagne Comtes de Champagne Rosé Brut Light pink orange color with few, tiny bubbles and 1.5 millimeter clear meniscus mature, savory, toast, golden raspberry nose; tasty, mature, delicate and appealing, toast, savory, baked golden raspberry, tart cherry, orange slice, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (for drinking over next 5-7 years) 94+ points
- 2000 Taittinger Champagne Comtes de Champagne Rosé Brut Light pink orange color with few, tiny bubbles and 1.5 millimeter clear meniscus; maturing, ripe, orange cream, light tangerine, white rose nose; very tasty, delicate, fresh tangerine, mineral, lightly toasty palate with years to go yet; medium-plus finish 95 points
- NV Taittinger Champagne La Française Brut Light yellow color with abundant, speedy, tiny bubbles; tart pear, yeasty nose; tasty, creamy textured, tart pear, yeasty palate; medium-plus finish 91+ points
Les Folies de la Marquetterie
- NV Taittinger Champagne Les Folies de la Marquetterie Light yellow color with abundant, steady, pinpoint bubbles; complex, autolytic, vanilla, almond pudding nose; rich, poised, creamy textured, baked pear, vanilla, vanilla pudding, almond, mineral, apple pie filling palate; medium-plus finish (55% Pinot Noir, 45% Chardonnay; from 25-30 year old vines; 12.5% alcohol) 93 points
- 2005 Taittinger Champagne Brut Millésimé Light yellow color with abundant, steady bubbles; lightly yeasty, lemon, almond, brioche nose; poised, tasty, tart pear, mineral, iodine, ripe lemon palate; good now and should age beautifully; medium-plus finish (50% Chardonnay, 50% Pinot Noir) 94 points
- NV Taittinger Champagne Nocturne Sec Light straw yellow color with steady, very tiny bubbles; appealing, apricot cream, vanilla, almond cream nose; tasty, creamy textured, vanilla, pear cream, apricot cream palate; medium-plus finish (40% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir, 25% Pinot Meunier; 2008 base; 17.5 grams dosage) 91 points
Prelude Grand Cru
- NV Taittinger Champagne Prelude Grand Cru Light yellow color with steady, tiny bubbles; very appealing, autolytic, hazelnut, almond, almond brioche nose; very tasty, creamy textured, poised, elegant, yeasty, almond, hazelnut, mineral, lightly saline palate with delicacy; medium-plus finish (50% Chardonnay, 50% Pinot Noir; based on 2006 vintage) 94 points
- NV Taittinger Champagne Brut Prestige Rosé Light medium pink orange color with pale meniscus and steady, pinpoint bubbles; vinous, lifted, tart orange, mandarin orange, golden raspberry nose; elegant, vinous, light footed, delicate, mandarin orange, tart raspberry, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay; 15% red wine; 12% alcohol; based on 2008 harvest) 93 points
- NV Taittinger Champagne Brut Réserve Light straw yellow color with abundant, steady, tiny bubbles; tart pear, pear glacee, floral, tart peach nose; tasty, delicate, light and elegant, tart pear, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (40% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir, 25% Pinot Meunier; 9 grams dosage; 100% malo) 92 points