Wine Ink column: Veuve Clicquot — making celebratory wine since 1772
Under the influence
Veuve Clicquot, Champagne 2008: At the tasting with Gaelle Goossens, oeneolgist and winemaker for Veuve Clicquot, we were pleased to be poured the inaugural release of chef de caves Dominique Demarville’s first vintage wine. In contrast to the other bottles poured, this wine had a touch of smoke and spice that was a genuine surprise. The wine, while fresh and crisp, was more complex on the palate and had an even bolder texture than the other (2006 vintage and non-vintage brut) wines that were on offer. A joy to taste.
Vintage versus NV
The vast majority of Champagne sold is NV, or non-vintage. This means that it is made from blends of wines that were produced in different years, rather than from a single year’s harvest.
The intent of most non-vintage Champagne is to produce wines that reflect the consistency of a “house style.” The Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label “Brut” NV Champagne, for example, is made in an assertive, well-rounded and opulent style.
Vintage Champagnes are not produced every year, but only in those years where the grapes and harvest are deemed worthy of such effort. A vintage Champagne will reflect both the year of the vintage, as well as a house style.
“It is such a great pleasure to travel and come to meet people who love our wines and to share what we do,” said Gaelle Goossens, oeneolgist and winemaker for Veuve Clicquot, following a sumptuous luncheon in the Element 47 wine room at The Little Nell Hotel in Aspen.
Goossens knows from her travel experiences that wherever, and whenever, she pours her wines — and yes, Champagnes are considered wines — pleasure follows.
Nothing connotes luxury and celebration like a glass of bubbly. For more than two centuries, the Champagne region has been the epicenter of production of the world’s finest sparkling wines.
Right around the time of the birth of America, the great Champagne houses were first setting up shop in a region 90 miles east of Paris. In 1729, Ruinart opened its doors, followed by Moet & Chandon in 1743 and Veuve Clicquot in 1772. Today all three, along with the legendary Dom Perignon, which has history dating to 1668, operate under the LVMH luxury brand corporate label. They represent some of the top-selling Champagnes in the world, with Moet and Clicquot leading the pack.
For a wine to be called Champagne, it must play by very strict rules. First, the grapes must be grown and the wines must be made exclusively in the Champagne region, which has received special designation by the European Union and other sanctioning bodies as the only place on earth that can use the word Champagne on its labels.
You can make a sparkling wine in California or Australia or Argentina using the same grapes and methods as Champagne, and they do, but it cannot be called Champagne.
“It is the chalk in our vineyards that makes the terroir of our region so unique,” said Goossens when asked to explain the secret to this elixir of happiness. “The region is blessed with the chalky soils that were left some 70 million years ago when the Atlantic Ocean receded from the continent. It is this chalk in the soils that gives the wines their crispness and minerality.”
In her job as winemaker, Goossens oversees the production of all the white wines, or chardonnay, that make their way into the Veuve Clicquot bottles.
While seven grapes are permissible in the production of Champagne, just three — pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier — make it into most bottles.
Finally, the wines must be made using the methode champenoise, where they undergo a secondary fermentation in the bottle after they’re produced.
This means that after the wines are blended and bottled, they receive a final shot of yeast and sugars, or a liqueur de tirage, which interacts to produce the carbonation, or bubbles.
The wines are stored and turned, or riddled, before they are opened and disgorged, releasing the final sediments before the wines are corked and sent to market.
A Famed Brand
As a brand, Veuve Clicquot is enjoying a surge in popularity. Much of this can be traced to improvements made over the past decade under the tutelage of the head winemaker and Goossens’ boss, Dominique Demarville. Demarville, who joined Clicquot in 2006 and became chef de caves in 2009, has emphasized more sustainable practices in the vineyards and made subtle, but important, changes to the production process.
“The 2008 vintage (currently available) was the first to be made here by Dominique Demarville,” Goossens said. “It was aged in oak barrels to add some spice notes to the wines.”
This vintage of Veuve was the first to use oak in the Clicqout house since the 1960s, and it is notable for its emphasis on pinot noir as the dominant grape in the blend.
But a significant factor in the success of a Champagne brand, particularly in the American market, has to do with its perception and image. Brands like Dom and Cristal received a boost from being included in rap lyrics. Veuve, on the other hand, benefits from its iconic yellow labels. Of course, this is nothing new, as the first yellow label was introduced in 1877.
Veuve has also taken advantage of positioning itself as a fun brand for those with an active lifestyle. The “Clicquot in the Snow” promotions put the yellow label, yellow directors’ chairs and eye-catching yellow umbrellas on the slopes of many of the world’s most iconic ski resorts.
A logoed yellow yurt in Dear Valley, and the “Oasis” on Aspen Mountain, allow skiers the opportunity to ski in and ski out for a taste of Veuve Clicquot between their runs through the powder.
For Goossens, the joy comes from not just making the famed bubbles, but pouring and talking about the wines she makes, as well.
“It’s all about balance, don’t you think?” she queries with a knowing look.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass, Colo. He can be reached at email@example.com.