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 second of a two-part feature)
STTG: Some recent vintages have presented particular climate conditions. Can you talk about this and give us an idea of how you approached the various challenges?
DD: Every vintage is very different one from the other in Champagne. Let’s look at the last three vintages of 2010, 2011 and 2012. 2010 was an exceptional harvest that produced large quantities of grapes. It was also very wet, particularly during the month of August. This significantly diluted the berries, producing very light wines. 2011 was very hot and a fairly precocious vintage. We harvested in August. The resulting wines are rich, often heavy and at times lack elegance. 2012 was perfectly balanced and truly exceptional! Yields were significantly smaller. We harvested 30 to 40 percent less fruit than in the previous vintages but it is a year of immense quality producing wines with power, structure and complexity. So, while I was able to make vintage wines in 2012 including La Grande Dame, we did not do the same for the 2011 or 2010 harvests. Again, it is our reserve program that allows me to make excellent wines in more challenging years like these. The Yellow label produced from 2010 and 2011 fruit are very compelling wines for this reason because we had these reserve wines to work with for blending from harvests like 2009, 2008 and in some cases incorporating reserve wines from the 1980s since we possess wines in this category going back to 1988.
STTG: There seems to be a consensus that the 2012 harvest was exceptional yet certain producers, Krug for example, did not produce vintage wines in 2012. What is your analysis of this vintage?
DD: To declare a vintage is really the individual decision of each winemaker. There is no declaration rule. Every house is free to declare a vintage or not. At Veuve Clicquot, we declared 2012 because the Pinot Noir was exceptional. And, since we only declare a vintage when the Pinot Noir is exceptional it made sense to do so in 2012. I was able to declare this vintage as well because I have sufficient amounts of reserve wines from previous years to guarantee the quality of our Yellow label. So, our decision-making process to declare or not takes into consideration both the outstanding character of the harvest in question as well as the capacity we have in our reserve program to ensure that we have the wine necessary to achieve the demanding quality of Yellow label. In sum, 2012 was a fabulous year and it was incumbent upon us to produce vintage wines so that future generations will be able to experience its exceptional quality.
STTG: Internationally, demand for top champagnes seems to continue to rise. Discussions that would potentially expand the delimited production areas of Champagne have been underway for some time. Do you believe that any new production zones will maintain the same level of terroir integrity as those under vine currently?
DD: If I take the example of the last fifty years, in 1960, planted Champagne acreage stood at 10,000 hectares (20,000 acres). In 1980 this number was 20,000 hectares (42,000 acres) and at the end of the 1990s there were 30,000 hectares (66,000 acres). So, the Champagne region’s production has grown significantly between the 1960s and the year 2000. Yet the wines are as compelling and as expressive as ever, responding to the demanding quality criteria of our customers. I believe that we still have sites in Champagne of outstanding quality that are not yet planted. Additionally, what I think is fantastic with this reassessment of the region is that it is being conducted scientifically, by experts and not because of economic pressures or simply to expand production as some might think. We are going to take our time in Champagne to identify those areas where the vine can not only generate fruit of a quality commensurate with what is in production today but possibly even surpass this.
STTG: At a recent tasting and seminar in San Francisco involving the wines of Veuve Clicquot you were unequivocal in your philosophy regarding the critical importance of the quality of a producer’s entry-level wine. Can you elaborate on this philosophy for our readers and why you consider your iconic non–vintage, Yellow label cuvée to be of such importance?
DD: The image of any house resides in the flavor profile, character and quality of its non-vintage wine. Its consistency from year to year must be beyond reproach. This is all the more true with the Yellow label from Veuve Clicquot where the wine is so easy to recognize both because of its taste and by its packaging. That is why I attach such great importance to this cuvée. For me it is the most difficult wine we produce, demanding several months of tasting and vinification trials with my team. Ultimately, my primary responsibility to our customers is to guarantee the personality and consistency of this wine so that they can purchase it with confidence.
STTG: In conclusion, there are many wonderful, effervescent produced in the world. What, according to you, makes those of Champagne unique?
DD: For me, there are two fundamental elements that make the wines of Champagne unique – deep, chalk soils and a cool climate that is somewhere between semi-continental and oceanic. This combination creates ideal conditions to produce grapes with ample amounts of sugar for body and structure along with the crisp, fresh character needed to create top effervescent wines or, champagnes. These are the qualities of the terroir of Champagne.
I would add a third element, which is that of savoir-faire. Specifically, at a top house like Veuve Clicquot, I am referring to the art of blending which has been transmitted from generation to generation, from winemaker to winemaker. This guarantees that the consistency of the wines that we produce is beyond reproach and of the very highest level of quality. The word blending is symbolic for me in that it truly captures the spirit of Champagne – terroir, plus savoir-faire, equals world-class wines.
Slave to the grape – worse fates there have been!