As we discussed in our article on Champagne, there are a wide variety of different Champagnes to choose from. Since Champagne is THE wine of celebrations, which Champagne does one choose for those really special celebrations? When that milestone birthday or anniversary comes around or when you accomplish a major lifetime event and you want to go all out and really celebrate the occasion, this is when you pull out your Tête de Cuvée.
Tête de cuvée is a French term that can be loosely translated as top batch or top blend. This is the term the Champenois use to describe their very best (and most expensive) bottlings. Outside of Champagne these wines are also called Prestige Cuvées.
Tête de cuvées are almost always vintage Champagnes. The only two exceptions we can think of to this are H. Billiot Cuvée Laetitia and Andre Clouet Un Jour de 1911. Vintage Champagnes utilize grapes from a single harvest whereas non-vintage Champagnes will blend several different vintages together. Vintage Champagnes are only made in special years where weather conditions produce outstanding grapes. Historically the Champenois have only declared a vintage on average about 3 times per decade. One reason for this is that Champagne is one of the most northerly wine growing regions in the world, sitting north of the 49th parallel. This gives it an inherently cool climate where the grapes struggle to fully ripen.
With average temperatures around the world gradually rising (sorry climate change deniers, it is a fact), Champagne in the last 2 decades has declared more than the usual number of vintages. Most Champagne Houses declared a vintage in 1990, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998 and 1999. The first decade of the new millennium saw vintages declared in every year except 2001, and maybe half the houses declared a vintage in the extremely hot 2003. If a Champagne house declares a vintage that means they will make a vintage wine or “Millesime”. It does not necessarily mean they will make a Tête de Cuvée. For example, since 1976, Piper Heidsieck has declared numerous vintages but made only 9 vintages of their Tête de Cuvée “Rare”. Tête de cuvées are only made in exceptional years.
The Tête de Cuvée will always be made of grapes from the top Crus or vineyards or even vineyard plots in that year. Consequently most Tête de Cuvées are very limited in production. Another feature of the Tête de Cuvée is very long aging at the Champagne house cellars before being released into the market. There are two reasons for this. First, the Champenois believe that Champagnes should be released when they are ready to drink and not before. By regulation, NV Champagnes must be aged in the house’s cellars for at least 1.5 years, and vintage Champagnes for at least 3 years. In practice, most houses’ aging practices greatly exceed the requirements of the regulation. The Tête de Cuvée is usually the last wine to be released as they tend to be the most age-worthy. Count on seeing a Tête de Cuvée in the market place usually 10 or more years after the vintage. And expect that Tête de Cuvée to be ready to drink upon release but capable of further development in the bottle for another decade, maybe even two. Many Tête de Cuvées from the great 1990 and 1996 vintages are still reported by their lucky owners to be drinking wonderfully.
Finally, and we are sure this is no surprise, these are definitely splurge wines, generally costing over $150 per bottle and some are many multiples of this number. But they can be extraordinary wines and enjoying one of them to celebrate a special occasion is an experience that in our books is worth saving up for!
Here is a list (though no doubt not exhaustive) that we have complied of many of the tête de cuvées:
|Champagne House||Tête de Cuvée|
|Moet Chandon||Dom Perignon|
|Taittinger||Comtes de Champagne|
|Paul Bara||Comtesse Marie de France|
|Pol Roger||Cuvée Winston Churchill|
|Deutz||Cuvée William Deutz|
|H. Biliot Fils||Cuvée Laetitia|
|Veuve Cliquot||La Grande Dame|
|Bollinger||R.D. and La Grande Annee|
|Laurent Perrier||Grande Siecle|
|Henriot||Cuvée des Enchanteleurs|
|Mumm||Grande Cuvée de Mumm|
|Andre Clouet||Un Jour de 1911|
|Vilmart||Cour de Cuvée|
|Duval Leroy||Cuvée Femme|