Today we celebrate one of the most influential people in the history of booze, the woman who turned sparkling Champagne from a novelty into a reliable internationally-renowned product, Veuve Clicquot. And what better way to toast the Grande Dame herself than with the latest vintage of Grande Dame and a chat with cellar master Didier Mariotti.
The key to Champagne’s success has been in creating a reliably delicious product. Even if you know nothing about wine, you can confidently order a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label and you won’t be disappointed. Which is why people who rarely spend more than £6 on a bottle of wine will happily pay five times this on Champagne.
Champagne wasn’t always like this. For most of its history, the region’s best wine would have been still and red, like a sort of underripe version of red Burgundy. Sparkling wines were a novelty. The technique for making bubbles was a hit or miss affair right into the 19th century: one might end up with a few big bubbles described in French as yeux de crapauds or toad’s eyes, no bubbles at all or just a slimy mess. Not very lux.
Enter Madame Barbe-Nicole Clicquot (above): he took over her husband’s family firm, Clicquot-Muiron et Fils, when he died in 1805 of typhoid. This was unusual. At the time in France, there was very little a woman could do without the consent of a husband or a father. And her timing couldn’t be worse with Europe being at war.
Nevertheless, Veuve (meaning widow) Clicquot was a remarkably determined woman. She reorientated the business away from its other concerns, textiles and banking, to focus on wine and sought out new markets for her wines, notably Imperial Russia. When Napoleon went into exile on Elba in 1814, she sent a boat load of Champagne to Russia. It remained the choice of Russian aristocracy until the revolution of 1917.
But where she really innovated was on the technical side of the business. Around 1811 she invented a process to create a clear bright consistently sparkling wine. First remuage where the bottles are turned upside down so that the yeasts congregate around the cork. The spent yeasts are ejected by the pressure of the wine when the cork was removed, this is known as degorgement. The bottle would then be topped up with some sweet wine and brandy and then quickly recorked. This is still the technique used to this day.
The Veuve died in 1866. In her innovations both in production and marketing she transformed Champagne into the wine we know today. She was the first in a series of remarkable women of Champagne like Louise Pommery and Elizabeth Bollinger. In 1975, the company came up with a special wine called La Grande Dame to honour her; it’s made only in the best vintages from grapes grown in the finest vineyards
We were lucky enough to be invited along to the launch of the new vintage of Grande Dame, the 2008, with cellar master Didier Mariotti. He only started in August last year and is acutely aware of the huge responsibility he has taking on one of the greatest names in Champagne. And he’s not even French! He was born in Switzerland with a Corsican father and a Swiss mother. “The house is so strong in terms of name and wine,” he told us. “One day I will add something but not now.” Unlike his previous employer Mumm, where quality had dipped, Veuve Clicquot is like a well-maintained Rolls-Royce. “Biggest surprise was all the reserve wines,” he told us. There were nearly 400 to try, vintages from 1985 to 2018 all stored in stainless steel vineyard by vineyard. “It took me three weeks to taste everything,” he said.
We kicked off with a glass of the famous Yellow Label, introduced in 1876. It was on great form: big, rich and toasty. It’s a blend of the 2014 vintage with reserve wines, some of which have been fermented in oak. The dosage, the topping up after disgorgement (see above), contains 9 grams of sugar. The wine sent to Russia in the Veuve’s day would have been much sweeter, more like a sparkling dessert wine.
The Grande Dame is a very different beast to the Yellow Label. It’s all about elegance rather than overt power. “Grande Dame is complex but shy at the beginning”, Mariotti said. There is no oak-fermented wine, “will not get the same level of detail”, he said. The 2008 vintage is made with 92% Pinot Noir and the rest Chardonnay. It’s a superb wine, that high acidity leading, but with a massive underlying depth. Mariotti sees ‘08 as one of the great vintages, up there with ‘90 and ‘96.
We were then lucky enough to try the ‘04 which showed how the fruit develops with time and then, a real treat, a gorgeous 1990, disgorged in 2003. The fruit had become like cooked apples and there were flavours of cobnuts and custard. The widow herself would surely have been proud.
Here are three wines to toast Veuve Clicquot with:
Nose: Lemon sherbert on the nose with orange peel
Palate: Big, round style with a little sweetness, orange fruit with some marmalade notes.
Finish: Toasty and long. This is a real crowd-pleaser.
Nose: Very much like the NV, citrus led with fresh lemons and Seville orange.
Palate: Lean and lemony, high acidity with yeasty notes underneath.
Finish: Baked brioche notes. Young, but showing really well. Like a baby Grande Dame.
Nose: Floral and lemony with spring hedgerow and sweet pastry notes.
Palate: Very high acidity, lean, chalky and taut, this is razor sharp, then slowly you begin to feel the richness underneath.
Finish: Hazelnuts and Marmite. This promises much for the future.