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Champagne Makers Gonna Party Like Its 1999

Wines: The sky's the limit for the limited-edition millennium bubbly. French houses are preparing for a huge demand on the eve of a new century.

November 10, 1996|From Reuters

REIMS, France — Three years before the New Year party of the century, champagne makers are licking their lips at the prospect of huge demand for their special millennium bubbly at up to $90 a glass.

For those who want to uncork the very best when the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31, 1999, the sky is virtually the limit as French champagne houses prepare luxury offerings for as much as 12,500 francs ($2,400) for a giant-sized bottle.

At that price, the bottle comes in a finely finished wooden case, delivered to your door at the appropriate time accompanied by a certificate of authenticity.

But the bubbly inside is the same as that found in everyday bottles sold in non-millennium years, industry officials admit.

"Every producer is going to come out with a special batch for the millennium," said Guillaume Bruneau of the Champagne Wine Board, predicting "limited quantities at fabulous prices."

Many plan futuristic-looking bottles and labels, in keeping with the theme of a leap into the 21st century, while others will sell old vintages and specially selected reserves.

Some will no doubt simply roll out whatever has built up in their cellars over the years, to be sold off at inflated prices.

In any event, a serious case of millennium marketing fever has gripped the champagne district, some 90 miles northeast of Paris, which has prospered because its product has become the symbol of shared joy and celebration.

The fever can be glimpsed in a walk down a dimly lit tunnel carved by the ultra-prestigious Louis Roederer firm out of the rock beneath the city of Reims.

At the very end of the seemingly endless tunnel - actually a huge wine cellar - looms the "Caveau 2000," a sort of underground bunker sheltering precisely 2,000 "methuselahs" of Roederer's signature "Cristal" champagne from the 1990 vintage.

Each numbered methuselah, temporarily wrapped in a plastic film and laid on its side in one of 15 specially built racks, holds six liters of amber liquid, the equivalent of eight ordinary champagne bottles.

Each sells for $2,000 including taxes and delivery. That's about $37 for a normal-size glass.

"It is going to be sublime," predicted Frederic Heidsieck-Verine, Roederer's export director. "It's a bit magical. It's a bit mad. I think it is going to be smashing," he told Reuters.

Though identical wine will also be sold in ordinary Cristal bottles, "the difference is that in a six-liter bottle, the wine evolves more slowly and in a more uniform fashion," he said.

"The real question is, will people drink it or simply keep it as a memento? Today I was with some people from Houston, Texas, who say they absolutely will drink it," he said.

Roederer began planning for the millennium in 1990, Heidsieck-Verine boasted, looking askance at word that rival Moet et Chandon will offer the 1993 vintage in the millennium edition of its top-of-the-line Dom Perignon brand.

"1993 is an important vintage. 1990 is an exceptional vintage," he boasts with a smile.

"1993 was a very great year," snapped back Richard Geoffroy, a Dom Perignon executive.

The Cuvee Dom Perignon 1993 that he helped create is limited to 1,993 jeroboams, each the equivalent of four ordinary bottles.

It will sell for 12,500 francs ($2,400) a bottle, or about $90 a glass.

The main difference between the special millennium offering and an everyday bottle of Dom Perignon will be the size of the bottle, Geoffroy acknowledged.

"There will be no engraving or gimmicky stuff on the bottle, or any change in its shape. It is a very, very strong statement of Dom Perignon. Its image is its image," he said.

"We have already sold several hundred bottles. The Australians appear very excited. They are not at all bothered by last year's nuclear tests."

Like the Roederer offering, the Dom Perignon bottling is also passing the time aging in a special underground cellar.

In the meantime, buyers of either brand are encouraged to visit their bottles and are mailed annual reports on expert tastings assessing the wine's development over the years.

As of Jan. 10, 1996, for example, Roederer tasters were detecting a bouquet of "brioche, with aromas of honey, flowers and fruit."

It typically takes five to seven years for a top vintage champagne to progress from harvest to sale. Thus the vintage wines to be drunk at the start of the new century had to come from the 1993 vintage at the latest.

Non-vintage champagnes--most champagne is sold without a harvest year on its label--take two to four years to make.

Unlike most still wines, non-vintage champagne is typically a blend of wines from many different years. But the grapes harvested this year will be the last available for inclusion in millennium champagnes.

The 1996 vintage appears to be "fabulous, exceptional," said Bruneau of the Champagne Wine Board.

"We don't say things like that every year," he said. "We have truly been blessed by the gods. Maybe it had something to do with the Pope's trip to Reims in September."

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