Cocky Brands Bash Growers in Champagne’s Battle of the Bubbles

Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger
Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, the president of his family's eponymous champagne house, holds a glass of his 1999 Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs, at A Voce restaurant in New York. Champagne, he says, can be a great help "when you're with a beautiful woman and you're not a genius." Photographer: Elin McCoy/Bloomberg

High up over Central Park, glass in hand, I listen to Pierre-Emanuel Taittinger’s theories of champagne and seduction.

Taittinger, president of his family’s eponymous champagne house, drinks a bottle a day.

Champagne, he says, can be a great help “when you’re with a beautiful woman and you’re not a genius.”

But in the wine region where some of the most important battles in European history were fought, today’s clashes are no wars of the sexes. They’re over the authenticity and image of the world’s finest fizz.

The big houses champion style, sensuality and how their world-famous brands are luxe products for the good life. Small family grower-producers advocate wine and terroir, the link of the taste of the bubbly in your glass to a special patch of soil that gives it character. Which side is winning the battle of the buzz?

Taittinger, 57, casts his world-famous company somewhere in the middle as we sample his fruity non-vintage Brut Prestige rose ($70 retail) with restaurant A Voce’s goat’s milk panna cotta, a surprisingly good match.

“We are growers first,” he insists, citing the company’s 650 acres of vineyards, which provide 50 percent of the grapes for their 5 million bottles a year.

His uncle, Claude Taittinger, created Comtes de Champagne, the company’s hyper-elegant all-chardonnay flagship fizz, which Ian Fleming made James Bond’s favorite champagne in “Casino Royale.” The delicate, flawless 1999 ($135) is a stunner that danced on my tongue.

Family Affair

Once a family empire that owned luxury hotels, Baccarat crystal, and a perfume house, Taittinger was sold off in 2005 for 2.1 billion euros ($2.93 billion) to private-equity firm Starwood Capital Group when most of the heirs voted to cash in. A year later, when Starwood decided to divest the champagne house, Pierre-Emmanuel won it back for his branch of the family “in a fierce battle” -- with the financial help of French bank Credit Agricole du Nord Est.

To the consternation of grandes marques like Taittinger, buzz for the wine geeks’ choice, grower champagnes, is now, well, effervescent, though they account for only 3.5 percent of what’s sold in the U.S.

“The big brands are icons, like Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot,” says Pierre-Emmanuel, who was dismayed to find only grower champagnes on one hip restaurant list.

Is Blended Better?

The 200-plus grandes marques blend wines that are mostly purchased from hundreds of the region’s 19,000 growers in different villages to create house styles. “People are forgetting that champagne is classically a blend of vintages and vineyards -- a painting with 25 colors,” he says. “Complexity is not the same with a monopole (single vineyard).”

The grower story is different, often spun as a David and Goliath tale. About 2,200 small grower-producers draw grapes from one to several vineyards to make their own sparklers. Often they own only a few acres in one or two villages and many make well under 50,000 bottles a year.

Tasting my way through 300 bubblies in the past two months, I’d say the best on both sides give pleasure. Big doesn’t mean bad, and small is not always beautiful.

I admit I find most non-vintage big, brand blends fairly dull. I prefer Taittinger’s complex non-vintage Prelude ($65), made from all grands crus vineyards, to their middling NV Brut La Francaise ($40). The polished and harmonious vintage bottlings and tete de cuvees, like Comtes de Champagne, shine.

Tug of War

Grower champagnes are where quality, price and individuality intersect. Jose Dhondt’s 2005 Brut Blanc de Blancs “Mes Vieilles Vignes” ($70), from chalky vineyards in the village of Oger, has very precise, incisive flavors plus a deep complexity, while 2002 Vazart-Coquart Special Club Blanc de Blancs ($70), from the village of Chouilly, is lemony and savory, with hints of fresh herbs.

But several well-known big houses offer single vineyard sparklers that also show terroir, like the intense, creamy, very pure 1999 Philipponat Clos des Goisses ($140).

Despite the tug of war for champagne’s soul -- or maybe just its marketing image -- big brands and small growers are united in the battle over the use of “champagne” as a generic term for sparkling wine. It’s been going on for decades, and doesn’t let up.

As part of the European Union and U.S. wine accord signed in March 2006, new American sparklers were banned from using the term on their labels. Those already doing so could continue -- unless they want to sell in Europe.

Two years ago, Belgian customs authorities smashed 3,200 bottles of Gallo’s bottom-end gasser Andre California “champagne” that turned up on a ship.

(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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