With so much history, a little review at the beginning can be forgiven. The classic saga of Perrier-Jouët’s Belle Epoque goes something like this. In 1902, Henri Gallice, then president of the house, had commissioned the Art Deco artist Émile Gallé from Nancy to design a special champagne bottle. It must have been due to his fight against phylloxera, in which he was in the forefront as a co-founder of the Association Viticole Champenoise. But the designs fell into oblivion. It was not until 1964 that the old designs are said to have been rediscovered by cellar master André Baveret. The following year, the design was reproduced by a modern glassmaker.
Then in 1969, 5,000 bottles of a special champagne were to be filled for Duke Ellington’s 70th birthday. So the then commercial director Pierre Ernst decided to use the old design by Gallé. Of the stock that remained after the legendary birthday party at the “Alcazar” in Paris, 500 magnums were reserved for loyal customers. The rest was sold exclusively through Maxim՚s luxury restaurant and the Fauchon delicatessen. In the years that followed, the bottling became such a success that it was the best-selling of all the prestige cuvées that had come onto the market after the Second World War, eclipsing its own top line, “Blason de France”.
An alternative story
There is, of course, an alternative story. This is only known from an advertisement Perrier-Jouët ran in 1977 for the launch of the 1971 Belle Époque. In it, a Pierre Lemonnier tells his own story of the Belle Epoque, as follows: “Ten years ago, when I was walking in the cellars of Perrier-Jouët, I was dazzled by a magnum bottle that had survived two wars. ‘Admit,’ the cellar master said to me, ‘that it would be wonderful if this masterpiece by Gallé could be reproduced and revived nowadays.’ I challenged him immediately: the only question was whether Perrier-Jouet could produce a champagne equal to this magnum. The calm man smiled. Here’s his answer: ‘The Belle Epoque 1971, aged for five years, is remarkable in the bottle, but it reaches its peak in the magnum.'”
Pierre Lemonnier was not just anyone. He was an advertising copywriter who had founded the Impact agency as creative director in 1959 and had risen in a short time to become probably the most influential advertiser in France. For the Canadian Seagram Group, he had worked on the brand image and positioning of the Mumm champagne house, in which the company had held a stake since 1955. After Seagram had also bought Perrier-Jouët in 1959, Lemonnier’s tasks also extended to this Maison. Reading the text of the advertisement, one gets the impression that Lemonnier gave a decisive impulse to the creation of the Belle Epoque.
5-Star Special Reserve, Fleur de Champagne, Belle Epoque
Whatever the details: Beyond all legends, the creation of the Belle Epoque was certainly an important piece in the mosaic of Perrier-Jouët’s new strategic positioning on the champagne market, with the house being supported to no small extent by an external advertising agency.
Interestingly, although the new cuvée bore the name “Belle Epoque”, it was not initially allowed to have this printed on the bottle. In fact, the New York wine merchant Excelsior Wine & Spirits had already used the name in 1968 and had it protected as a trademark the following year. Perrier-Jouët’s Prestige Cuvée was adorned with the Gallé anemone. Otherwise, only 5 stars on the label and a “Special Reserve” on the capsule indicated the rank (like the bottle of 1971 in the ad above). As part of a Mesne assignement, a gradual transfer of rights, bottles distributed outside the USA were finally allowed to bear the name “Belle Epoque” from the 1978 vintage onwards. In the USA, the champagne was labelled “Fleur de Champagne” until the 2000s.
The new vintage
The premiere vintage Belle Epoque 1964 and the latest Cuvée 2014 are separated by exactly half a century. For the anniversary, both the weather and the Maison were in top form. Indeed, after a stormy spring, it had been very hot in June 2014, which is why the flowering already took place on 8 June. August was admittedly cool and rainy, although it became dry and warmer again in September. An “oceanic vintage”, which the Chardonnay loves more than the Pinot Noir because it then keeps its freshness. The harvest started on 8 September and then lasted a total of three weeks.
Cramant for structure, Avize for texture and chalkiness and Chouilly for the iodine element form the backbone of the Belle Epoque.Séverine Frerson
The cellar master at the time, Hervé Deschamps (and not Séverine Frerson, of course, as the Maison’s brochures say, after all she only joined Perrier-Jouët in 2020), blended according to the classic formula for the Belle Epoque: 50 per cent Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs, 45 per cent Pinot Noir from the Montage des Reims (this year from Mailly and Verzy) and 5 per cent Pinot Meunier from Dizy in the Marne Valley.
Deschamps, the predecessor, liked to evoke the “magic triangle” of the very different vineyard sites of the house. Frerson put more emphasis on the Chardonnay when presenting the wine. “Cramant for structure, Avize for texture and chalkiness and Chouilly for the iodine element form the backbone of Belle Epoque.” What is new is the information that the dosage has been produced with the help of a solera from reserve wines from Chouilly since the 2012 vintage. This is supposed to increase the complexity – but also irritates a little with regard to the conception of the Belle Epoque as a vintage champagne.
However. Belle Epoque 2014 is an exceptionally well-made champagne. The much-invoked floral aromatics present themselves very seductively even at this young stage. In addition, there are notes that Frerson rightly names pomelo, ginger and green pepper. The more exciting, but also more austere 2013 should still be stored. The 2014, on the other hand, already delights with a wonderful mouthfeel in which freshness and creaminess balance each other out. Even the dosage of 8 grams does not seem artificial, but like a kick of intense extract sweetness in the finish (94+ points). In the evening, the champagne was pitted against an Asian rice dish with crayfish and XO sauce (dried, partially fermented seafood). It really outdid itself – and showed once again that great sparkling wines should definitely accompany a meal.
Shortly after finishing this article, a bottle of Belle Epoque 2013 from the limited artist’s edition of the Austrian designer duo mischer’traxler reached me. The occasion was the 120th birthday of Émile Gallé’s anemone motif. The champagne triggered a few ahs and ohs here, not least because of the attractive and lovingly designed gift packaging. Moreover, since the 2013 vintage is one of the best in the recent history of Belle Epoque, the current availability is now probably quite low.
© of the photos: Stefan Pegatzky / Time Tunnel Images
© for the advertisement: Impact / Perrier-Jouët