"Probably 99 percent of you have at one time tried Veuve Clicquot’s Yellow Label non-vintage Champagne," said Wine Spectator senior editor Alison Napjus as she kicked off the Friday seminars at the 2017 New York Wine Experience. "Together, Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot account for about two-thirds of the 21 million–bottle market for Champagne in the United States, and on Veuve Clicquot’s side, the vast majority of that volume is Yellow Label."
While that's an enviable position, she said, it also means "other projects may not get the fanfare that they rightfully deserve. In my opinion, this couldn’t be more true for La Grande Dame, which we’re going to explore today." To showcase the prestige cuvée, winemaker Pierre Casenave, who works with chef de caves Dominique Demarville, led a tasting of four bottlings.
La Grande Dame is an homage to Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, who in 1805 took over her late husband’s winery and, through innovation and commitment to quality, turned Veuve Clicquot into one of Champagne’s leading houses. The cuvée debuted in 1972 (with the 1962 vintage), in celebration of the winery’s 200th anniversary, and is made from a blend of grapes from vineyards in eight grand cru villages.
La Grande Dame is "silky, minerally, powerful—but at the same time extremely fresh and elegant," said Casenave, citing the importance of the high percentage of Pinot Noir in the blend. The wine is aged for at least seven years before release.
The tasting began with two 2006s, the Veuve Clicquot Brut Rosé Champagne La Grande Dame (95, $295) and Brut Champagne La Grande Dame (94, $150). "As soon as you put your nose in the glass, you can feel the ripe fruit, because 2006 was a very ripe vintage," Casenave said of the pair. Also prevalent in the two younger wines was a "crispy" minerality from the region's distinct limestone and chalk soils.
Throughout the tasting, Napjus and Casenave discussed the legacy of Madame Clicquot, noting that, under her direction, the winery introduced the first rosé Champagne blended from red and white wine. The 2006 rosé—characterized by red fruit, toasted hazelnut and sweet spice—includes 15 percent of a still red wine from the cru of Bouzy.
"It's a quite powerful Champagne that's going to age beautifully," said Casenave, who suggested food matches such as pheasant, duck confit, tuna sashimi or "even something simple like a nice juicy, greasy burger." For the floral 2006 brut, with notes of toasty brioche, Casenave recommended risotto with truffles.
As the tasting moved to older vintages, the wines grew in complexity. “For me, [aged Champagne] like this is like a type of addiction,” said Casenave.
The elegant Brut Champagne La Grande Dame 1989 (92, $120 on release) showed notes of yellow flowers, aged honey, truffles and nutty brioche, with a minerally finish that Napjus commented had a saline quality.
“I will say something extremely technical,” Casenave deadpanned: “Yummy yummy.”
The oldest wine, the 1979 Brut (96, $NA), was made when the cuvée was only differentiated by distinct, curved bottles, before the label "La Grande Dame" was adopted in 1985. “It's very expressive, very intense. It's something you've got to take your time with," said Casenave, describing a profile of dried fruits, "an oyster shell character," roasted praline, truffle and honey.
When Napjus mentioned that the 1979 wines, not readily available in the market, had been taken out of Veuve Clicquot's cellar especially for the Wine Experience, even Casenave was appreciative. "The last time I tasted this wine was five years ago. So, I'm glad to be here too!"