Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to taste every vintage of Nicolas Feuillatte's Cuvée Palmes d'Or. There were eight in all ranging from the recently released 1998 to the debut 1985. Presenting the vintages was Jean-Pierre Vincent, the only chef de cave at Feuillatte since the brand's creation by Nicolas Feuillatte in 1976.
A group of journalists and sommeliers were greeted by the elegant 1997 as an aperitif, but the bulk of the vintages accompanied the clean, classic dishes of chef Tony Esnault at the new Adour Alain Ducasse in the St. Regis hotel. A dessert entitled "Raspberry Composition" provided a foil for the Palmes d'Or Rosé, made by the saigner method.
The brand owes much of its reputation to the spirit and charisma of founder Nicolas Feuillatte, an entrepreneur who made his fortune in the coffee business in New York. A native of France, he inherited a vineyard in Champagne, eventually making Champagne for his jet-setting friends. In 1986, Feuillatte sold the brand to the Centre Vinicole de la Champagne, a group of cooperatives.
The quality derives from the steady guidance of Vincent over the 30-plus years he has been sourcing the grapes and making the Feuillatte Champagnes. Vincent joined the CVC in 1976, becoming its head winemaker in 1979.
The Feuillatte style above all expresses elegance, yet the vintage cuvées reflect the individual growing seasons. The Palmes d'Or began as 40 percent Pinot Noir and 60 percent Chardonnay in 1985, but with the warmer conditions in the region today, the blend shifted to 50/50 Pinot Noir/Chardonnay in the 1995 and 1996 vintages and eventually to 60 percent Pinot Noir for the 1997 and 1998 cuvées. Vincent draws on 7 grands crus villages for the Brut Palmes d'Or.
The Brut Rosé started out as a 50/50 blend of Pinot Noir from Bouzy and Rosé de Riceys, both villages known for their ripe, fruity Pinot Noir, but the 2000 is 60 percent Bouzy and 40 percent Rosé de Riceys.
Here is a list of the wines, tasted non-blind, in descending score order.
My favorite was the 1990, rich and powerful, full of candied citrus, honey and malt flavors. It tasted complex and structured and has reached maturity. It's drinking beautifully now (94 points, non-blind). The debut 1985 featured smoky, caramel and coffee aromas. Rich and nutty, with a creamy texture, it revealed graphite, spice and leather notes, with a long finish (93 point, non-blind).
"The wine that I love is the '85," commented Vincent. "The '90 is powerful, but the '85 is very fine and delicate."
The 1996, a 50/50 Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend, showed bright citrus, candied berry and meringue aromas and flavors aligned to its firm structure. It's still a young Champagne, capped by a long, chalky finish (93 point, non-blind). The 1995 exhibited a delicate, yet complex nose of bread dough, citrus confit and ginger. Well balanced, it demonstrated the Feuillatte elegance (92 points, non-blind).
Our aperitif 1997 was also elegant, displaying light toast and citrus aromas and hints of toast, vanilla and anise flavors (90 points, non-blind).
Paired with the '96, the 1998 Palmes d'Or showed wheat toast, caramel and honey flavors. A more up front, round style, it was rich, but less elegant than either the '97 or '96 (89 points, non-blind). This should develop more quickly than its two predecessors.
The 1992 and 1991 vintages were a contrast in styles. The '92, poured from magnum, had a bright toasty aroma and notes of candied berry, with hints of smoke and mineral. Overall, it was balanced on the soft side (89 point, non-blind). On the other hand, the 1991 was elegant, with vibrant acidity focusing the citrus and mineral flavors. Though mouthwatering, it lacked the length of the better vintages (88 points, non-blind).
Both were difficult vintages and a challenge for Vincent. There were no vintages made in 1988 or 1989. He candidly admitted that it was a mistake not to make a Palmes d'Or bottling in '88, but felt the raw materials in '89 were too low in acidity.
The Palmes d'Or Rosé 2000, more like a red wine with bubbles, was very aromatic, with a touch of matchstick and earth. Its dried berry and cherry notes were set against a full bodied, powerful frame, with a cherry aftertaste (90 points, non-blind).