The Champagne producers of France have a rich, fascinating history, both in terms of their wineries and their founders.
The region itself has a rich history. For example, the city Reims (phonetically pronounced “rahss” with a rolling “r” in English) is one of the main production centers for Champagne and is the home of several major producers, including Champagne Taittinger. It was occupied by the Romans; hosted emperors, kings, popes and various nobility; was in the middle of many wars and the site of three major military battles; was mostly destroyed during World War I; and was the place where, after being enemy-occupied for four years, Germany signed the unconditional surrender ending the European part of World War II.
Taittinger, in turn, has a rich history all its own, some related to its places of operations; some related to historical circumstances; some related to the people who run the business.
The history of Champagne Taittinger’s places dates back more than 1,500 years before Pierre-Charles Taittinger bought the Forest-Fourneaux Champagne house – the third oldest in Champagne – in 1931.
Around 370 A.D., the Romans built a church that would eventually become the site of the Saint Nicaise Abbey. Over several centuries before that, the Gauls and then the Romans had excavated chalk from the ground near where the church was built, to be used for building materials. These excavated sites, which had narrow square openings at the surface that expanded as the holes went deeper, were eventually linked to one another through a network of underground passages.
In the 13th century, the original church had begun to crumble and was razed and replaced with the Benedictine Saint Nicaise Abbey. The monks at the abbey started making still wines and discovered that the chalky caves some 60 feet below the surface were a perfect place to store and age wine, maintaining a constant temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit and a relative humidity of 90 percent all year round. That was the case in the 13th century and is still the case today for Taittinger, which now stores its Champagnes and the wines used to make them in those moist, chalk-walled caves.
Before it was destroyed during the French Revolution in the late 18th century, the abbey and the caves had many illustrious visitors, including the emperor of Russia, Peter the Great, in 1717.
The Demeure des Comtes de Champagne – or the residence of the counts of Champagne – is a large mansion that was built in the early 13th century for Theobald I, the count (ruler) of Champagne, which was then a feudal state of France. The residence, which served as a place for the coronations of French kings, is now owned by Taittinger and serves as a place for hosting guests, receptions, exhibits and concerts.
The final place of Taittinger relates to the founding of the Forest-Fourneaux Champagne house by Jacques Fourneaux in 1734 at Château de la Marquetterie, which was acquired by Pierre-Charles Taittinger in 1932 and is now the family home of his descendants. Starting in 1680, vineyards around the chateau were developed by Benedictine monk Jean Oudart, who put the sparkle into the still wines previously made there. Brother Oudart, along with several other monks in the area, were the founding fathers of Champagne, the beverage.
Over the years, Château de la Marquetterie’s history includes ownership by French writer Jacques Cazotte and being requisitioned as the French army’s headquarters during the World War I Battle of Champagne in 1915.
Pierre-Charles Taittinger came from Lorraine in France, but his ancestry was Austrian – the “-inger” ending of his last name a clear indication of his Germanic heritage. His first introduction to the Champagne region came in 1911, when he worked for an Epernay-based Champagne distribution company. During World War I, he became a lieutenant in the French army and, during a period of convalescence, stayed in Château de la Marquetterie. When the property became available for sale after the Great Depression, Pierre-Charles and his brother-in-law, Paul Eveque, joined forces to buy and operate the Forest-Fourneaux Champagne house, using several different brand names.
After World War II, Pierre-Charles’s third son, François, ran the business, until his death in a car accident in 1960. His brother Claude then took over and ran Taittinger until 2005. The Taittinger family sold the company to the United States-based Starwood Capital Group. Less than a year later, Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, in cooperation with the French bank, Crédit Agricole, bought the Champagne house back from Starwood, with Pierre-Emmanuel taking over as head of the business.
The style of Taittinger Champagne is dictated by Chardonnay. Its non-vintage Brut La Française uses 40 percent Chardonnay – twice what is used in blends by many other Champagne houses – along with 35 percent Pinot Noir and 25 percent Pinot Meunier. It is made with a blend of three vintages to give it a consistent style and taste every year, and aged three to four years on their lees (the expended yeast residue created during the secondary, in-bottle fermentation that gives Champagne its bubbles).
The result is a Champagne that is elegant but also light and fresh.
The Brut La Française is perfect as an aperitif or for a cocktail party and does not have to be served with food.
Taittinger’s flagship Champagne, Comtes de Champagne – the Counts of Champagne – is a blanc de blancs, meaning it is made entirely of Chardonnay.
In Ian Fleming’s book “Casino Royale,” his character James Bond remarks that Taittinger blanc de blancs is “probably the finest Champagne in the world.” The film Bond might prefer Bollinger, but the literary Bond was a Taittinger man.
The Comtes de Champagne brand was started in 1952 and is made only in good vintage years. The grapes used to make the wine are only from the 17 grand cru vineyards (out of 320 total vineyards in Champagne), and the juice comes only from the first press. The result is, as the Taittinger says, “a very special Champagne” that is complex and powerful, but also very elegant and with enough acidic structure to enable it to age gracefully for decades.
There are also rosé versions of Taittinger Champagne. The non-vintage Prestige Rosé is a blend of 50 percent Pinot Noir, 30 percent Chardonnay and 20 Pinot Meunier. Here again, the relatively high percentage of Chardonnay gives this Champagne a freshness to go with aromas of flavors of raspberries and cherries. Although this is also a good aperitif Champagne, it really finds its home at the dinner table, where it pairs well with a wide range of dishes.
Comtes de Champagne Rosé blends 70 percent Pinot Noir – of which 12 percent is Pinot Noir still wine added after secondary fermentation – with 30 percent Chardonnay. As is the case with the Comtes de Champagne blanc de blancs, all of the grapes come from grand cru vineyards to give a complex premium Champagne that is ideal for an aperitif or for a meal with lighter dishes that will not overpower its delicate elegance.