Wine terms can be imprecise. “Reserve” may have a legally defined meaning in parts of Spain and Italy, but it is arbitrary and capricious in California. The definition of Grand Cru differs from one region to another, but even within France there are variations—witness Saint-Émilion, where the classification has changed five times since 1955 and was even modified once as a result of legal action.
When it comes to Champagne, the French have a term for it: tête de cuvée, loosely translated as head (or top) of the blend and sometimes expressed as “prestige cuvée.” While tête de cuvée is a term of art, we understand it to mean the very best vintage and grapes that a house has to offer. Best known is Moët et Chandon’s Dom Pérignon, first released as the 1921 vintage in 1936. Equally prestigious are Cristal (Louis Roederer), La Grande Dame (Veuve Clicquot) and Comtes de Champagne (Taittinger).
Tête de cuvée Champagnes are almost always vintage wines, and without exception they are expensive. They are usually a selection of the best lots at harvest, but in cases such as Dom Pérignon they have become brands unto themselves. While the big names tend to get most of the press, there are some remarkable wines to be found from boutique houses: Clos des Goisses (Philipponnat), Blanc des Millenaires (Charles Heidsieck), and Cuvée Nicolas François from Billecart-Salmon.
Founded in 1818 with the marriage of Nicolas François Billecart and Elisabeth Salmon, Billecart-Salmon is one of the few Champagne houses to remain family-owned. Despite being a medium-sized house, they have flown under the radar and remained a guarded secret for most Champagne lovers, possibly due to their lack of high-powered corporate promotion. According to Florent Nys, the current cellar master, they are known for wines that are fresh rather than powerful. Cuvée Nicolas François was launched in 1964 to commemorate the founder, and 18 vintages have been released since then.
The 2007 version ($175) is a blend of 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay. The nose is ripe and forward, perfumed with vanilla, hints of red fruits, and a pleasant, Sherry-like oxidation. Tart citrus flavors dominate on entry, framed by mouth-watering acidity; the Pinot Noir emerges in the mid palate with glorious notes of wild strawberries and red raspberries. The finish is extraordinarily long, with the acidity energizing the fruit and refusing to let it die. The 2007 Cuvée Nicolas François has been described as intense, energetic and powerful, and all those terms fit: this is an exercise in hedonism, a deep and rich Champagne that makes a singular statement on the palate.
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants, and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture, as well as three novels. His first novel, Friend of the Devil, has been re-released on Amazon in print, e-book and audio book formats.