How they put verve in the Veuve

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

What do you think about when you think about non-vin­tage cham­pagne? “Here’s my glass, fill it up please,” quite pos­si­bly. Not a lot else, very likely though many peo­ple as­sume that non-vin­tage is vastly in­fe­rior to the much-feted vin­tage ver­sion - a sort of soup into which the odds and ends of a cel­lar are poured.

Down­right wrong, as I dis­cover when I meet Do­minique De­mar­ville, the very lovely chef de caves at Veuve Clic­quot. “The first wine we make ev­ery year is our non­vin­tage Yel­low La­bel,” he says. “Be­fore ev­ery­thing, Yel­low La­bel. It has to be right. Then we can make the other wine.”

We are stand­ing in a cel­lar, tast­ing. Yes, I spend a lot of time shiv­er­ing in cel­lars, glass in hand, but this tast­ing is spe­cial be­cause De­mar­ville has in­vited me for a be­hind the scenes look at some of the de­ci­sions that go into the mak­ing of the non-vin­tage cham­pagne that many of us will have in our glasses this Christ­mas.

To that end, we’re tast­ing some of the re­serve wines from which, ev­ery year, he cre­ates Veuve Clic­quot Yel­low La­bel, or Orange Box as I think of it, al­ways build­ing on the wine from one par­tic­u­lar vin­tage as a base. It’s far more com­pli­cated than you might imag­ine.“In th­ese,” he says, wav­ing an arm in the di­rec­tion of the big tanks lined up be­hind us, “We have wine from 17 dif­fer­ent years. 2012 is the youngest; 1988 the old­est.”

Th­ese re­serve wines com­prise the orches­tra that the cel­lar mas­ter of a cham­pagne house must con­duct to cre­ate a blend that is both recog­nis­able and con­sis­tent from year to year, bot­tle to bot­tle. Each vin­tage will give him new tank­fuls of wine: more or less of it, de­pend­ing on the har­vest; warmer, richer and riper or cooler and tauter; more or less fi­nessed; dif­fer­ently shaped and hewn ac­cord­ing to the grow­ing sea­son.

There are three cham­pagne grapes – chardon­nay, pinot noir and pinot me­u­nier. Chardon­nay brings breadth, el­e­gance and creami­ness, and im­me­di­ate im­pact. I think of it as a pale fur stole. Pinot noir tends to be sap­pier, more mas­cu­line, racier, driven – al­though, like an en­er­gysav­ing light-bulb, it lights up more grad­u­ally in your mouth. Pinot me­u­nier is the in­cense and spice.

Then again, the same grape grown in the same vin­tage will be dif­fer­ent ac­cord­ing to the vil­lage in which it’s grown, as is ob­vi­ous when we taste a clutch of pinot noirs from 2012, all vini­fied sep­a­rately so that there are more notes to play with. The one we taste from Aÿ, for ex­am­ple, is com­pletely dif­fer­ent to the fruity Côte des Bar – nar­rower, some­how, with more thrust and power. “And it’s from a grand cru vine­yard,” points out De­mar­ville. “It’s im­por­tant to have Grand Cru wines in a blend, they give more power.”

Yel­low La­bel (the French in­sist on call­ing it yel­low when it is clearly orange, but we will bear with them on that) was cre­ated for the Bri­tish, dryer to suit our taste, and given dif­fer­ent liv­ery to dis­tin­guish it from the one sold in France. To­day it has the same dosage (ef­fec­tively added su­gar) all over the world – “Our clients are trav­el­ling so it’s im­por­tant that the wine they love tastes the same wher­ever they buy it,” says De­mar­ville.

But while con­sis­tency is key there have been some grad­ual changes. Five years ago, for ex­am­ple, De­mar­ville bought some big, old oak foudres – casks – in which to age some of the wines.

“The cur­rent blend of Yel­low La­bel is the first to have any oak-aged wine in it. It’s a tiny amount, just one or two per cent, I don’t want it to taste of oak, it’s the spice.” Oak am­pli­fies the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the wine in ques­tion, giv­ing them more weight when just a small pro­por­tion is used.

Then there’s the ef­fect of age it­self. “When a wine be­comes more ma­ture, af­ter 10 years, we’re in another world,” as De­mar­ville puts it. The old­est wine in the cur­rent Yel­low La­bel blend is from 1993 but we taste a 1990 pinot noir from Aÿ which tastes of melon, and chest­nut honey, and has some­thing like a musty oak smell though it’s never been in­side a bar­rel.

“At this level of age­ing we for­get it’s pinot noir, we for­get it’s Aÿ and th­ese kind of wines are very im­por­tant for Yel­low La­bel even if we only use a small amount – it’s like salt, it’s like pep­per, we might use one or two per cent.”

I fall in love with a pale gold 1996 pinot noir from the Aube re­gion: it reminds me of dried apri­cots, the brown ones, and of smoke and toast, and I can taste it for ages af­ter spit­ting.

“I know I could keep that for another four or five years,” says De­mar­ville. And is he tempted to save his best wines, in case he needs them later? “No. Ev­ery year, I make the best wine with what I have in the cel­lar. Next year a wine might be too old, might fall over.”

And next year, you will have some­thing else? And the year af­ter some­thing else…

“Yes, also for me the years which are in­ter­est­ing for the fu­ture are ’09, ’08, ’04, ’98…”

I like this thought not just for cham­pagne but also for life – give the best you have, some­thing new and good will come along. But for now just drink­ing a glass of fizz may be enough. PS: A neigh­bour has asked me to rec­om­mend a cham­pagne for her Christ­mas party, so here’s a fourth se­lec­tion to go with those on the right: Bre­don Brut Cham­pagne NV, a Christ­mas stal­wart in our house, is £15.99 at Waitrose un­til Dec18.

I know. Krug. But the 25% off when you buy six (mixed) bot­tles deal is a great op­por­tu­nity to try this king of cham­pagnes, blended from about 120 re­serve wines. Ex­cep­tional, mon­u­men­tal and com­plex – but not one for Christ­mas day clam­our. It needs a quiet mo­ment.


A yel­lower shade of orange: Do­minique De­mar­ville, above, seeks uni­for­mity of taste in Veuve Clic­quot Yel­low La­bel, top

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