Wine: Royal Red and White

War is often acknowledged as the shaper of destinies, but seldom as the shaper of wines. Yet the ancient winemaking tradition of Champagne took a major evolutionary step in 1914, when a young cavalry officer was stationed at the Château de la Marquetterie near Epernay during World War I. The 18th-century château, situated among sprawling vineyards, bewitched the young man, who promised himself that—should he survive the war—he would one day own the estate. His name was Pierre Taittinger.

Having acquired Fourneaux-Forest, one of France’s most venerable Champagne firms, Taittinger realized his seemingly quixotic ambition in 1932, when he finally purchased Château de la Marquetterie. Taittinger had become an accomplished gourmand and oenophile, and he intended to put the new property to use in fulfilling his rather untraditional vision of winemaking. The style of Champagne during the Belle Époque had been crafted to complement the period’s heavy, elaborately complex cuisine. Many of the traditional audiences for these sweet, dense wines had dried up: Prohibition and the Depression had curbed the thirst of affluent Americans for French bubbly, while demand in Russia and Germany had all but evaporated in the wake of revolution and economic collapse. Taittinger was convinced that fresh opportunities could be uncorked with the introduction of a fresher, more modern type of Champagne.

Taittinger developed a style of wine that emphasized the Chardonnay grape over Pinot Noir. In addition, he chose to use vintage Champagnes for the dosage (a process in which the cap of sediment in a bottle is removed and the bottle filled with additional liquid), rather than fortified wine or brandy. The result was a clean, exhilarating sparkling wine with flavors that did not cling to the palate, but dissolved as pleasingly as the wine’s effervescence.

The Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs ($140)—the firm’s tête de cuvée—continues to embody Pierre’s lighter style. Since 1952, this blanc de blancs has been produced from the first pressing of the cream of the Chardonnay crop, the only juice used in its production. The 1995 vintage yielded a Champagne that beautifully balances delicacy and depth, offering a generous abundance of crisp apple and creamy peach with piquant acidity, and a finish of lightly toasted almond.

Equally polished, the Comtes de Champagne Rosé ($200) is produced exclusively from the first pressing of Pinot Noir grapes. After a primary cold fermentation, the pale red wine is blended, then lightly fermented once again to form its fragile bubbles. The 1999 vintage exhibits the same crystalline, bright style as its Chardonnay sister: The fresh berry fragrance suggests sweetness, rather than insisting upon it, and the long creamy finish weaves together a motif of rose petal, grilled bread, and soft, subtle minerals.

It is fitting that these two superb têtes de cuvée should have been named for Thibaud IV, the count of Champagne. In 1241, as a peace offering from his cousin, Queen Alix of Cyprus, who had challenged his right to that county, Thibaud received a red rose and a vine. This vine, which he planted on his return to Champagne, would prove the first Chardonnay grape in the region. In borrowing the count’s title for his label, Pierre Taittinger tacitly acknowledged the varietal that inspired his signature style—and also, perhaps, the wisdom inherent in making wine rather than war.

Champagne Taittinger, www.taittinger.com

Photo by Drew Phillips
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