Saturday, 30 April 2011

Champagne Veuve Clicquot, Reims

While attending a Veuve Clicquot tasting in London in March, I had no idea that a month later I would be touring its vast underground cellars and having a tasting tutorial conducted by the esteemed winemaker himself, Dominique Demarville. Dominique created waves when he became, in 1998, the youngest ever chef de cave in Champagne at the age of 31. He joined Veuve Clicquot in 2006 as Deputy Cellar Master, and in 2009 was promoted to Cellar Master, responsible for the winemaking and blending of all Veuve Clicquot wines. 

Champagne (the very word is protected under European Union regulations) is a mix of three grape varietals; Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. A still wine is made from each of these varietals, which are then blended together and fermented again to produce the distinctively fine sparkle. To start our tasting, Dominique had prepared samples of still base wine from the 2010 vintage. These are not wines which you would normally find on supermarket shelves. They were distinct for their low alcohol and high acidity (though the Chardonnay was most striking in its sharpness). Through tasting the base wines individually, it was possible to understand why it is said that Chardonnay provides freshness, Pinot Noir contributes body and Pinot Meunier gives fruit and aromatics.

The Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut is the bread and butter house blend. Made from a high proportion of Pinot Noir (50% or more depending on the year) and reserve wines, it displayed toasty aromas and a lovely depth of flavour on the palate. Veuve Clicquot also produces a vintage champagne in the finest years, and I was fortunate to be able to sample the 2002. This bottle should come with a warning label to prepare people for the shock of absolute purity and concentration of flavour that will hit them when tasting this wine. Rich and buttery on the palate, with a lip smacking, lasting finish. It is definitely a wine for a very special occasion. Although it is drinking wonderfully now, I recall tasting a 1953 Vintage Veuve Clicquot in London, and it makes me wonder how long these wines can age. Eternally, I suspect.

I was gratified when Dominique brought out the final wine for tasting, the 1998 La Grande Dame. The top line of Veuve Clicquot champagnes, this wine is bottled in magnificient, jet-black glass that hints at the precious liquid within. Over 13 years old, but still young! It has not yet developed the rich, honeyed notes that come with age. The style is different from the Vintage Veuve Clicquot, I would say that the La Grande Dame is more austere and less approachable in youth.  

The story of Veuve Clicquot is long and fascinating, guided by the strong hand of Mme Barbe-Nicole Clicqout Ponsardin, widow of the man who started the company. Her keen eye for business and innovations in the disgorgement process allowed the winery to outpace its competitors and come back from the brink of ruin several times. "Only one quality, the finest", became her motto, and it is clear that the latest generation of winemakers follow that principle with utmost dedication.

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