The venerable 150-year-old firm of Pommery & Greno Champagne is so high on its first ever Tete de Cuvee Champagne, Cuvee Louise, 1980, that it invited four of France's greatest master chefs--Paul Bocuse, Gerard Boyer, Roger Verge and Gaston Lenotre--to cook a commemorative debut dinner. Each course, starting from Bocuse's famed truffle soup to Lenotre's spectacular sabayon underscored the all-together too rare pleasure of sipping fine Champagne throughout a meal.
Ordinarily, launching a new Champagne is not a big deal, but for a major Champagne firm the premiere of a Tete is a historic moment. It is like the opening of a Broadway show and it represents a top-of-the-line signature for a Grand Marque Champagne, as well as a kind of quintessential house wine by which it is measured for excellence. Prominent examples are Moet's Dom Perignon, Roederer's Cristal, Piper Heiseck's rare and Laurent Perriere's Grand Siecle.
For a Champagne house, nothing is more important. Secret, diligent planning, sometimes for years, surround the mystery of its creation, including the choice of the vineyard for selective grape blends or the fixing of the sweetening dosage for a new taste and style, plus the graphics for a new label and the bottle design.
"Until now," Patrick Bruneau, Pommery's chief, said, "no Tete has been made because of our long-held belief and pride that all of our wines are of that standard. We have been producing a variety of Champagne from brut to extra-dry with nary a Tete designation. The closest we came to it was a label reference to Avize, which represented a specific hallmark vineyard. Veteran Champagne observers still recall (as I do) its lovely refined grace and delicacy."
Greatest Asset Is Harmony
Cuvee Louise is a well-made Tete of considerable elegance, charm and finesse. Made from 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir in a forward style emanating from a ripe (for Champagne) vintage. It incorporates the grapes of not only its well-known Avize but also two other vineyard jewels, Ay for Pinot Noir and Cramant for Chardonnay. The wine's greatest asset is its harmony, a function of the expert blending by Prince Alain de Polignac, Pommery's noted Champagne master and a descendant of Louise Pommery, one of Champagne's famed "wine widows" for whom the Cuvee has been named.
Prince Alain, as he is affectionately called, was obviously feeling the pressure of a strenuous, long-term creative effort. He claimed he assumed little risk in the making of Louise, since he had confiscated the best of Pommery's highest rated vineyards. I asked him whether the rest of the line would suffer if all the best were going to Louise. He explained, "No problem, we are quite prepared, and, of course, there will never be large quantities of Louise. Unlike most of our competitors, we own vineyards representing 50% of our production and that should do us nicely."
Making a new dry-styled Champagne is nothing new for Pommery. When the house was founded in 1836, Champagne was sweetened, depending upon market taste. Madame Louise assumed command in 1858, and quickly conceived the idea of producing a dry Champagne, a style she found that she enjoyed. Because of her interest in establishing a stronger British market position, she elected to try the new taste there, and it worked, so much so, Pommery soon became an English favorite. Consequently, she is often credited as a major architect in the creation of brut Champagne.
Unpopular in France
Madame Louise was a remarkable Champagne woman and promoter. Her penchant for dryness, while appreciated in England, did not make her popular in Champagne or in France. Detractors claimed she was toying with classical style that would ultimately lead to the ruination of Champagne. She persevered, and more important, helped to launch the region's modern era of drier-styled sparklers.
Another Pommery champion was M. Andre Simon, the renowned wine author and founder of the International Wine and Food Society, who, after Prohibition, led an American renaissance in gastronomy and wine appreciation.
From 1902 to 1932, Simon was Pommery's agent in England and, no doubt, a force in maintaining and perhaps even fashioning the style of Pommery. Upon the termination of his agency, some wine authorities believe Pommery's stature in England and the United States plummeted, and to this date is still in a state of recovery, although it ranks No. 5 among the majors in worldwide sales.
Other Pommery Champagnes are quite good too, especially the popular Brut Rose, Non-Vintage. Here is a clean aroma and a dry, crisp, elegant style subtly suggesting the taste of Pinot Noir. Produced principally from Pinot Noir and augmented by 30% Chardonnay, it is nicely rounded and fleshy and will do well at the dinner table with fowl and meat.
Small Crop, Bad Frost