Taittinger Comtes de Champagne vertical tasting (1990-2002) at Vintners’ Hall

It is difficult to hone in straight on the right wavelength of a prestige cuvée like Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne, especially when you haven’t tasted it for a while. So introducing it at this ‘Master Class’ for a large gathering of MWs at Vintners’ Hall with two warm up bottles – Taittinger’s Brut Réserve NV and the appropriately named Prélude Grands Crus – made very good sense.

Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, President of Taittinger with Chef de Caves Loic Dupont

The currently available Brut Réserve is based on the 2007 harvest, so while many houses play lip service to ageing their non-vintage cuvées for at least three years before release, here was real evidence on one that does. A blend of 40% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir and 25% Pinot Meunier, it typically has between 25 and 30% reserve wine in the blend from the two previous harvests (2006 and 2005 in this case) winemaker Loic Dupont, a rare visitor to these shores, tells us. As Pierre-Emmanuel who interjects throughout proceedings notes: “Loic has been with Taittinger for 26 years, but he never travels, we like to keep our cellar master in the cellar.”

“It is made up of 45 different crus,” says Loic, “including the grand crus of Avize and Verzenay, it is definitely not an afterthought in the range,” he affirms. Around half of it comes from Taittinger’s own 288 hectare estate of vineyards. Bright, fresh with hints of lemon citrus and some decent palate weight, this has a larger proportion of Chardonnay in it that most other international brands. Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, who is in a very buoyant mood, says: “The success of Taittinger in the UK was made even more difficult to achieve as it’s a market that likes Pinot Noir and Meunier dominated blends.”

We move on to Prélude, where the Chardonnay element jumps to 50% and now purely sourced from Grands Crus in the Côte des Blancs including Avize, Mesnil sur Oger and Cramant. This wine is entirely from the very decent 2004 harvest with no reserve wine and thus could in fact be vintaged.  It isn’t because as Damien Le Sueur, Taittinger’s deputy general manager, says: “It would be confusing for our customers. It also gives us the freedom to blend in difficult years [although it hasn’t been a ‘multi-harvest’ blend so far since the first 1996-based version was launched in 2000].”

A step up in terms of concentration of flavours, palate texture and length of finish, this neatly prepares us for the main event, tasting seven different vintages of Comtes de Champagne. We start with the as yet unreleased 2002, disgorged three months ago (September 2011). The 2002 harvest was particularly good for Chardonnay with the highest potential alcohol at picking — except for the 1990 (10.7%) we will end with — of 10.5%. Like the other seven Comtes it comes from just five Côte des Blancs grands crus sites: Avize, Chouilly, Cramant, Oger and Mesnil-sur-Oger.

As Pierre-Emmanuel notes: “It is always just these five grand crus, aged for a minimum of seven years before release – we are still on the 2000 which is 11 years old – because Blanc de Blancs ages for a very long time. We only usually make between 150,000 and 300,000 bottles of Comtes, 1995 when it was 500,000, is only exception to that. Since the 1988 vintage – which sadly we didn’t taste and I can’t help thinking would have been far superior to the disappointing 1990 – a small proportion of the blend – just 5% — has been aged but not fermented in new French oak barriques. The idea is to add another strand of complexity not mask the purity of fruit which is the most important characteristic of the wine for Pierre-Emmanuel. He quotes his uncle Claude describing the style as ‘pure Chablis with two fermentations’ which is particularly true in its youth.

As we taste back through 2002 — a baby that’s still linear and closed, though impressively structured to age – the 2000 Luic succinctly describes as: “very straight and precise, stone fruit rather than citrus”, we don’t start to see much impression of maturity until the 1998. The 1999 really impresses with a hint of toastiness, what Pierre-Emmanuel describes as “the purity of a rapier” but still quite youthful. The 1998 has opened up that bit more and shows a silkier palate though the edge is still there. We don’t see the wine in all its glory however until the 1996 which has a gorgeous buttery richness with developed mocha notes and lush palate texture. Here the nose and palate are finally completely in harmony, a balance maintained by a wrap of fine acidity.

The more subtle and delicate 1995 finds the ’96 a hard act to follow but is barely less impressive. It just can’t match the explosive richness of the 1996. Comtes de Champagne as Pierre-Emmanuel says needs 15 years to show its true colours. It would be interesting to see how it evolves after still further ageing but the 1990 had partly oxidised. I think the ’88, a more classic vintage, would be a better bet and look forward to having the chance to try this theory out.