We all drink wine on many different occasions, but most of us are unanimous that nothing marks a special time like a bottle of bubbly. As you might have seen on my Facebook page (shameless plug, I know), I had the honor and privilege of tagging along with my mentor and friend, Eric, to the Veuve Clicquot tasting at the Four Seasons in Atlanta last week (sorry for the lag in the write up -- I was busy getting my Certified Sommelier distinction!). Champagne
Veuve Clicquot has significance for me and a special place in my heart. It was the first bottle of bubbly that I ever enjoyed and it has marked nearly every major occasion in my life -- graduation from high school, undergrad, and business schools, first jobs, new jobs, and probably the best day of my life yet -- my wedding (yes, we splurged, but we only had 60 people so it was ok!). That yellow label on Veuve Clicquot's non-vintage brut screams joy and happiness to me, as I'm sure it does for many of you. But even without the significance. I have to objectively say that this is a luscious, complex, and perfectly crafted wine.
Although some criticize the House for being a big producer, I eschew that idea. It would be one thing if quality suffered at the hands of production, but I've been drinking this wine for a long while and I can attest that, regardless of volume, it has never wavered in quality or consistency. Wine snobs may say that the wine has become sweeter or that bigger equates to worse quality, but I've got to disagree. Veuve Clicquot doesn't mess around with their quality -- their brand is too significant and historical to do so.
With that said, if you think I'm full of crap I'll drop some history here.
The Clicquot family has been making wine since 1772 when Philippe Clicquot established a business under his surname. Three years later the House shipped the first rosé
Their history really became interesting in 1805, when Philippe's son died and left his 27 year old widow (aka, veuve in French -- now you see where this is going), Barbe Nicole Ponsardin with the estate. She completely rocked and decided to run the business even though it was taboo at the time for women to take the reins. She built the brand, combined her name with that of her deceased husband, and the house became Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin (if you notice on the label, that's the official name of the brand, although we all usually just stick with the first two names).
We should all love La Grand Dame, as she is referred to. We should. She's the reason Champagne is clear and not cloudy, as it had been before she got her hands on the winemaking process in 1816.
You may know this, but here's a refresher on Champagne making. Like regular white wine, Champagne growers pick the grapes, press them, ferment them, and then age them. But most Champagne (except in exceptional years) is a non-vintage blend of up to 60 different lots from different vineyards and years. This ensures consistency in the "house style" and means that a rotten vintage doesn't ever spoil the wine. In assembling the blend (wine dorks -- this is called assemblage), a winemaker can draw on the reserve of good years to gain balance. Hence why my yellow label Veuve Clicquot tastes the same every time. The other way Champagne differs from white wine production -- the bubbles (shocking, I know).
How do they get those fine, little, and ever-effervescent bubbles in the stuff? Well in Champagne, it's from a secondary fermentation inside the bottle, which requires that a mixture of yeast and sugar gets plunked inside a heavy duty bottle with white wine. As the yeast eat the sugar and die, they produce CO2, which is trapped inside the bottle. With time and aging of 18 months for non-vintage wine, eventually the CO2 gas reaches a zen state and becomes one with the wine. Voila! The bubbles are in and you have Champagne (or sparkling wine/cava/cremant -- anything outside of Champagne cannot be called Champagne).
It all sounds great, but there's then the problem of the nasty dead yeast sitting at the bottom of the bottle. Before the lovely Veuve Clicquot, people drank the Champagne with yeast floating in it. The wine was cloudy and had a little graniness to it (ick, in my opinion). The Dame cleverly realized that if you slowly turn the bottles (over months) until they are on their necks, you could get all the yeast to fall into the neck and the closure. The slow movement over time prevents the cork from shooting out (remember, the CO2 puts the bottle under pressure), but accomplishes the goal.
So came her invention of riddling or remuage, where bottles are turned slowly to a vertical position until the yeast is contained in a small cup, which is then either popped out by hand or eased out after being frozen. Few Champagne houses still rotate the bottles manually, opting for machines instead, but it's a great idea, a romantic process and was all the esteemed Veuve Clicquot's idea. Just more ways women have contributed to wine in history!
So onto the tasting and to winemaker Pierre Casenove. Ah Pierre....I love MC Ice, but I'm not dead...he is a cutie! And very intelligent and earnest. You can tell he loves his craft. He is originally from the Basque Country between Spain and France and he told me that he loves Spanish wines. He shared information about each of the wines and tasted some of them with me. I felt so honored (and had to keep myself from swooning a little at this young cutie with the fabulous accent. Sorry to you dudes, but I just had to add this in for my ladies!).
The genius of his palate is reflected in the vintage styles which range in price from $58 - $250 per bottle. Each is unique and wonderful. The tasting was probably my most memorable ever, with each of the wines as beautiful as the last. This is one of my more difficult events to write about. I feel so frustrated that I can't begin to capture the essence of any of these insanely good bottles. I've tried.
2002 Veuve Clicquot Vintage Brut.
Color: A beautiful pale straw, this wine was not foamy at the top but had a continuous stream of bubbles -- all very small, which is a sign of quality.
Smell: The wine smelled yeasty, green apple-y, a tad grapey, and like a bag of almonds.
Taste: Fresh, clean and like a green apple skin, it was so refreshing! The balance of apple and an almond-milk type flavor made it just heavenly. It was a little less bubbly than their standard yellow label wine, but I think this allowed the complex, nutty flavors to shine through. Pierre told me that the wine was 60% Pinot Noir, 7% Pinot Meunier, and 33% Chardonnay (these are the traditional grapes of Champagne). You could cellar this for another 10 years and it would still be delicious!
1998 Veuve Clicuqot La Grande Dame (this is the good stuff, or the Prestige Cuvee -- their flagship wine)
Color: A very platinum blonde wine in appearance, but not in character (no offense, blonde friends!). After 12 years I think the foam had died from the bottle, but the bead continued -- just not as furiously as the younger wine. All mellows with time!
Smell: Almonds, red delicious apple, and a baked bread character were deliciously combined. The wine smelled streamy -- like a waterfall -- and a little chalky, which makes sense, since that's the soil on which it grew. There was also a grapefruit character that was oh-so-refreshing on the nose!
Taste: This wine is about 64% Pinot Noir and 36% Chardonnay. The word that comes to mind when drinking this wine is pure. It was crisp and it tasted just like it smelled. The almond and croissant-like flavors rounded out the wine and made it less sharp than it could have been given it's strong acidity. The contrast between this wine and the 2002 is the clarity of flavor and richness in the blend. The bready, almond characters were more developed and, not to be too weird, but this wine just caressed my mouth. It is simply delicious.
Before we launch into the reviews, a word on rosé Champagne. Normal rosé gets its color when the wine has a brief period of contact with the skins, imparting a touch of pink to the otherwise clear juice. In Champagne, however, a bit of Pinot Noir is put aside and made as a red wine. It's then added to the white wine to impart color (black grapes can be pressed gently so you get juice with no color. So the red is added to a blend that includes colorless Pinot Noir juice too).
2002 Veuve Clicquot Vintage Rosé.
Color: A pale salmon color that was dazzling. A little orange and pink with a lovely and consistent bubble stream. What a pretty wine!
Smell: Floral notes with raspberry and plums funneled into my nose. I couldn't wait to taste it.
Taste: Dried raspberry, black plum, and floral flavors were in great balance with mouthwatering acidity. The wine was a little bready, dry, spritzy, and just made me want to drink more of it. It was lusciously fruity struck a great balance between fruit and acidity. I will drink this everyday when I get a bigger pocketbook.
1998 Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame Rosé
Price: $250 (!)
Color: White at the bottom third of the glass with a orange/salmon color on the top 2/3, the wine was showing a bit of age on the color. There were small, subtle bubbles.
Smell: Incredible! Red berries, a slight orange character, some nuttiness, and barnyard and dried herb scents that you might find in a Pinot Noir from Burgundy. I love this kind of wine. You keep smelling and it keeps giving you new things to think about. Yum!
Taste: The blend is the same as the regular La Grande Dame (2/3 Pinot, 1/3 Chardonnay). Blackberry, dark cherry, and nuts dominated. A slight flavor of vanilla and clove -- I was in complete heaven. This is a wine that could be aged and would just keep getting better. In contrast to the 2002, this wine had stronger acidity, mature vanilla spice and a slight earthy/barnyard quality that made it rich, but still crisp and refreshing. I think it's worth the $250!
1985 Veuve Clicquot Rare Vintage Rosé.
The wine had enormous complexity and it was a joy to taste something that had been given so much time to mature. The blend is 49% Pinot Noir, 14.5% Pinot Meunier, and 36.5% Chardonnay.
Color: This rare wine was amber after 25 years of aging -- kind of onion skin color. The bubbles were few and small, but still provided a constant stream for just a touch of effervescence. Not as pretty as the other rose but really unique looking (not like an ugly girlfriend whom you are trying to compliment, but actually cool looking).
Smell: Have you smelled Sherry before? It has an aged smell to it that prickles your nose, but is really fresh too. This was similar. In this wine there is a combination of sweetness and yeastiness in the backdrop of dried berries and dried flowers. It smelled like an aged Pinot Noir too -- distinctive wet earth and barnyard smells were present. I love wines like this so I was really excited to taste!
Taste: OMG -- I was in heaven with this wine. It lacked the fresh fruit of La Grand Dame and the 2002 vintage wine, but it made up for that in complexity. It was like a combination of sherry, dried berries from Special K cereal with strawberries, and baked bread. I don't think I'll ever forget that experience. A stunning, stunning wine for those who like aged French Pinot (I do!).
Besides the charm of the winemaker, what struck me most about this wonderful tasting was the broad spectrum of flavors offered by each different wine and vintage. All were unbelievable in their own right and stood out from one another, and stretched far from the standard cuvee.
This tasting did nothing but reaffirm my love for Veuve Clicquot. I respect the wines, I revere the Veuve for her contribution to wine, and I will continue to enjoy these wines at many happy occasions in my life to come (especially to commemorate my trip to Champagne...hope Pierre doesn't forget that he invited me to come for a big tasting there : )
Champagne(G-d bless him -- as you'll see below I could drink this all day long!).