The house of Veuve Clicquot has been a driving force in Champagne since its creation in 1772. Its range of exceptional champagnes defines luxury. The intrepid Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, who at just twenty-seven and newly widowed acceded to the head of the house in 1805, at once displayed a vision and spirit of innovation that would turn this brand into an international sensation of extraordinary reach.
I traveled to the historic Champagne capitol of Reims this summer and sat down with the current head of Veuve Clicquot’s winemaking team, Dominique Demarville to ask him a few questions about this iconic producer.
(This is the first of a two-part feature)
SlaveToTheGrape: Veuve Clicquot is one of the most respected Champagne houses in the world. As head winemaker you are instrumental in defining the style of the wines and to a significant degree the identity of the house. How do you view your role?
Dominique Demarville: The head winemaker’s role is one of endurance. Our profession is often compared to that of a distance runner. We’re running a marathon, which means that we must maintain a steady pace throughout. This implies that we produce our Yellow label – the symbol of the house – with purity of style and the consistency one expects. That is why, from year to year, the head winemaker’s role is first and foremost to recreate the same flavor profile, the same mouth feel of the house style represented in our case by our non-vintage flagship – Yellow label. Ours is a profession that is transmitted from generation to generation. I had the great fortune to learn this craft from my predecessor, Jacques Peters. He mentored me, teaching me the essence of the Veuve Clicquot style and infusing me with a passion for the house.
STTG: Can you speak about your oenology training and how you landed at Veuve Clicquot?
DD: In 1985 I helped a friend in the Champagne region with his harvest. After that I began my studies in two phases: the first in Champagne and the second in Burgundy, earning my oenologist’s diploma in Dijon. I returned to the Champagne region in 1991 and worked for three years with various small growers in the town of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. In 1994 I had the good fortune of joining the team of the prestigious Champagne house of Mumm, producer of the famous cuvée, Cordon Rouge. In 2006 I left Mumm for Veuve Clicquot where I worked for three years under the tutelage of Jacques Peters before becoming head winemaker in 2009.
STTG: What are some of the challenges of an operation with this kind of reach?
DD: The number one challenge for me is to work simultaneously with and against nature, particularly with respect to our celebrated Yellow label. In 2012 for example, nature gave us a vintage whose wines are beautifully structured, powerful and very generous in character in contrast to vintages like those of 2010 and 2011. Our challenge is to at once grasp the unique characteristics of a given year’s crop and to understand how to exploit each harvest’s particular gifts so as to successfully craft a consistent, iconic house style with our Yellow label.
At Veuve Clicquot, we are very lucky to have a veritable collection of reserve wines that we hold for many years in tank. These wines allow us to achieve the necessary balance when crafting the blend for our Yellow label cuvée. This is our first task and one that is essential to maintaining the spirit of Veuve Clicquot’s house style.
Additionally, understanding what nature has given us from one year to another is key to creating extraordinary vintage wines like La Grande Dame, where we are tasked with translating the nuances and character of a vintage year’s harvest to our top wine.
STTG: The house of Veuve Clicquot has a very important place in the history of the Champagne region as well as in the production and evolution of its wines. How would you define the spirit and philosophy of the house today?
DD: The spirit and philosophy of Veuve Clicquot today is more than ever true to what Madame Clicquot had envisioned. Madame Clicquot left us with two main criteria with respect to the production and sale of champagne. The first is a singular imperative to create wines of outstanding quality. Mme. Clicquot was extremely focused on the quality of her wines. She was a very innovative actor in the pursuit of this goal.
The second aspect is more whimsical and relates to how the house functions, to how the image of the winery is communicated through our wines. The iconic yellow color that we use is pivotal in this respect given that it is both festive and easy to recognize. It also perpetuates a longstanding house philosophy that consists of projecting a fanciful image of our operations. Without whimsy, we are all diminished.
STTG: Could you compare and contrast for us the different range of wines at Veuve Clicquot?
DD: At Veuve Clicquot there are four different wines. Let me start with our flagship wine, Yellow label. This wine represents the image, style and flavor profile of the house combining signature notes of brioche with a generous fruit profile, texture and concentration on the palate in addition to a bright, fresh character that one experiences through tasting. Next comes the vintage range. These wines are produced only in exceptional years for Pinot Noir since our wines are dominated by this variety across the board. The vintage currently available is 2004. Before this we declared and produced vintage wines in 2002 with the next offering at this tier being that of 2008 to be released in a year or two.
The Veuve Clicquot vintage range represents wines that display manifest richness. The goal is to produce wines of great depth and immense character with a focus on gastronomy. They are intended for and enjoyed at the most acclaimed restaurants in the world. Finally we have La Grande Dame that is for me the absolute statement of the house. It is the embodiment of the fanciful spirit of Veuve Clicquot that we discussed earlier. Here, we are looking for pronounced minerality and intense purity. This wine is made only from Grand Cru vineyards rich in chalk composition exhibiting lofty, ethereal qualities that impart the incredible depth we find in this wine. For me, this the iconic representation of the domain and translates the quintessential essence of what a grand vin (top wine) of Champagne is meant to be. It takes its full expression from the intensity of Pinot Noir that dominates the blend. La Grande Dame is a wine of great pleasure that one can enjoy with close friends or family in moments of high conviviality and intimacy.
All three tiers are also produced as rosés. Rosés are very traditional at Veuve Clicquot. The first rosé champagne was made here in 1775 so you can see that we have been making rosés here for a long time! These wines are made by blending a small percentage of red wine with a white wine bringing the desired color along with a generous fruit character that are a hallmark of the red wines of Champagne.
Finally we produce a sweet wine that I like very much. This wine falls into the demi-sec (or dessert, sic) range and is a very unique blend at Veuve Clicquot that is dominated by Pinot Noir yet with more Pinot Meunier than in the other cuvées. This creates a wine that is has an exotic, fruit forward profile and a rich mouth feel. It has a dosage of 45g per liter (most brut champagnes range from 6 to 12 gpl, sic) that makes for a wine that is very warm and silky with great texture that lends itself beautifully to spicy and sweet dishes alike.
This is an overview of the wines of Veuve Clicquot today that represent the house throughout the world…to be continued
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