A Thrilling Champagne Tasting
Recently I received an invitation from Veuve Clicquot Champagne to ‘a unique wine experience with Yellow Label N.V.’.
I have to admit my reaction was mixed. At first glance this didn’t really excite me, but it was somewhat mysterious – I kept wondering how unique an experience can you get from non vintage Champagne? Being somewhat cynical I presumed they were indulging in some marketing hyperbole.
Luckily curiosity got the better of me and I popped along – I am so glad I did as this was a unique and truly memorable tasting.
Which is remarkable when you consider that there were only six wines to taste and they were all Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut Non Vintage – except they weren’t, not really.
All six were served from magnum and had been disgorged on the same day in February 2010. In addition, in order to really allow the differences to show they had received a low dosage of 4 grams per litre – Yellow Label is normally 9 g/L or so. This lack of sugar could officially make these Champagnes Extra Brut.
What made the tasting so wonderful was that they essentially deconstructed non vintage Champagne. We are always told that the non vintage concept is a way of averaging out the vintages. In order to make great wine in this ungenerous, northerly climate, they keep back wine from the ripe years to blend with the leaner ones. So, the theory goes it is the blend that matters, each marque producing a house style that is reproduced year in year out.
Not on the showing of this tasting they don’t. Actually each release of a non vintage Champagne is based in large part on wines from a single year and they use the reserve wines in a relatively limited way. I tried six different examples of Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut Non Vintage, the wine based on the 2007 vintage, not be released until 2012 and the current offering based on the 2006 vintage.
This was followed by some older wines; the blend based on the 2004 vintage and the one based on the 2001 vintage, before moving onto a pair that were genuinely mature; the Yellow Label Brut Non Vintage based on the 1990 vintage and for a finale the oldest Non Vintage wine they possess, the cuvée based on the 1953 vintage.
They were presented knowledgeably and charmingly by Vueve Clicquot’s urbane Chef de Cave – Dominique Demarville. The tasting really opened my eyes as to what non vintage Champagne is. It isn’t the same all the time, how can it be when it is a blend based mainly on a single vintage release with some other reserve wines in supporting roles. If the winemaker really wanted them to be the same, then surely a solera system would be used – some sparkling wines are made that way for that very reason.
This wonderful tasting really put the differences between the wines into sharp focus, rather than their superficial similarities, just as when you taste vintage Champagne.
Veuv Clicquot Yellow Label Brut Non Vintage based on the 2007 vintage – on the market in 2012
52% Pinot Noir, 19% Pinot Meunier, 29% Chardonnay – 71% from 2007 together with 29% reserve wines from the 2006, 2005, 2004, 2001 & 1990 vintages.
2007 was a very mixed vintage, so it is interesting that they have blended in reserves from some truly great years – and 2001.
The nose is lovely with rich nougat notes.
The palate is soft, round and very forward with touches of honey, ripe peach and apples. This is very attractive, but there is a hardness to the acidity and mousse that will need time to soften. Very attractive, but clearly not ready – 86/100 points.
55% Pinot Noir, 18% Pinot Meunier, 27% Chardonnay – 72% from 2006 together with 28% reserve wines from the 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001 & 2000 vintages.
2006 was a great vintage in terms of quality and quantity and that is reflected in the wine – perhaps the 2001 was there to tame the flamboyance?
The nose was rich and fragrant with hints of nuts, toffee and biscuit.
There was an apricot – acid freshness on the palate, balanced by rich caramel and pastry and a lively mousse that was slightly hard edged at the moment.
There was real weight to this, giving it the feel of a big wine. It still needs time to show of its best, but it is delicious – 89/100 points.
Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut Non Vintage based on the 2004 vintage
52.5% Pinot Noir, 19% Pinot Meunier, 28.5% Chardonnay – 78% from 2004 together with 22% reserve wines from the 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000 & 1999 vintages.
2004 was one of those underrated years that seems to be better and better the further we get from it and for me this was one of the best balanced cuvées.
Interestingly this was the palest of the wines, just gently gold.
Fresh, lively nose, more pastry and brioches, with dried apricot and lemon.
Very lively palate with higher acidity, dried lemon & richer apricot, it seems more steely too. Richer nuts come through on the finish. The mousse was soft and slightly creamy. The finish was very long and lively, it still needs time to show its best, but is really delicious, enjoyable and fine – 91/100 points.
Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut Non Vintage based on the 2001 vintage
55% Pinot Noir, 15.5% Pinot Meunier, 29.5% Chardonnay – 73% from 2001 together with 27% reserve wines from the 2000, 1999, 1998, 1997 & 1996 vintages.
2001 was a real oddity and the only year here that was not a vintage year in its own right, perhaps that is why there is a high percentage of reserve wines in this cuvée? All the reserve wines came from riper years.
Pale gold, beaten copper sort of colour.
More well knit on the nose, fresh, but with depth, ozone, notes of honey and complexity from yeast autolysis and development.
Very round palate, peach, flaky pastry and dried raspberry notes together with butter toffee. Long, elegant and yeasty on the finish, understated and very fresh with an elegance apply character on the finish. This felt like it had really come together very nicely and was greater than the sum of its parts – 91/100 points.
Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut Non Vintage based on the 1990 vintage
57% Pinot Noir, 13% Pinot Meunier, 30% Chardonnay – 72% from 1990 together with 28% reserve wines from the 1989, 1988 & 1987 vintages.
1990, 1989 and 1988 were all great vintages, which really shows in this wines, perhaps the addition of 1987 was useful at the time to play down and balance the richness?
Rich colour, almost amber, pale though.
Nose shows a touch of attractive oxidation with deep toffee & some orange notes – liqueur oranges like on Italian restaurant dessert trollies in the 1970s.
Luscious palate, honey, nuts and orange peel flavours, gorgeous with lovely nervy acidity keeping it all together.
Long with a sort of Glayva liqueur quality to the rich and rounded finish which is balanced by cleansed by cooked apricot acidity. A great wine, full of life character and flavours, I suspect it was wonderful throughout its life, but is now wonderfully mature – 93/100 points.
Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut Non Vintage based on the 1953 vintage
50% Pinot Noir, 17% Pinot Meunier, 33% Chardonnay – 67% from 1953 together with 33% reserve wines from the 1952 & 1951 vintages. This is the oldest Non Vintage wine in their cellars.
I was very excited about tasting this, but not at all sure what to expect – 1953 is a legendary year with 1952 no slouch either, but I can find no information about 1951 which implies that it is not a year that produced vintage Champagne.
Although it was originally released as Yellow Label Non Vintage, they still had stocks of the 1953 vintage label, so used it on this cuvée for a bit of fun.
Deep coppery colour that shows its age.
A fabulously rich nose of hard praline like toffee, notes of treacle, coffee and fig too.
Rich palate, full of toffee characters, poached pear and something truffle like, all balanced by an incredible apricot acidity zing. The mousse was gentle and not very active, tiring perhaps?
I loved the sweet ripeness balanced by rich savoury characters which made it feel very complete and complex. This was a real treat, a joyous drink that was quite stunning and much to my surprise it was absolutely perfect with a grilled scallop! Stunning – 97/100 points.
It was interesting to see that many more different vintages are blended into the modern cuvées, Dominique explained that this was for more complexity. I suspect it also makes the wines softer and drinkable earlier as well. We seem to drink younger Champagne nowadays. Vintage Champagnes are amongst the oldest wines generally available on the high street today, but are babies compared to the mature examples that I see when perusing old wine lists.
This tasting also showed how well even Non Vintage Champagne can age, albeit examples that have been aged on the lees in perfect cellar conditions.
It was a fascinating tasting, that gave me some real insights into Champagne. Chief amongst them was how different these wines were. Seems obvious, right? However, they were all non vintage blends, which were intended on release to be virtually the same year in year out and more reflective of the house style than anything else. Of course they are all different ages, but even taking that into account these wines much more reflected their principal base vintage than I had ever realised. The basic characteristics seemed to be those of the main component, with the addition of the reserve wines either adding fat to the lean years or elegance to the ripe ones. I also got the feeling that the reserve wines were used to balance the acidity much more than I had previously realised, especially in recent times – I had always assumed that the dosage did that job.
This all makes them much more interesting wines than I had ever considered, so I am pleased that I have never been one to dismiss Non Vintage Champagne. It also makes me think that the optimistic American expression of Multiple Vintage – rather than more European and negative Non Vintage – is much more accurate than I had thought and perhaps more precise?
In my opinion this tasting also also shows what a good idea it would be to have the information about the base wines available on the label, together with the disgorging date.
Perhaps it is time to move on from the myth that Non Vintage Champagnes are always uniform and to revel in their differences, just as they do at Jacquesson?
Whatever else this tasting made me think about, the main thought I had as I came out was how good the wines were. They were complex and enjoyable and even though Non Vintage Champagne is usually drunk as soon as it is bought, they do seem to age superbly well.