Champagne Day: Taittinger Portfolio Tasting

21 10 2016

Happy International Champagne Day, all!  If you follow wine media long enough you realize there’s a designated day for basically every country, region and varietal imaginable, but if someone wants to concoct an additional reason for me to drink Champagne, I will take them up on it.  To celebrate this illustrious occasion, I was fortunate enough to take part in a comprehensive tasting of a selection of Taittinger’s impressive lineup of Champagnes, which was particularly special for two reasons:  Taittinger’s International Business Developer Mikael Falkman had flown in from Sweden to lead us through it, and it was the inaugural Alberta release of the astonishingly rare and collectible 2008 Taittinger Collection Series, a bottle unlike any other I have seen to date.  Adding to the auspiciousness of the event was that it was held in the Skybridge of the spectacular new National Music Centre in Calgary, an event space suspended over a road and constructed as a piece of living art, complete with a ceiling fixture made from old instruments that emitted a continual buzzy tune aligned with the vibrations of the building.  Suffice to say it was not your usual Friday.

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Mikael Falkman, Taittinger; impeccable brand ambassador.

Taittinger has been around for nearly a century but is particularly catching fire in my neck of the woods right now as the fastest growing Champagne brand in western Canada.  Founder Pierre-Charles Taittinger was a soldier who was wounded in battle in World War I and who recuperated in a town in Champagne, in a memorable old castle that was being used as a command post.  He grew to love the area so much that he vowed he’d return someday and buy the castle, and he did, taking over the chateau and its vineyards in 1932 from Champagne house Forest-Fourneaux and rechristening it in his family name.  Taittinger stayed in the family until 2005, when it was sold (over the objections of one family member, Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger) to Starwood Capital Group, which owns the Starwood chain of hotels.  The purchasers’ interest was largely in other portions of the Taittinger empire, which included hotels and a parfumerie, and the Champagne business was shortly on the market again.  Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger managed to get a financing group together and bring the house back to the family that gave it its name, a move that may have saved both the family’s legacy and the quality and reputation of the brand.

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Mikael Falkman has been with Taittinger for many years and has lived through its various recent changes of ownership, and he radiated a sense of ease and confidence about where the house is now and where it is going.  Falkman led us through a lineup of five wines, starting with the clean, linear Taittinger Brut Reserve NV and progressing into a quartet of the house’s finest offerings, each reviewed in detail below.  He spoke at length about Taittinger’s house style, which has remained consistent since the house got its current name, focused on freshness, elegance and minerality, eschewing heavy oak and focusing primarily on the Chardonnay grape.  “Notice that there are no spittoons on the table,” he intoned to start, his meaning evident:  this was exquisite, expensive, premium Champagne, and we would be drinking all of it.  Didn’t have to tell me twice.

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Taittinger Prestige Rose NV ($89)

After the Brut Reserve NV (which was served as an aperitif, hence the lack of notes), we moved into the striking Prestige Rose NV, which instantly attracted attention due to its deep pure salmon colour.  This alluring hue partly arose due to the fact that Taittinger made use of the common Champagne “addition technique”, where a rose wine is created by simply adding red to white until the desired mix is achieved.  In anywhere but Champagne, this would not be a formally recognized method:  most roses are made using red grapes that are pressed off their skins very early in the maceration process, after they only acquire a bit of the skins’ colour.  But since (white) Champagne is made using at least two red grapes (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) that are pressed immediately off their skins, and since the true essence of Champagne is what takes place after the initial base wines are made, when secondary fermentation is induced inside the bottle, the rules are relaxed somewhat on still pink wine creation, which allows Champagne houses to better fine-tune and control the colour they wish to obtain on their bubbly roses.

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The Prestige Rose does just that, adding 15% still (red) Pinot Noir wine to its Chardonnay/Pinot (white) blend before secondary fermentation and then aging 3-4 years on the lees pre-disgorgment.  Unusually for a larger Champagne house, Taittinger uses 50% estate grapes in this wine, a significant percentage in a region where the bulk of the grapes are sourced by wineries from unaffiliated growers.  The result is perfumed and billowy, yet precise and powerful, wafting delicate aromas of rosewater, fresh flowers, toast and pink grapefruit before exploding on the palate with ripping, penetrating acid, frozen strawberry and citrus flavours and a searing finish that burns itself into your memory.  This would stand up to almost any type of food; it makes its presence known.

91-92 points

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2006 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc ($250)

This is how ludicrous this tasting was:  a bottle that would normally be the climax of a tasting of top Champagnes was instead Wine 2 out of 4 of the formal component of the event.  Comtes de Champagne is one of the top premium cuvees in all of Champagne (and the only one to have the word “Champagne” in its name) and Taittinger’s flagship offering.  It has been made since 1952, but is only made in good years, so the 2006 was only the 34th offering of Comtes to be released.  It is always entirely made from Chardonnay (a Blanc de Blancs, or “white from whites”, in other words) that sees very limited oak and spends a minimum of 8 years on the lees before disgorgment, unbelievably making this bottle a relatively recent release.

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The colour of the wine again drew me in, this time because of the clear greenish tinge to its stark lemon.  Hasn’t this bottle already been sitting for a decade?  One effect of the lees (the dead yeast cells left over after fermentation, which end up trapped in a bottle of Champagne after its in-bottle secondary fermentation) is that they keep a wine fresh and vibrant despite the passage of time, and that was displayed to full effect here.  Smelling the Comtes Blanc was almost a religious experience, as waves of interwoven smoke, celery salt, icy lime, charcoal, chalk and even tennis balls rolled out of the glass.  Eternally expansive, its currant, poached pear, anise and mineral flavours kept unfolding in the mouth even after I swallowed.  The mousse of the wine was so fine it was almost microscopic, the acidity more in the background but no less of a knife’s edge cutting through the bubbles.  “Monumental” almost sums it up.  I could spend hours just contemplating this, but could also just drink it back unthinkingly every day.

95-96+ points

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2006 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Rose ($299)

The pink partner to the white Comtes above, the 2006 Comtes de Champagne Rose could not have been more different than its Prestige NV rose compatriot, as evidenced by the remarkable visual difference between them.  This one was a papery coppery orange, far paler and only charitably pink, its colour not maintained in the same way as the Comtes Blanc by 8-10 years of lees maturation.  The Comtes Rose, like the Prestige rose, used a percentage of still, separately made red Pinot Noir (12% in this case as opposed to 15%) to attain its hue, although its paleness may largely be attributable to the fact that the final blend was 30% Chardonnay, an extremely high percentage of white for a pink wine but fully in line with Taittinger’s Chard-focused mission.

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There may be no more interesting array of aromas than that on aged sparkling rose.  Baked earth, charred orange, old parchment, elastic bands, potpourri and more wended their away through slower, softer bubbles to reach the nose, maybe suggestive of an older wine making its way towards retirement.  Not so fast:  it still goes for the jugular the second it hits the tongue, administering layer upon layer of cheek-puckering structure, primarily acid that almost brings tears to the eyes.  The underlying flavours scream autumn, from toasted pumpkin seed and clove to raspberries, emery board and matchsticks.  Not as precise and defined as the Blanc, but equally as complex.

93-94 points

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2008 Taittinger Collection Series Salgado ($399)

Despite the undisputed all-stars before it, this was without question the star of the show for those assembled.  Taittinger only rarely releases a Collection Series wine, only in spectacular vintages; before this 2008, the last one released was in 2002.  This is the “14th” edition of Collection Series, but is only so because they skipped the 13th edition entirely to avoid bad luck, just like an elevator does.  The glass bottle is encased inside a moulded opaque black acrylic sleeve, which is impenetrable to sunlight and provides both an appropriate luxurious heft and a perfect canvas for the other highlight of this Series of wines:  Tattinger selects a different artist each release to craft a custom label for the wine, and then refers to the wine by the artist’s name.  The 2008 Salgado showcases the work of Sebastiao Salgado, a Brazilian photographer, the very first time a photographer was selected as the label artist.  The photo in question, taken by Salgado on location in Namibia, is worthy of the spotlight.

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There are a grand total of 50 bottles of 2008 Collection Series that have made their way to Alberta.  This was the very first one to be opened, so our little group sitting in the sky above a bustling 4th Street SE was the first to taste this piece of wine history in our province.  Sometimes I wonder how I end up in the experiences I do, but I will forever be grateful.  The reason that Taittinger made a Collection Series wine in 2008 was that it was a landmark vintage for Champagne; Falkman said that it was considered the best vintage for Champagne this millennium (which sounds more impressive than it is, but still).

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The start of the black acrylic sleeve, hidden under the foil.

I was surprised at the difference between the 2008 Salgado and the 2006 Comtes Blanc, although the age difference and reduced time on lees for the Salgado may have been part of it.  The Collection Series was fully true to the Taittinger house style:  pale in colour, crisp, tart and lemony, mixing wafts of pie crust and meringue with sharp Granny Smith apple aromas.  Almond and smoke flavours did little to overshadow a pulsing core of citrus fruit, whose tartness drove a mouthwatering and lasting finish.  A very different beast (no label pun intended) than the Comtes, a little tighter and more clenched, and much more linear, at the slight expense of complexity.  I suspect there is lots of expansion ahead for this black-shrouded bottle, however.  Thanks for this, Taittinger; it was an honour.

94-95 points

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