How they put verve in the Veuve
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