Last year, you may recall, I blogged about the transition of the chef de cave at Veuve Clicquot, from Jacques Peters to Dominique Demarville.
Earlier this year, I met with another of Veuve Clicquot’s winemaking team, Cyril Brun. A fifth-generation Champenois from a family of growers and coopers, he joined the Champagne house in June 2000.
Brun had organized a tasting for me of the base wines, the fundamental building blocks of Veuve Clicquot's Yellow Label Cuvée.
Most non-vintage Champagnes consist of a base year in the blend, which represents the majority of the cuvée. To that base, reserve wines from previous vintages are added to develop the house style.
In the case of Veuve Clicquot, the Yellow Label is based on Pinot Noir, up to 60 percent. The base year comprises 70 percent of the total blend. The additional 30 percent comes from reserves, generally five to 10 different vintages.
“Let’s say 50 percent of the reserve wines are from the previous three vintages and the rest are older,” explained Brun. For example, to the base of 2007, VC added roughly half reserve wines from 2006, 2005 and 2004. The remainder of the reserve wines came from the 2001 and 1998 vintages.
“It’s interesting how 30 percent reserve wines can change, or correct the deficiency of a vintage like 2004, which had some green, bitter components,” he continued.
Veuve Clicquot keeps inventories from every release, including all the base wines in order to follow the development of the wines. Through vertical tastings of several vintages, the winemaking team at VC is able to go deeper into the making of the Yellow Label.
The goal is to find a comfort zone for the blends from year to year, in order to replicate the house style. The danger is in exceeding the comfort zone, resulting in too much variation and compromising consistency.
The team begins by tasting the base wines of the new vintage and selecting between vintage and non-vintage styles.
“We ask ourselves, is it rich, mouthfilling and powerful, in which case it would be designated as a vintage wine, or lighter and fresher, therefore non-vintage?” said Brun.
For example, VC had the option of making vintage wines from either the 2008 or 2009 vintages. The team waited until the ’09 was blended to compare the quality between the two years. In the end they decided to go with ’08, which had better potential and keep the ’09 for the non-vintage cuvée and reserve wines. “After all, the Yellow Label is our bread and butter,” said Brun.
He had organized a tasting of six base wines: 2007, 2006, 2004, 2001, 1990 and 1953. All were in magnum and all disgorged at the beginning of this year. The dosage was 4 grams per liter, rather than the 10 grams that the Yellow Label receives, to have an acceptable balance across the different years.
Interestingly, the 2007 displayed the deepest color of the three most recent vintages. It was creamy, with hints of nut and mushroom aromas, rich in the mouth, with citrus and honey flavors but, unfortunately, slightly corked.
The 2006 base showed freshness, with ginger, lemon and apple notes and a creamy texture. It was lively, with brightness, finesse and length.
The 2004 base revealed a juniper aroma, along with candied citrus and white flower flavors matched to a vibrant, racy structure.
Floral, apple and yeast aromas highlighted the 2001 base, which balanced richness on the palate with vivacity and ginger and grapefruit notes.
The 1990 base bore a light golden color and a rich, deep nose of toast and honey. Still very fresh, it was powerful with a citrus flavor and bracing acidity. Though complex, it did not have the length of a vintage Champagne from 1990.
The 1953 base (yes, they still have these in the cellar) boasted a rich, toasty bouquet, suggesting vanilla, honey, citrus and spicy oak tones. Ginger, coffee, toffee and mushroom flavors showed complexity and length.
Brun noted that in 1953, Clicquot was in the process of converting from fermenting its wines in wooden casks to cement tanks. The ’53 was half and half, wood and concrete. Most of the reserve wines were stored in wood at that time.
The other major difference was with the malolactic conversion. In 1953, only half the wines went through malo; today, 100 percent of the wines go through malo.
Jordan Horoschak — Houston, TX — March 19, 2010 2:29pm ET
Scott Morris — Chicago — March 19, 2010 4:14pm ET
Bruce Sanderson — New York — March 19, 2010 4:56pm ET
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions