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Elegance and Finesse: The Champagnes of Taittinger

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a portion of Taittinger's La Marquetterie vineyard

Taittinger was founded in the 1930s with Pierre Taittinger's acquisition of the remaining assets of the old Champagne house Forest-Fourneaux. It is thus the youngest of the region's major houses. These days, following the family's reacquisition of the house in 2006, I believe the quality of Taittinger's current offerings is at an all time high.

As reported in my Champagne Buyer's Guide here, Taittinger's highest end bottlings -- the elegant and delicate Comtes de Champagne, both the 2004 blanc and 2005 rosé -- were among my top ranking tête de cuvées for the year (94+ and 96+ points respectively). This week I sampled the newest Comtes release, the 2005 Blanc de Blancs. I rate it as one of the greatest Comtes Blanc de Blancs ever (97+ points, U.S. average $203).

The house is also excelling with their lower priced offerings. The current vintage offering, the 2005 Brut Millésimé, is very strong, at 94 points ($80). I similarly rated the excellent non-vintage Prelude, a blend of Grand Cru village fruit (94 points, $80). The non-vintage rosé -- Brut Prestige -- is among the best of the category this year (93 points, $68). The non-vintage Brut Reserve is also quite good (92 points, $51).

I had the pleasure of visiting Taittinger -- both the medieval caves in Reims used for aging the Comtes and La Marquetterie vineyard outside of Epernay with its 18th century château -- this past September. Clovis Taittinger, the fourth generation family member who heads the house's export efforts, met with my group of journalists in the morning in Reims and then had lunch with us at La Marquetterie.

Some months previously, at the Pebble Beach Food & Wine Event in April, I participated in a vertical tasting of five vintages each of the Comtes Blanc and Rosé led by Clovis's sister Vitalie. Vitalie, whose background is in art and design, and who happens to be a very beautiful and stylish young woman, figures prominently in some of the house's new marketing campaigns and holds the position of Artistic Director.

Clovis and Vitalie are the children of Pierre-Emanuel Taittinger, who replaced his uncle Claude Taittinger as President of the company in 2006. Claude was the second son of the house's founder, Pierre, to run the company. Pierre's third son François greatly expanded the house's operations and sales from 1945 until his death in a car accident in 1960. Claude then presided for 45 years until the house, and the family's other extensive businesses -- including the Concorde hotel chain, construction and printing companies -- were acquired by the U.S. hotel group Starwood in July 2005.

Pierre-Emanuel and his branch of the family, with the support of Crédit Agricole Nord-East, bought back the Champagne house that bore the family's name in May 2006.

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advertising for the French market featuring Vitalie Taittinger

I believe that a major factor giving rise to the high quality of Taittinger's Champagnes, especially the Comtes, is the exceptional vineyard properties the family has collected. Taittinger owns 752 acres of vineyards which provide about half the fruit the needed for production. Typically the grand marque Champagne houses own only about 10 percent of their vineyard sources.

The family's first and most historical vineyard acquisition is the one at La Marquetterie in Pierry outside of Epernay. The vineyard is planted in alternating patches of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and thus, by harvest time, resembles the checkerboard-like squares of alternating light and dark wood veneer that is called marquetry, or marqueterie, in furniture making.

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Clovis Taittinger at Chateau de la Marquetterie, flanked by wine writers Rachel Voorhees and Carolyn O'Neil

Starting in 1734, a chateau was built here for a wealthy family of clothiers who acquired the vineyard from the Benedictines. In World War I, the chateau was used by General Castelnau as his headquarters during the Battle of Champagne in 1915. Pierre Taittinger, who served in the war as a cavalry officer, spent time at La Marquetterie and was reportedly so taken with the property that he vowed to acquire it if it should ever become available.

Pierre, who came from a family of wine merchants originally based in Lorraine, purchased the chateau and its vineyard in 1932, just two years after having acquired Forest-Forneaux. In the 1930s, Pierre also purchased the 13th-century mansion on the Rue de Tambour in Reims which had once been home to Theobald IV, the Comtes de Champagne. It is in honor of this historical figure that the house named its tête de cuvée. The first vintage of the Comtes de Champagne, a Blanc de Blancs, was 1952. The rosé version followed in 1966.

Pierre was a noted gastronome who anticipated the change in culinary tastes from the traditional, often heavy, sauce laden dishes, to lighter, more natural preparations. He thought it was time for lighter style Champagnes that would better compliment this style of cooking, as opposed to the sweet style, high dosage offerings that had been popular in France, and elsewhere, up to that time, and that were then mainly enjoyed as an accompaniment to dessert or after a meal.

It was Pierre's son François who further added to the house's vineyard properties and oversaw replanting, with an emphasis on Chardonnay as key to a lighter, drier style. François's winemaker, or chef des caves, was Roger Lénique. Together they established the Taittinger style, using only high quality first pressings of fruit, adding a dosage based only on mature Champagne instead of brandies, and producing only fully dry Champagnes, noted for their elegance and delicacy. The chef des caves since 2000 is Loïc Dupont, who has very much continued its house style.

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You will find my tasting notes not only for Taittinger's current releases, but also the vertical of the Comtes Blanc and Rosé that I sampled in April in the complete version of this report on my blog here. These are delicious Champagnes that are well worth your attention if you have not yet had an opportunity to enjoy them. The Comtes, in particular, although pricey, is one of the region's most impressive and delicious offerings these days. It would make both a generous gift as well as a delightful drink with which to welcome the arrival of 2014.