Perrier-Jouët Cuvée Belle Epoque 1996
Without doubt one of the most notable of recent additions to the global library of works concerning Champagne is The Finest Wines of Champagne (Fine Wine Editions, 2009) by Michael Edwards, and it was a statement in this finely illustrated text that prompted me to open this bottle. Writing on the house of Perrier-Jouët, Edwards says of the Cuvée Belle Epoque (known instead as Fleur de Champagne in the USA), "Any definite opinion of the ranking of Belle Epoque especially should wait until these younger vintages reach full maturity at about 13 years of age". As luck should have it, having drunk up my 1990 Belle Epoque some considerable time ago, 13 years is exactly (well, near enough) the current age of the next vintage to grace my cellar, which is - perhaps unsurprisingly - 1996. I think Edwards is speaking to me here; time to open one!
I have already given some detail of the story of Belle Epoque in my Perrier-Jouët profile, beginning with Michel Budin, who headed up the firm in the mid-20th century and who stayed on once control of the business passed to Mumm in 1959. Together with marketing director Pierre Ernst and chef de cave André Bavaret they were responsible for creating this very special cuvée. Their inspiration for the wine was the discovery of a beautifully decorated bottle, dating from 1902, found long neglected and gathering dust in a cupboard in a back room. The bottle bore enamelled artwork by the glassmaker Emile Gallé, an array of glazed and delicately hued Japanese anemones. It would seem that Gallé had created the bottle at the request of Henri Gallice, as a symbol of the glorious 1890s, but why it lay seemingly forgotten for so many years is not clear. Today Gallé is renowned for the high quality of his glasswork, and is rightly regarded as instrumental in the art nouveau movement in France; it is unsurprising that this serendipitous discovery prompted Ernst and Bavaret to create a Champagne worthy of such a fabulous piece of art.
The first vintage of Belle Epoque, a brut style, was the 1964, released in 1969; this coincided very nicely with the 70th birthday of jazz legend Duke Ellington, and the wine served to lubricate his celebrations and concert at the Alcazar night club in Paris. The blend of the wine in question was largely grand cru Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with a little Pinot Meunier, and that formula persists through to today, a typical vintage being 50% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir and 5% Pinot Meunier. Today this cuvée has also been joined first by a rosé version, made with the addition of red wine rather than the saignée method, and more recently also a blanc de blancs.
Anyway, back to the 1996 vintage. I have in truth tasted this once before, in 2005, at the London International Wine and Spirit Fair if I recall correctly. Looking back at my notes, it is perhaps noteworthy that I rated the straight Brut from the same vintage, when tasted in 2004 and 2007, somewhat higher than the Belle Epoque. That perhaps doesn't bode well for such a pricy cuvée. Turning to the 1990 for a moment, my thoughts on that vintage can be summed up so; intrinsically it was a very good wine, but perhaps a rather too shy and subdued one given the character of the vintage, which was superb.
In short, my very limited exposure to Belle Epoque, which also takes in the 1999, 1998 and 1988 vintages, has never been an earth-shattering experience. They have always been good wines, certainly, but my scores have never been of the order you might expect for such an exalted prestige cuvée. Indeed, other critics have been known to discount Belle Epoque, having been underwhelmed on tasting, and some have even accused Perrier-Jouët of putting more effort in to the design of the bottle than the wine itself. I think this criticism a little unfair, and feel it may reflect the style of this prestige cuvée, which is one of finesse and elegance rather than power or substance. I readily admit to having a preference for wines in the latter style, perhaps including La Grande Année from Bollinger, Cuvée Winston Churchill from Pol Roger and of course Krug, but I can still see the quality in other styles, including this example from Perrier-Jouët.
So, in the light of that previous experience, how does the 1996 fair now? In the glass the wine displays a really quite pale straw-gold hue, with a stream of tiny bubbles, at times almost imperceptibly fine. The nose starts off very fine, initially pure with gently golden, crystalline fruits, lightly marked with minerals. It is precise and delightfully defined, but then it relaxes, opening out into notes of maturity, nuances of Brazil nuts, lightly roasted coffee grounds and softly polished oak. Pure, full but finely composed on the palate, with a beautifully crisp and gentle mousse which, along with the acidity, gives a crisp and incisive definition. Structured, quite substantial on the finish, with a marked grip on the finish which suggests that this wine still has some considerable time to go before it really hits its stride. Lovely and certainly approachable now though, showing much better than my previous tasting 4-5 years ago, and without doubt the best experience I have had with this cuvée, in any vintage. 18+/20 (4/1/10)