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11.12.2008

1999 Perrier Jouet "Cuvee la Belle Epoque" Brut Champagne, Epernay, France

1999_jouet_belle_epoque.jpgAs some of you know, there was a time when I didn't really care for Champagne. But like so many preferences formed early in our lives, it turns out that I just hadn't had the good stuff. Unfortunately for my pocketbook, I eventually did find out what all the fuss was about, and now I enjoy it immensely. That is, as long as it is good.

And good Champagne, invariably means expensive. I run the risk of coming off as snobbish, or at the very least elitist by saying this, but more so than most wines, you really get what you pay for when it comes to Champagne. It's hard to find a really great bottle under $30, and even harder to find an amazing one under $60. I'm not sure about the $200-$300 range -- I've tasted a few, but only recent vintages -- but I do know that if you're willing to pay $100 for a bottle of Champagne, you can get something truly excellent.

Which brings me to this wine.

The house of Perrier-Jouet was formed in 1811 with the marriage of Pierre Nicolas Perrier and Adele Jouet. He came from a family with many generations of grape growing experience, she, from a well-to-do family in Normandy. The Perrier family's vineyard holdings in the region that would later become known as Champagne were as impressive as they were extensive. Some of the vineyards would eventually be classified as Grand Cru, and a few are still owned by the family, more than eight generations later.

Because of Perrier's wealth in land and experience, the couple wouldn't move far to settle down after they were married. They purchased an estate at the address 28 on the main avenue of Epernay, a street that would eventually be known as Avenue de Champagne. In that stone building they built what has become of the wine world's most successful brands (thanks to its latter day owners, which included at one point the larger Champagne house Mumm). The house continues to operate out of the same building, at the very same address.

Perrier-Jouet is certainly not the oldest Champagne house in existence -- it's a young pup compared to some houses that can claim to have been in operation since as early as the 16th century -- but it has several ties to history that make for good stories. One of my favorites being the tale that Oscar Wilde ordered bottles of the 1874 vintage of his favorite Champagne to his prison cell. Presumably because he couldn't bear to drink the inferior stuff they were serving him at the time? Perhaps a more important story would be the fact that in 1854 Perrier-Jouet effectively pioneered the Brut, dry style of Champagne, departing from the sweeter profiles of the times to create a wine that quickly became a standard in the region.

Perrier-Jouet, now a brand in the portfolio of drinks giant Pernot Ricard, currently owns and operates about 161 acres of vineyards in the Champagne region, of which, quite impressively, nearly all are Grand Cru classified. This is an achievement that should not be underestimated, as Champagne is famously fragmented among many, many different farmers, estates, and large Champagne houses.

The estate produces several vintage and non-vintage wines, of which this Cuvee Belle Epoque is their top bottling. Made from 50% Chardonnay and 45% Pinot Noir and 5% Pinot Meunier, it is made through careful blending and barrel selection of the winery's best fruit by winemaker Hervé Deschamps.

It's not often that a wine's label begs to be commented upon. In a world where many wines are indistinguishable from one another at a distance of 10 feet, the Perrier-Jouet bottle makes an immediate, striking impression. Whether it is the most beautiful Champagne bottle in the world I cannot say with authority, having not seen them all, but it is certainly one of the nicest pieces of packaging design that I know of in the wine industry.

The bottle is adorned with an enameled image of anenomes, the work of the artist Emile Gallé in the Art Nouveau style, which he created as a work of art in 1902 for the family, and which has been their signature bottle ever since they put it into production for their top cuvee starting in 1969.

Full disclosure: I received this wine as a press sample.

Tasting Notes:
Bright gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of citrus oil, yeast, and the skin of yellow apples. In the mouth it is sunshine bright with a velvet soft mousse that supports flavors of lemon zest, toasted oats, and freshly baked brioche. Great acidity makes it a joy to drink, as the wine sings the whole way down. Delicious.

Food Pairing:
This wine is quite bright and airy, making it a slam dunk with oysters, goat cheese, or egg dishes of all kinds. I'm not sure I can think of anything I wouldn't drink this with, to be honest.

Overall Score: between 9 and 9.5

How Much?: $130

This wine is available for purchase on the Internet.

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