The Allure of Luxury Champagnes
by elizabeth fasolino
The Champagne Bar at the Plaza
|Champagne flutes in handblown crystal, by Tiffany & Co., (set of two, $125)|
The world economy many be in a precarious position, but you wouldn’t know it to visit New York City’s top wine retailers or luxury Champagne bars, where the atmosphere remains as effervescent as the bubbles in the wine. Sales in the United States and Britain declined during the recession but began to rebound last year, with Champagne sales growing 7.5 percent in 2010, according to the annual Research and Markets 2011 Champagne Report.
The surging demand has supported the opening of two new Manhattan establishments dedicated to the exclusive sampling of luxury Champagnes by the bottle or the glass: Winston’s Champagne Bar at the Gansevoort Park Avenue Hotel and The Champagne Bar at The Plaza Hotel. Nightlife impresarios Brian Gefter and Michael Satsky opened Winston’s this September and offer more than 100 Champagnes. “Our guests include people looking to enjoy a grower Champagne in a sophisticated nightlife atmosphere, and Champagne connoisseurs looking to experience a flight of extraordinary tête de cuvées,” says Gefter.
Winston’s carefully selected menu includes bottles from approximately 25 vintners including Egly-Ouriet Blanc de Noirs “Les Crayeres” NV, Billiot Cuvée Laetitia NV, and a 1979 Krug Clos du Mesnil Blanc de Blancs priced at $16,200. Service by the glass ranges from a Deutz Brut Classic ($20) to Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Rosé 2004 ($120). The Champagne Bar at The Plaza is a bit more ancienne regime. Think rococo gilding and marble in a space more cathedral than commercial. Prices at The Plaza are in the same range as at Winston’s including a ’98 Pol Roger Cuvée for $595, and vintage Brut Rosé Dom Pérignon ’96 for $1,800.
An Accidental Luxury
As legend has it, Champagne was accidentally invented in 1675 when monks added sugar to a cask of Épernay. The sugar initiated an unexpectedly powerful fermentation process, and foam bubbled unabated until one brave and thirsty monk tasted the brew and gave thanks to the Almighty Father for the divine miracle of its invention. In the 18th century, vineyards in the Champagne region of France began making white wine from red grapes, with the second fermentation process happening within the bottle. The Champagne region, approximately 100 miles east of Paris, has a unique terroir. There are five geographic distinctions within the region, each imparting unique qualities to the wines they produce, and many consider the Champagnes from Marne-la-Vallée to be the finest. The steep hills and chalky substrata are optimal for growing Pinot Meunier grapes, which along with Pinot Noir and white Chardonnay, produce Champagne. “Certain terroirs are better suited for certain grapes,” says John Kapon, the third-generation CEO of Acker Merrall & Condit, one of the world’s leading purveyors of fine and rare Champagne.
Champagnes from vintage years are the most prized and expensive, and Acker Merrall & Condit has long been committed to increasing awareness of aged Champagnes. “Bottles dating to 1900 can age as well as red wines,” Kapon says. “They can be stored, and a great vintage can age 100 years. The bubbles diminish and let the rich fruitiness and caramels come through.”
In recent years, aged Champagnes at Acker Merrall & Condit auctions have set world records: In 2008, a 1928 Krug Clos du Mesnil sold for $21,151; and two bottles of 1959 Rosé Dom Pérignon sold for $84,700. In June a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, salvaged from a 19th-century shipwreck, sold for $43,630.
Though the patrons at Winston’s and The Champagne Bar at the Plaza don’t sip Champagnes that are quite so heady as the bottles sold at auction, their patronage attests to the same striking trend: that luxury Champagne, like luxury real estate, still commands fascination—and record sales. The most enduringly charismatic of drinks, Champagne is the perennial toast of the town. Winston’s, 420 Park Ave. S., 212-929- 9070; The Plaza, Fifth Ave. at Central Park S., 212-546-5311
Photograph by William Brinson; styling by Victoria E scalle for Halley esources (glasses); Diane Bondareff (plaza)