Hugh Jones marvels at the magical taste of Perrier-Jouët’s Belle Epoque, a favourite champagne of Oscar Wilde and Coco Chanel
It was 2007: I was 23, broke, going through a divorce and had been working in wine retail for three days. I had a third date with a girl I had high hopes for and was cooking her dinner the following night. I knew Champagne would be a good start to the evening, so asked my boss for advice on what to get; without hesitation he walked to the Champagne selection and picked up a bottle of Belle Epoque. Then he told me the price and I opted for a £7.99 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc instead. As it turned out, the date didn’t go so well, and I can’t help wondering if things would have been different had I taken his advice.
On 20 March this year I was lucky enough to be at the launch of the 2007 Belle Epoque at The Ritz with Hervé Deschamps, the Chef de Cave at Perrier-Jouët. Hervé is the seventh person to hold this position in 204 years, and approaches the creation of each cuvée like an artist, guided by expertise and intuition. Just as 2007 had been a tumultuous year in my personal life, it was a difficult vintage in Champagne with a huge amount of variation from one vineyard to another. Fortunately, Hervé’s skill came to the fore and a wonderful, diamond cut expression of Belle Epoque was created. Worldwide Head of Wine at Sotheby’s Serena Sutcliffe MW summed it up best: “This is a gem of a Belle Epoque, with its gentle mousse and lovely aromas of fresh mint tisane and lemon balm. A magic combination of vinosity and vivacious brightness, with great elegance and harmony, plus underlying structure. A taste of almond paste on the finish. Just a superb Champagne.”
The Belle Epoque era was typified by a carefree decadence that Oscar Wilde captured in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Champagne was synonymous with the time and Perrier-Jouët was a favourite of Wilde, who actually ordered a case of the legendary 1874 vintage from his prison cell. Coco Chanel (it is still served at all Chanel events) was another fan and was famously quoted as saying, “I only drink Champagne on two occasions, when I am in love and when I am not.” Years later Princess Grace of Monaco fell in love with Belle Epoque and it would be served at the Monte Carlo Rose Ball.
In 1902 Emile Gallé, a leading light of the then controversial art-nouveau movement, was commissioned to create a work of art to grace the bottles of Perrier-Jouët. He came up with the iconic Japanese Anemone design that Belle Epoque is famous for, but sadly his original works became forgotten in the cellars and concealed from view by a thick layer of dust. They were re-discovered in 1964 and the design adorned a new luxury cuvée created from this outstanding vintage in homage to Gallé. Only 500 magnums of the first Belle Epoque were made and it was premiered at Duke Ellington’s 70th birthday at Alcazar, Paris. Since then, the cuvée has only been made in exceptional years, with grand cru Chardonnay at its heart, providing the trademark elegant richness.
If you want to channel your inner artist or re-live a bygone era of decadence then The Ritz London hotel offers Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut by the glass and also stocks the full Belle Epoque range. Duke’s Hotel has a dedicated Perrier-Jouët lounge and Rosewood London has the Grand Brut and Belle Epoque both available by the glass. Alternatively, buy some Belle Epoque for yourself at home and ponder the words of Baudelaire, written while sipping a glass of Perrier-Jouët: “Here all is but order and beauty, quiet luxury and sensual delight.”
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