Chardonnay and Bottle-ageing: Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque Blanc

The beautifully restored London St Pancras, now home to the Renaissance Hotel and the Gilbert Scott fine-dining restaurant, radiates the grandeur of 19th-century rail travel. It provided a splendid venue for this year’s Champagne Assembly. The tasting room evoked a Parisian atmosphere with its steel and glass structure, whilst the backdrop of towers and turrets were unmistakably Victorian.

Perrier-Jouët Chef de Caves, Hervé Deschamps, led the first tasting and presented six vintages of Belle Epoque to demonstrate the longevity and maturation of Chardonnay-dominated champagnes. What this tasting has shown is how differently each grape variety evolves with time, thereby underlining the importance of proportions when it comes to defining the character of cuvee champagnes. Even in the case of vintage champagnes, where one anticipates variation year by year whilst expecting a consistency of style and expression.

The Perrier-Jouët house, founded over 200 years ago in 1811, has some 65 hectares of vineyards classified over 99.2%. They source their Chardonnay grapes from Cramant and Arize, both Grand Cru villages on the Cote des Blancs. The Pinot Noir comes from the village of Mailly, located on the Southern side of the Montagne de Reims, and from Ay, in the Vallee de Marne.

The Belle Epoque is a special cuvee with 50% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir and only 5% Pinot Meunier. The latter one is the bridge between the finesse of Chardonnay and the weightier character of the Pinot Noir, as Mr Deschamps said.

Having started with 2002, we were tasting a relatively young and lively champagne still abundant with primary fruits. As we moved closer to ’85, there was a gradual shift towards more savoury and vegetal characters reflecting age and reminiscent of aged white Burgundies. Some vintages retained a heavier fruity character, such as ’98 and ’95, whilst others sat on the more savoury end of the spectrum, for example ’85 and ’90. Of the six wines tasted, 1990 was the most superb indeed. It retained a delicate freshness, whilst showing a combination of savoury characters and honeyed citrus fruits; it was sublime.

Moving from younger to older vintages, here you can find detailed tasting notes with some commentary on the vintage from Hervé.

Vintage 2002
The weather was very nice, but windy before harvest which concentrated the sugar and acidity. This year shows the pure elegance of Chardonnay from Cramant. It is Chardonnay that is responsible for fine bubbles in champagne, as Hervé said.

Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque 2002
Light lemon, lovely intensity of clean brioche with a touch of underlying autolytic character. Fresh lemon, apple and white grapefruit followed by a bit of sponge cake. Dry, really piercing freshness, lean yet soft elegance, which holds on for a long time. Fine mousse coating the mouth all around, though restrained in nature. 16.4

Vintage1998
A vintage of pure elegance: good ripeness and structure. Nice vintage with high potential for ageing.

Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque 1998
Light golden with a thin stream of small bubbles. Restrained nose with a vegetal character along lemon, apples and some gentle brioche in the background. Dry, fresh, a weightier body of fruits than ’02, lovely apples and grapefruit on the mid-palate. Truly excellent concentration, though simpler on the flavours. Certainly an element of ripeness on the medium-plus finish. 17.2

Vintage 1995
The first one for Hervé. The quality of the grapes – if vines survived the frost in mid-May – was really good compared to the average of the 30 years before. The Belle Epoque stays a minimum of 6 years on the lees, but it depends on the vintage. If it is not ready, it may go up to 7 or 9 years too, so as to ensure quality.

Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque 1995
A light golden colour with pronounced lemon and a green hue. Highly intense nose, with a lot of turnip, roasted almond, ripe apples and lemon zest. Dry, quite racing acids, but nicely integrates with ripe and aged flavours of savoury vegetables, such as cabbage and turnip. The mousse is truly soft and embracing the palate. Quite a generous body, lower on the concentration than ’98, but more generous intensity. Long finish. 17.1

Vintage 1990
Very strong frost in the spring, so it was a bad year for some houses. However, those who managed their vineyards well, benefited from the long and dry summer and produced excellent champagne. Some compare the ripeness of 1990 to that of 1959 and the quality is said to be the best since 1964.

Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque 1990
Golden with a light straw hue. Really nicely aged nose with a straw, honey character wrapped around lemon zest, turnip and a bit of brioche. Dry, extremely fresh, but beautifully elegant with an intensity of fruits and savoury vegetal tones: lemon zest, cabbage, turnip, almonds and brioche. Fine mousse, though not overtly soft, it is quite lean. Uplifting freshness on the long finish. 18.9

Vintage1989
After a mild spring, there was a really good and long summer with hot weather. The second in a trio of great vintages according Berry Bros & Rudd. The reason for the difference in the toastiness between 1990 and 1989 is the ripeness of the fruit, as ’89 was really ripe vintage.

Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque 1989
Pronounced golden with a straw hue. Really impressively lively nose with a weight of heavily toasted almond and brioche followed by a fine melange of vegetal tones and fruits. Dry, marked acids with a great mix of lemon zest, grapefruit, turnips. Soft and medium fine mousse, quite generous. It is really intense, length is not compromised, but it is more mouth-filling than persistence. 18.3

Vintage 1985
An excellent vintage despite the year starting with a winter frost and continuing with a spring frost. As a result some vineyards were destroyed, especially in the North of Montagne Reims. A long sunny and warm autumn saved the year and created wines of exquisite balance.

Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque 1985
Pronounced golden with a hue of straw. Elegantly aged nose, with a complexity of aromas: toastiness, vegetal tones and some oakiness. Dry, lively acids and freshness all around giving it a sturdy spine, which holds a mix of the citrus fruits, toastiness and cabbage. Soft mousse, less concentration than ’89 or ’90. Soft, rounded and long. 17.8

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