Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 1998
As I write this I am sitting outside, and although there is a breeze in the air I can still feel the sun warm my back in quite a convincing fashion, and three days of Mediterranean sunshine over Easter weekend has prompted my garden to spring into life. My two new cherry saplings, each in just their second year, are covered in erupting buds. They aren’t quite as convincing as the buds on the vines at I saw in Bordeaux a couple of weeks ago, especially those at Château Sociando-Mallet, but they are good enough for me. The grape hyacinths (yes, they really are called grape hyacinths – I’m not making it up to try to keep this somehow vaguely relevant to wine) are now in full bloom, all five hundred of them. I haven’t counted them, it’s just that I know I planted five hundred last autumn, and it certainly looks like they have all come up. Above them my newly-planted acer is slowly unfurling its fire-red leaves, and stretching out its arms for the first time.
Yes, I’ve taken up gardening. Not in a bid to become the next Hugh Johnson (who, in case you are unaware, is as knowledgeable on matters arboreal and herbaceous as he is on wine) because such a transformation in my own skill and knowledge simply isn’t imaginable. It is more that on the one or two warm days Scotland has each year I enjoy sitting (and thanks to the invention of the laptop, working) outside, and I’m prepared to put a little effort into improving my surroundings as much as possible. Hence my recent frenzy of tilling, mulching and planting. Although there is no rule about what you should drink in the garden – even if there isn’t really anywhere else you can drink Pimm’s – I can’t help but turn towards the racks of sparkling wine on a warm summer (or spring, or autumn) day. That means I have been emptying the racks over the past few days, tasting (all in a day’s work, naturally) my way through some workaday Crémant de Loire from Domaine de Baumard, an nicely evolving Brut Vouvray from Vincent Carême, and some rather appealing non-vintage Taittinger. By far the highlight of the weekend though, from the same house, was the 1998 Comtes de Champagne.
The story of the Comtes de Champagne seems to begin with the Comtes de Troyes and Comtes de Meaux as long ago as the 9th century; Troyes formed part of what would later become known as the Champagne region (in modern-day Aube) while Meaux is now in metropolitan Paris. These titles were worn by many different individuals, although one of the earliest true Comtes de Champagne was Thibaut de Blois, elder brother of King Stephen of England, who took the title in the 11th century. This was the start of a great line of noble counts which included Henry I, who married one of the two daughters born to Louis VII and Aliénor d’Aquitaine, Henry II, a crusader who was supreme rule of the Crusader States and thus King of Jerusalem, Thibault III and then Thibaut IV. The latter moved his court to Reims, and although the name of Taittinger’s prestige cuvée Comtes de Champagne refers to all these comtes in the plural form, it is perhaps Thibaut IV that it is truly dedicated to.
The wine was first released as a blanc de blancs in the 1952 vintage, subsequently joined by a 100% Pinot Noir rosé in 1966. Sticking with the blanc de blancs, it is sourced exclusively from grand cru sites mostly on the Côtes des Blancs, typically including Avize, Cramant, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger and Oger, among others. The wines have traditionally seen a malolactic fermentation, and a small percentage also sees a little new oak. In the glass the 1998 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne has a fresh, pale-straw hue, with an energetic bead. Now at fifteen years of age there is still a lovely freshness to the nose, classically blanc de blancs, with a delicate blend of lightly blanched almonds nuanced with citrus zest and a harmonious seam of dried fruits. On the palate there are white fruits on the palate, white peach in particular, swirled with cream, and there is a sprinkling of blanched almond here too, mirroring the aromatics. There is a great polished substance to it, the wine feeling broad and substantial in the mouth, but it also has great energy, perfectly poised acidity, and a pointed, prickling mousse. There is even a little praline richness in the finish, giving a hint of the sort of the development we might see over the next few years I think. An excellent Champagne, perfect for an Easter Sunday. Especially an Easter Sunday in my garden, surrounding by spring’s new blooms. 18/20 (21/4/14)