Review: Prestige Cuvée Blanc vs Rosé Champagne Tasting with Essi Avellan

The concept for this tasting has been almost a year in the making. After witnessing first-hand the rising popularity of rosé champagne (the UK is still the largest export market for pink fizz) and conducting many blind tastings proving the unquestionably superior quality of the top prestige rosés (see our blind comparison of fourteen prestige cuvée rosé champagnes), it became increasingly clear that rosé champagne is often overlooked – and unfairly so. To redress this balance, we decided to offer 1) A unique experience to consumers: the chance to blind taste eight blanc prestige cuvées alongside their rosé equivalents from the same House and same vintage (where possible), and 2) A unique opportunity to rosé champagne: giving rosés the chance to objectively prove their worth in a fair and decisive blind tasting.

   A packed St James’s Room, ready and waiting…

First, a little background on rosé champagne: Champagne from either of the two black grapes has the ability to be pink; pressing Pinot Noir or Meunier grapes straight after picking gives near white juice. A few Champagne Houses ferment the black grapes with their skins for the pink colour, but a large majority of Houses get the desired rosé colour by adding 8-20% of locally made red wine from Pinot Noir grown in the warmer villages of Bouzy and Aÿ. The red wine is blended with the still wines before they enter the bottle for the second fermentation, with the style of rosé varying significantly depending on the Chef de Cave’s preference. The winemaker might prefer a rosé champagne with a hint of influence from the red wine, or alternatively a champagne that will be distinctly different to the blanc version, expressing red wine characteristics.

It seemed only fitting to have Champagne expert Essi Avellan MW, a self-confessed lover of rosé, presenting this once-in-a-lifetime tasting. Essi began the evening by highlighting rosé champagne’s relative exclusivity. Using Dom Pérignon as an example, she noted: “Although rising in popularity, rosé is still extremely rare and accounts for just 5% of Dom Pérignon’s total production.” Admitting that she has “a sweet tooth for rosé”, Essi explained her belief that rosé is still erroneously perceived and misleadingly portrayed as a “girly wine” or a “wedding wine”. Contrastingly, rosé champagne is actually the most masculine of champagne styles, often exhibiting a much richer, full-bodied and meaty character than its blanc equivalents.

   “I have a sweet tooth for rosé” – Essi Avellan MW

Essi commented before the evening: “This is a tasting to travel for!” – and how right she was. With visitors coming from as far afield as the United States and Hong Kong, the unique and rare opportunity to taste such a prestige range of champagnes side-by-side was not lost on many. With fifty-one tasting and forty-four live-voting, we had a broad and representative scope of guests ranging from wine trade professionals, press delegates, restauranteurs and high-end consumers.

The format was to taste all the champagnes blind; the eight blancs first followed by the eight rosés. The champagnes were served in pairs and guests were afforded a few moments to taste, discuss, place their guesses and rate the champagnes, before Essi shared her thoughts and predictions (often just correct assertions!) and revealed the identity of the pair.

Scores provided below show The Finest Bubble, Essi Avellan MW and the group average ratings. Tasting notes are all The Finest Bubble’s.

    First up: Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 2002

The Blancs

First Pair

Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 2002 | TFB Score: 18.0 | Essi Avellan MW Score: 19.0 | Group Score: 17.4
Lively smokey lime character on the nose. Very creamy and buttery mouth-feel that opens into a Burgundian-style finish. This has all the light, white fruit character of the 2002 vintage.

Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2006 | TFB Score: 18.5 | Essi Avellan MW Score: 19.5 | Group Score: 17.3
Lots of bright apple flavour with hints of vanilla and cream. Nice mouth-feel and slight hints of a higher dosage. Great length and delicacy. This has the style of the very sunny and light 2006 vintage.

The first pair were quite obviously two blanc de blancs. Both very light, fresh, approachable and drinkable with all the identifiable characteristics from their respective vintages, Essi found these two easy to uncover. The room fared pretty well, seeming able to distinguish the Chardonnay dominance, with just a few duped into a guess at Dom Pérignon. After revealing the first two, Essi asked guest and friend Philip Tuck MW, Wine Director at Hatch Mansfield (UK agent for Taittinger), to share his thoughts on the development of Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2006. “It has developed considerably in the last 6 months,” Philip said. “When I last tasted, it was still quite tight… but the great thing about Comtes is that it will keep for much longer than wines with Pinot Noir.”

  Louis Roederer Cristal 2009: most identifiable Blanc

Second Pair

Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle NV | TFB Score: 19.0 | Essi Avellan MW Score: 18.5 | Group Score: 17.8
Loads of peachy character and up-front bright, refreshing acidity. An apple richness and hints of smokey pineapple character on the palate. Good length.

Louis Roederer Cristal 2009 | TFB Score: 17.0 | Essi Avellan MW Score: 19.0 | Group Score: 17.8
Tighter on the nose with lots of apple and an underlying richness. Loads of lychees, impressively fresh acidity, this is pure and precise – probably a younger vintage.

Next out were two very different champagnes. Grand Siècle NV with all the complexity of three different vintages (2002, 1999 and 1997) and the latest Cristal 2009, the youngest champagne in the tasting. Whilst Essi had no issues distinguishing their differing styles, the audience once again thought Dom Pérignon (not Laurent-Perrier) had been served, although many identified Roederer’s Cristal.

Whilst discussing the noticeable youth of Cristal 2009, an audience member asked Essi if this particular prestige cuvée suffers from the commercial pressure to release early (Cristal is typically the first prestige cuvée from each vintage to be released – when Roederer launched Cristal 2009 last year, Krug had only just released their 2002). Whilst Essi noted that ageing is a choice expression of House style, she did share her observation that when Cristal is in a tasting, consumers are often waiting for something big and are generally surprised to find how elegant, pure and precise the Cristal style can be.

     Live-voting system allows audience interaction

Third Pair

Dom Pérignon P2 1995 | TFB Score: 19.0 | Essi Avellan MW Score: 20.0 | Group Score: 18.3
Lots of initial gunflint and pineapple aromas. Hints of lychee, loads of fruit and great acidity. Huge amounts of complexity, a little age starting to show and seems no oak. Likely P2.

Dom Pérignon 2006 | TFB Score: 17.5 | Essi Avellan MW Score: 19.0 | Group Score: 18.0
Loads of fruit, but quite restrained and elegant. Good length and again hints of smokey character. Drinkable and approachable, this is very youthful. DP?

For the third pair, we were served two champagnes from the same house: Dom Pérignon. The first was in a class of its own and for many the star of the evening. Again, full marks for Essi and whilst guesses from the audience were evenly split for the first of the pair, many managed to ascertain Dom Pérignon 2006 as the second. After revealing their identities, Essi shared her love for the former: Dom Pérignon P2 1995. Now eighteen years in the making, Essi scored it an astonishing 20/20, commenting: “With such a huge amount of complexity, this is a perfect showcase of what happens when champagne ages well.”

  Bollinger LGA ’07 served from magnum on arrival

Fourth Pair

Bollinger La Grande Année 2007 | TFB Score: 19.0 | Essi Avellan MW Score: 17.5 | Group Score: 18.0
Lovely toasty nose, significant peach stone and a vanilla toastiness indicative of Krug. Perfectly balanced, this is full-bodied, rich and delicious. (Turned out not to be Krug though!)

Krug Grande Cuvée 163rd Edition NV | TFB Score: 19.0 | Essi Avellan MW Score: 19.0 | Group Score: 17.7
Bundles of fruit and juiciness and a length that goes on and on. Quite dry on the end with marked acidity. Another rich and full-bodied champagne with oodles of class.

Before we knew it, we were down to the last blanc pair. With just two to choose from, you’d be forgiven for thinking determining which was which would be an easy task; however this was not the case. With very similar rich, full-bodied and oaky styles, only twenty crafty audience members managed to spot that Krug was the latter one served. An incredible tasting so far, the aged Dom Pérignon P2 1995 was the winner of the blancs, topping the leaderboard with an average score from the room of 18.3/20. Bring on the rosés…

   Bollinger LGA Rosé 2005: the most identifiable rosé

The Rosés

Fifth Pair

Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Rosé 2006 | TFB Score: 19.5 | Essi Avellan MW Score: 18.5 | Group Score: 17.8
Lovely bright and vibrant hue. Bundles of raspberry and blackcurrant flavour, some oaky character and a hint of tannin after time in the glass. This is showing really well.

Bollinger La Grande Année Rosé 2005 | TFB Score: 19.0 | Essi Avellan MW Score: 17.0 | Group Score: 18.0
Pale salmon colour. Toasty smoke aromas on the nose. A richness characteristic of Pinot Noir from La Côte aux Enfants. Long-lasting warm finish.

The first pink pair were very different styles indeed. Whilst Essi managed to maintain her 100% record, voting here was divided. Just six in the room correctly identified the Taittinger Comtes Rosé, however fifteen exposed Bollinger La Grande Année Rosé – not bad going with eight still to choose from. Taittinger Comes had all the creamy, ripe and phenolic rosé style typical of the Reims-based House, whilst the Bollinger La Grande Année was rich and red, expressing the character of the Pinot Noir from the House’s famed La Côte aux Enfants wine.

   A lesson in sticking with your first instinct from Essi!

Sixth Pair

Dom Ruinart Rosé 2002 | TFB Score: 19.0 | Essi Avellan MW Score: 19.5 | Group Score: 17.7
Loads of up-front smokiness on the nose. Really quite elegant in the mouth, plenty of fruit and a creaminess reminiscent of 2002. Seems quite soft and round.

Dom Pérignon Rosé 2005 | TFB Score: 18.0 | Essi Avellan MW Score: 19.5 | Group Score: 18.3
A meaty nose contrasted by a surprisingly soft palate. This is a bold champagne, rich and persistent. The finish lasts forever and dosage seems spot on.

The next pair bought two of the evening’s best rosés and the first mistake from Essi! Although managing to correctly ascertain the House, Dom Pérignon, she mistakenly changed her initial guess at the second of the pair from Rosé 2005 to P2 Rosé 1995 – an important lesson in sticking with your first instinct! The room equally struggled, with very few estimating correctly. Interestingly, Louis Roederer Cristal Rosé 2009 was the most popular vote for both champagnes of this pair; two of the highest scoring of the evening. This is a great example of the power of Louis Roederer – when many blind taste a great champagne and rate it accordingly, they often assume it to be Cristal.

  Best in the world?… Louis Roederer Cristal Rosé

Seventh Pair

Dom Pérignon P2 Rosé 1995 | TFB Score: 19.5 | Essi Avellan MW Score: 18.0 | Group Score: 18.1
Again, a real meatiness initially. Could this be the same House as previous? Clean, up-front fruit on the palate, this has some age but is tasting very youthful. Wow.

Louis Roederer Cristal Rosé 2009 | TFB Score: 18.0 | Essi Avellan MW Score: 19.0 | Group Score: 17.9
Creamy and fruit-forward on the nose. Although clearly quite young, this has a delightful purity and precision and is tasting fantastic already. Nowhere near its full potential.

The quality just kept getting better and better and in our next pair of champagnes, we had two of the finest. Perhaps flustered by her previous slip-up, the aged character of P2 Rosé led Essi astray to assume it was Krug and the youth of Cristal Rosé (one of her all-time favourites), steered her to a wrong guess at Laurent-Perrier Alexandra Rosé. Still, these two were utterly stunning. Again, Dom Pérignon’s Plénitude 2 showcased champagne’s potential to age magnificently if stored correctly and the purity and elegance of Cristal proved this is a champagne nowhere yet near its full potential. Essi previously told The Finest Bubble whilst visiting Louis Roederer in Reims earlier this year: “I never spit Cristal Rosé.” We do not blame her.

   Good performance from LP’s lesser-know rosé

Eighth Pair

Krug Rosé NV | TFB Score: 20.0 | Essi Avellan MW Score: 19.5 | Group Score: 18.7
Loads of up-front fruit and a toastyness from the oak. Obvious full-bodied and rich Krug style, but surprisingly complex for the rosé. A spicy finish that lasts long. The best example of this champagne we’ve tasted!

Laurent-Perrier Alexandra Rosé 2004 | TFB Score: 17.5 | Essi Avellan MW Score: 19.5 | Group Score: 18.2
Elegant and lovely, although a little tight. A slightly simpler style than other’s tasted tonight, but delicious and approachable nonetheless.

After what seemed like no time at all, we were served our final pair of the evening. With just two champagnes left to nominate, almost all of the audience this time correctly identified the oaky style of the first champagne as that belonging to Krug. Whilst Laurent-Perrier produce the world’s most popular rosé in their non-vintage, their prestige cuvée Alexandra Rosé is much less well-known. And here, although both TFB and Essi preferred the older, full-bodied and oaky Krug Rosé style, the audience rated Laurent-Perrier Alexandra Rosé 2004 higher. Whichever your favourite, they both showed superbly and were a fitting end to an incredible tasting.

Final Results

As always, the audience member who correctly identified the most champagnes was awarded a prize: this time a bottle of Krug Grande Cuvée 163rd Edition NV! Whilst no-one could match the expert palate of Essi – who correctly identified thirteen of the sixteen (especially astonishing when you consider that where she misidentified a champagne, she either got the House or age correct – clearly she’s been sampling too many!) – our next best guest managed an impressive ten out of sixteen. This was a remarkable achievement and the winner really stood out, as the average number of correct guesses was just five (many of these coming with just two or four champagnes to choose from). Congratulations and we hope the winner enjoyed their Krug.

Now onto the champagnes. Before any discussion on “best champagne of the evening”, it is worth taking a moment to highlight the prestige quality of the whole range tasted. Whilst rating and ranking these champagnes is an interesting and enjoyable activity that affords a spirit of competition and allows voters to easily distinguish between their favourites, it should not be forgotten how magnificent they all are. Ranking champagnes of this nature can feel somewhat arbitrary, with most, if not all, deserving scores of 18/20 and above. Preference at this top-end of the market is largely a result of favoured style, rather than one being substantially better than another.

To illustrate this point, the highest average group score (combining Essi, TFB and every guest vote) was 18.7/20 and the lowest 17.3/20 – a range of just 1.4 between them. This is a minuscule difference when you consider sixteen champagnes are spread within that 1.4 differential, serving to highlight just how outstanding these prestige champagnes are.

That said, it is worth noting who the common high performers were. Below, we have provided data showing The Finest Bubble’s, Essi Avellan’s and the group average’s Top 5 champagnes of the evening. The table also shows each group’s average overall score, average score for the blancs and average score for the rosés. (Any readers who were at the tasting should be advised that to address any voting issues on the evening, scores received after the champagnes had been revealed were removed to protect data integrity).

The Finest Bubble Top 5 Essi Avellan MW Top 5 Group Average Top 5
Avg. Overall: 18.6 | Avg. Blanc: 18.4 | Avg. Rosé: 18.8 Avg. Overall: 18.8 | Avg. Blanc: 18.9 | Avg. Rosé: 18.8 Avg. Overall: 17.9 | Avg. Blanc: 17.8 | Avg. Rosé: 18.1
20.0 Krug Rosé NV 20.0 Dom Pérignon P2 1995 18.7 Krug Rosé NV
19.5 Dom Pérignon P2 Rosé 1995 19.5 Dom Pérignon Rosé 2005 18.3 Dom Pérignon Rosé 2005
19.5 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Rosé 2006 19.5 Krug Rosé NV 18.3 Dom Pérignon P2 Rosé 1995
19.0 Dom Pérignon P2 1995 19.5 Dom Ruinart Rosé 2002 18.2 Laurent-Perrier Alexandra Rosé 2004
19.0 Dom Ruinart Rosé 2002 19.5 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2006 18.1 Dom Pérignon P2 1995

Whilst the table shows clearly the difference between personal favoured styles, some champagnes consistently featured at the top; namely Krug Rosé NV, Dom Pérignon P2 1995 and Dom Pérignon Rosé 2005. Whilst Krug aren’t typically lauded for the quality of their rosé, one should never be surprised to see this House at the top of any league table. The first prestige cuvée rosé blend to be re-created every year, it showed particularly well on Wednesday evening, with great complexity combining perfectly with Krug’s identifiable oak character. Further, Dom Pérignon – a house that, in contrast, are very much famous for their vintage rosé – have consistently performed well in our previous tastings. Dom Pérignon Rosé 2005 actually topped our blind tasting of fourteen prestige cuvée rosés earlier this year and Dom Pérignon’s P2 Rosé ranked joint third – although 1996 on that occasion.

   Prestige Cuvée Champagne Blanc vs. Rosé: final results

League tables aside, this tasting most importantly proved what it set out to achieve: prestige cuvée rosés are just as impressive as their blanc equivalents. Interestingly, Essi’s scores were the only to show a preference for the blancs (18.9/20 vs 18.8/20) whereas the group average scores favoured the rosés (18.1/20 vs 17.8/20) – although any differences were minimal, see graph on the left.

Overall, this tasting was another huge success. Tasting champagnes of this quality is an absolute privilege (even for a Champagne retailer!) and sharing it with a mixed room of experts and amateurs offers invaluable insight into both professional opinion and consumer preference. Our thanks again go to Essi Avellan MW, Champagne’s foremost specialist and 67 Pall Mall, London’s finest hosts.

Our next standout Champagne Tasting at 67 Pall Mall will be a comparison of Prestige Cuvée and Vintage Champagnes with Jancis Robinson MW, details can be found here.

Photography by Matt Martin.