Toasting the Millennium; Now's the time to buy champagnes to celebrate New Year's


Champagne lovers of the world, the time to act is now.

You might believe that Jan. 1, 2000, is not the genuine start of the new millennium. You might believe that people ought to hold off their 21st-century celebrations until 2001. You might even take satisfaction in being right when the masses are wrong.

Get over it. The big party is this year.

When the ball drops and 2000 is official, most people will feel it's a new century. And they're going to want to toast this new era in which the years begin with a 2.

If you don't join in, the rest of us will drink up all the good champagne.

Wine retailers say that with summer waning, customers' thoughts are turning to the champagne they will pour on the big night. Many, who might have bought a respectable California sparkling wine for an ordinary New Year, will choose to have true French champagne on their lips this Dec. 31.

And buyers are choosing the very best.

Wine merchants expect it to become increasingly difficult as the year comes to a close to find the luxury blends known as cuvees de prestige. In other words, don't figure on running out on Dec. 31 to pick up a bottle of Dom Perignon.

That does not mean rumors of a worldwide champagne shortage are true. The New York-based Champagne Information Bureau is assuring consumers that the stocks of nonvintage wines -- blends of various years that are the standard product of Champagne producers -- are sufficient to meet the expected surge in demand.

But if you're particularly particular about what you'll be drinking on Dec. 31 -- or one year later, for that matter -- you might want to buy your favorite wine now and store it in a cool place. Vintage-dated wines -- blends made from the best grapes of a special year -- could be scarce. They include the top-of-the-line cuvees de prestige.

Leigh Grandes, wine manager at Wells Discount Liquors in Baltimore, said he's already had customers stocking up cases of champagne for New Year's celebrations, including one buyer who spent $10,000 for cuvee de prestige wines. Wholesale shipments of one popular brand, Veuve Clicquot, already are being limited to last year's quantities, he said.

Grandes agreed to help The Sun assemble a selection of dry (brut) champagnes that well-heeled connoisseurs would be proud to serve at their millennial celebrations.

Be warned. None is cheap.

The selection drew heavily on the greatest recent years for champagne -- particularly 1990, a spectacular year that came on the market at a most opportune time. But supplies of some are already limited.

Some of the champagnes are in stores but no longer available at wholesale. Some won't be at your local store but can be ordered from a wholesaler. You might have to shop around or settle for your No. 2 choice.

Besides the wines in the tasting, other well-known cuvees de prestige include Roederer Cristal, Pol Roger Cuvee Winston Churchill and anything made by Krug.

The least of the wines we sampled was excellent. The best were sublime. Here, in classic New Year's countdown style, are the tasting results.

* 1992 Egly-Ouriet vintage ($45). The vintage wine from this well-respected small Champagne producer is made entirely from grapes drawn from top-rated vineyards. The results show in its delicacy, subtlety and lightly nutty flavors. It lacks the roundness and impact of the 1990 champagnes, however, and may not be millennial in quality. But if $50 is your limit, check it out.

* 1990 Pol Roger Brut Chardonnay ($70). This light- to medium-bodied champagne offers a complex mix of almond, walnut, pear, nutmeg and lemon flavors, but it doesn't quite have the impact of the wines below.

* 1990 Bollinger Grand Annee ($80). This might be the wine for the folks who want to wait for 2001. It's unquestionably an excellent champagne, but a bit tight and unyielding at present -- no surprise to Bollinger fans. Its peak is probably five years off. Typically, this full-bodied wine shows better with food, so if you're nibbling on salmon at the stroke of midnight, it might be an astute choice.

* 1982 Bollinger R. D. ($200). The R. D. stands for recently disgorged, which means it has been resting on its yeast for more than a decade until being bottled in March. Though it was the oldest wine in the group, it is in many ways the most immature. There's tremendous complexity but a hard edge. It's a tremendously pure, uncompromised wine that cries out for food to accompany it. Like many Bollinger champagnes, it's a beverage more for concentration than celebration. This might ultimately become the best wine in the group, but for now it's a work in progress.

* 1990 Nicolas Feuillatte Cuvee Palmes d'Or ($100). Now the quibbling stops and the greatness begins. This is a gorgeous wine, with flavors reminiscent of the finest white Burgundies. There's plenty of yeasty, toasty flavor in this subtle, elegant, complex wine from an underrated Champagne house. The bottle itself is either a work of art or outrageous kitsch, depending on your point of view.

* 1990 Veuve-Clicquot La Grande Dame ($135). Most cuvee de prestige wines focus intensely on the core elements of Champagne: minerals, yeast, toast, nuts. This has all those elements, but it also is an enormously fruity wine, with hints of pear, cherry and raspberry. It has terrific complexity and intensity, and there's a bit of tightness that suggests it has a way to go before it's fully mature.

* 1990 Pommery Cuvee Louise ($80). This lesser-known cuvee de prestige was a bit of a sleeper. It's a full-bodied champagne with layer upon layer of yeasty, toasty, nutty flavors and a steady stream of small, crackling bubbles. The length and complexity show that Pommery can play with the big boys in certain vintages.

* 1990 Perrier-Jouet Fleur de Champagne, Cuvee Belle Epoque ($100). This wine is delicacy personified, medium-bodied and richly toasty, with layers of yeasty, nutty flavors and a creamy texture. The length and complexity are exemplary.

* 1990 Moet & Chandon Dom Perignon ($150). Here's a Dom Perignon that fully lives up to its reputation. It's intriguingly layered and concentrated without being heavy. It has a sensual, creamy texture but a clean, refreshing finish that seems to linger for minutes. There's a tremendous "mouth-feel," with a seemingly never-ending wellspring of bubbles. There are hints of fresh pear and minerals. A new vintage has been released, but top retailers may have some bottles squirreled away for good customers.

* 1990 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne ($125). Better than Dom? I scored it a tie. My tasting companion cast the tiebreaker in favor of this exceptionally elegant, nimbly dancing champagne with an electrifying zip of acidity in the finish. The Taittinger comes in like a wave breaking over your palate, and the flavors recede ever so slowly. Breathtaking.

* 1985 Salon Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs ($195). At this point, words fail and are replaced by primitive groans of pure pleasure. How does it get any better than this?

This all-chardonnay wine is as pure and powerful an expression of Champagne character as one could possibly imagine. It doesn't ripple across the palate, it cascades. At 14 years, the Salon shows just the right touch of maturity, with perfectly intermixed flavors of yeast, nuts, freshly made bread and lemon.

Is this the champagne of the millennium?

Obviously, there are deep moral questions that arise from such an extreme act of self-indulgence as drinking these wines. These are matters that must be pondered -- but not this time around.

I'll be too busy toasting New Year 2000 with a fine champagne.

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