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March/April 2009


WINE & SPIRITS

White Tie Bubbly
By Baroness Sheri de Borchgrave

POP OPEN A TREASURE FROM LAURENT-PERRIER AND WATCH AGE-OLD GLAMOUR SPILL FORTH

[Image]

Unlike powerhouse bubblies Veuve Clicquot and Dom Perignon, Laurent-Perrier Champagne is not on the tip of everyone's tongue in this country—though surely it should be. Laurent-Perrier, for years the Champagne of the Academy Awards, stands on its own, with an engaging backstory and distinctive, understated style worth telling.

Historically, Laurent-Perrier has been a considerable trailblazer. It was the first Champagne to earn the Royal Warrant from Prince Charles for its commitment to sustainable agriculture. It was the first house, beginning some 40 years ago, to release a regular annual rosé cuvée; the first, in 1980, to create a zero- dosage (no added sugar) Brut Nature; and the first to bring back the original bulbous 17th-century bottle that's now so in vogue.

Though the company dates back to 1812, its most dramatic period began during World War II when Marie-Louise de Nonancourt (scion of the Lanson Champagne family) bought the marque as a gift to her sons. The Gestapo captured her oldest son, Maurice—a resistance fighter—before he could take over the business (he later died in a concentration camp). Next in line was Bernard, who had helped liberate France with Charles de Gaulle's Free French forces.

At the end of the war, Bernard helped rescue the Third Reich's liquid treasures from Hitler's personal cellar in the Bavarian Alps. His job as a wine expert was to identify the best bottles from among the million or so stashed, among them vintage Champagne and first-growth Bordeaux and Burgundy from the '20s and '30s. His exploits are recounted in War & Wine, a non-fiction book chronicling the Nazi wine stash.

By 1949 Bernard had thrown himself into the Champagne business, working to transform Laurent-Perrier into a world-renowned brand. Though the most popular style at the time was demi-sec, he began producing a dryer Champagne, using a larger percentage of Chardonnay in his blends. He eschewed aging in wood, becoming the first to embrace stainless steel tanks. The house style that emerged was known for being fresh, elegant and full of finesse.

A dashing man of towering stature, the now 89-year-old Laurent-Perrier patriarch still has a hand in the operation at Tours-sur-Marne. "I produce wines for pleasure and for seduction," he has said. I tasted some of those wines on a recent visit to the property (Bernard, alas, wasn't on hand at the time). His no-dosage Ultra Brut, which he once described as a "beautiful lady without makeup," was crisp and clean with a nose of candied fruit. The flagship Laurent-Perrier Brut, a blend of wines from 55 cru villages that I tasted next, was elegant and round with aromas of white flowers and honeysuckle. My favorite non-vintage bottling, the Cuvée Rosé, a wine whose color Bernard has famously likened to a "blushing nymph's thigh," had a wild, red fruit finish and the seductive, delicious scent of juicy red fruits: a mixture of strawberries, currants and raspberries.

The vintage cuvées, which I tasted through next, included the Grand Siecle, named by President Charles de Gaulle himself. This nuanced wine, made from grapes sourced from only grand cru villages, is a blend of three vintage years that's aged 10 years before it's released. It's a silky wine with a flinty, candied-citrus nose and flavors of honey, almond and toast.

After the tasting I dined with Bernard's daughters, Alexandra and Stephanie, at the family's 17th-century Chateau Louvois. With the meal I had a privileged taste of the Cuvée Alexandra, a rare vintage ($400 a bottle) first released in 1987 in honor of Alexandra's wedding. The daughters—both tall, aristocratic and blonde—work in management at Laurent- Perrier. With the '88 vintage of Cuvée Alexandra we enjoyed an extravagant black truffle soup. It was so divine that Laurent-Perrier will always be on the tip of my tongue, and in my fantasy I will toast the Academy with a flute when I take the stage to graciously accept my Oscar.

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