All parents have a favourite kid. That one child that’s the most special, beautiful and talented of all. Fine, this may not be true for actual children (I wouldn’t know), but it’s a good way to describe prestige cuvées. You probably know a couple of them already. Cristal by Roederer, Dom Perignon by Moët et Chandon: they’re the bubbly business cards of the big champagne houses at Avenue de Champagne. But what exactly are prestige cuvées? Do you pay for marketing or taste? And which house sells which one? Let’s find out.
The prestige cuvée explained
A prestige cuvée is just that: the top champagne of a brand. It’s the cuvée that’s made from the best grapes that were grown on the best parcel, and that got a little extra attention from the cellar master. Now you might think: why wouldn’t houses make all of their champagne using the very best of resources? The truth is, that this would probably result in bankruptcy. Making good champagne is expensive, as you can only use the highest quality grapes. This means that, when you go for quality, you have to compromise on the quantity. Therefore, most brands choose to opt for one top champagne, while also producing a high number of other cuvées. After all, many champagne lovers don’t have the money to pay for top-class champagne, so there will always be a high demand for the more average cuvées.
Is the prestige cuvée really the best of the bunch?
By labelling a champagne as a prestige cuvée, the maker basically says: “This is the best we have to offer.” So if you’d ask makers themselves, yes: the prestige cuvée is the best of the bunch. And as the best grapes and parcels have been used, they’re often right. Then again, not all prestige cuvées are created equal. The millésime (harvest year) heavily influences quality, so even within one cuvée, differences can be major. For example: if you have a matured Dom Perignon from an incredibly good year, yeah: your experience with a prestige cuvée will probably be out of this world. However, if it’s a younger millésime from an average wine year, you could easily be disappointed.
Even more importantly, there’s no arguing about taste. If you don’t like a brand’s prestige cuvée but you do like one of their cheaper champagnes, you wouldn’t be “wrong”. And sometimes, you like none of them because the house just isn’t your cup of tea. Also, prestige cuvées tend to be very expensive and that’s not because of taste alone. By making a cuvée expensive, producers make it desirable and special, and there are many people out there that love that feeling of luxury and exclusiveness. So, to really answer this paragraph’s question: prestige cuvées are often the best a brand has to offer, but house signature, harvest years, personal taste and yes, marketing, all play a role.
The prestige cuvées of the big houses
Now, let’s have a look at some famous examples of prestige cuvées. We’ll start with the three most famous ones out there: Cristal, Dom Perignon and La Grande Dame. Then, we’ll talk about the interesting story of Pol Roger’s prestige cuveé, followed by a handy list of the favourite kids of the other big houses.
Cristal by Roederer
Sometimes, great marketing can turn against you. This definitely happened to Roederer, who had to watch helplessly while American rappers wasted their prestige cuvée Cristal in their video clips. To these rappers, Cristal was the equivalent of luxury, which meant that, if you drained a bottle like you didn’t even care, you must’ve had a lot of money to spend. After all, if you didn’t, you would at least drink it. Eventually, Roederer tried to put an end to it by stating they didn’t want anything to do with the American “bling”, which pissed a lot of people off. Today, things seem to have calmed down, although Jay Z still won’t drink it, accusing the house of being racist.
This doesn’t take away the fact that Cristal can be spectacularly good, as I found out during a champagne tasting we organised in Amsterdam. We tasted five incredibly good organic champagnes, yet the 1996 Cristal stole the show.
Dom Perignon by Moët et Chandon
I must admit that, at the very beginning of my champagne career, I thought that Dom Perignon was a brand of its own. The prestige cuvée by Moët et Chandon is so widely known that most people don’t make the link. Dom Perignon might be the most famous champagne of all, reflecting everything that makers want champagne to be: exclusive, high quality, refined, and original. In fact, a lot of people believe that a Benedictine monk named Dom Perignon invented champagne when he discovered that wine could be fermented twice. As the story goes, he tried some of the champagne, and yelled: “Come quickly! I’m tasting the stars!” Sorry to break it to you, but this story probably isn’t true. Either way, if you’re a champagne lover, Dom Perignon must be on your shortlist. Don’t have the money? Then skip a few lattes. Or a hundred.
La Grande Dame by Veuve-Cliquot
Now that we’re being honest, I’ve always thought that all Veuve-Cliquot champagnes were low quality. That’s because their low segment champagnes are so widely served on New Year’s Eve, which doesn’t really make one fall in love with the house. After all, mediocre champagne is worse than no champagne at all. But let me tell you that La Grande Dame, the prestige cuvée of Veuve-Cliquot, is quite something. Richard Juhlin describes it as generous, brilliant and buttery. All of the Grand Dame vintages that he’s tasted are scored between 88 and 96, which makes them incomparable to many of their low-budget cuvées.
Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill by Pol Roger
When a legendary prime minister of Great Britain loves your champagne, there’s only one thing you can do: name your prestige cuvée after him. So that’s what champagne house Pol Roger did. When Winston Churchill joined the international fan club, Great Britain became the most important export country. To celebrate the relationship with the Churchill family, Pol Roger introduced the prestige cuvée Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill in 1984, made from the 1975 harvest. Ever since the champagne is made in good years and brought to market around ten years later.
Other big brand prestige cuvées
|Charles Heidsieck||Blancs de Millénaires|
|Taittinger||Comte de Champagne|
|Philipponnat||Clos des Goisses|
|Bollinger||R.D & Vieilles Vignes Francaises|
|Salon||Champagne Salon vintage (their only cuvée)|
|Krug||“All of our cuvées are cuvée de prestige”|
Do it! You spend money on champagne anyways
As you know, I’m a big fan of organic and biodynamic champagne. Yet, I recommend you try some of these prestige cuvées, if only to check them off your list. Yes, they’re expensive, but if you love champagne, that’s probably where your money goes anyway. Also, the prestige cuvée is a great way to explore the big houses, as it’s the signature champagne that tells you a lot about the way a champagne house approaches champagne making. So in a way, by only going for the prestige cuvée, you save yourself the trouble of tasting all of the big house cuvées.