Calgary Wine Life: Veuve Clicquot Release Tasting @ Yellow Door Bistro

23 03 2018

By Peter Vetsch and Raymond Lamontagne

Sometimes the best times to celebrate are the times when there is nothing obvious to celebrate.  It’s a dreary weekday in late March in still-snowy Calgary, but Champagne lifts all spirits and makes all occasions special, and this was no exception.  The eponymous yellow door of the Yellow Door Bistro at Hotel Arts perfectly foreshadowed the array of yellow labels awaiting us inside, including the brand new release from Champagne’s powerhouse (and power-house) Veuve Clicquot.  Winemaker Bertrand Varoquier expertly guided us through a series of Veuve releases, not least of which was the winery’s latest concoction, the Extra Brut Extra Old NV, soon to be available on retail shelves across Calgary.

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Veuve Clicquot is one of the oldest houses in Champagne, founded in 1772 by banker Philippe Clicquot-Muiron, who was then proceeded at the winery by his son Francois.  When Francois suddenly died young in 1805, his widow Barbe-Nicole Clicquot-Ponsardin stepped forward to take over the reins and run the business, a daring decision for a 27 year-old woman in early 19th century France.  The young widow (or veuve, in French) persevered, and her strong vision and fierce entrepreneurial spirit took the winery to new heights, leading to some significant innovations in tradition-laden Champagne.  Madame Clicquot was the first to create a rosé Champagne made from 100% wine (previous renditions of pink Champagne were created by mixing white wine with elderberry juice).  She is also credited with creating the riddling process that allows the dead yeast cells from Champagne’s in-bottle secondary fermentation to slip down into the neck of the bottle so that they can be frozen and disgorged, to keep the finished wine from being cloudy; before this, Champagne was served hazy and decanted to let the leesy sludge settle before pouring.  Clicquot-Ponsardin contributed so much to the region over her lifetime that she was nicknamed “La Grande Dame” of Champagne, a name that since 1872 has also been used for the house’s prestige cuvée.  Her impact on the winery was so significant that the entire brand was renamed in her honour.

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Bertrand Varoquier is a native son of Champagne, born in the heart of the region in the town of Reims; as he puts it, “my blood is bubbly”.  For the past six years of his extensive 18-year wine career, he has been at Veuve Clicquot, where he is currently responsible for all red wine vinification.  Due to the house’s production size, and in order to ensure that its winemaking happens as close as possible to the vineyards where the grapes are harvested, the red grapes that go into Veuve’s cuvées (primarily Pinot Noir, which is at the core of Veuve Clicquot’s identity) are processed and vinified in their own standalone facility in Buzy.  Each discrete parcel of each red vineyard is vinified separately, and after alcoholic fermentation is complete and scores of still wines are created (some with very limited colour due to restricted skin contact, some fully red for use in rosé Champagne creation, all produced solely for future blending), the lots are sent to Veuve HQ in Reims for malolactic fermentation and blending.

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Bertrand Varoquier, winemaker at Veuve Clicquot

Unlike almost any other top wine region in the world, which tends to glorify single-vineyard and single-vintage expressions of time and place, Champagne’s focus is on achieving and maintaining each house’s unique signature style with precision and consistency, year in and year out.  The mammoth challenge of this task is almost unquantifiable, but this will give you a sense of it.  In addition to his winemaking duties, Bertrand is on the Veuve Clicquot tasting committee along with Cellar Master Dominique Demarville and others.  Every year, from the start of November until the start of March, the committee tastes 24 different sample lots of still wines PER DAY out of the roughly 1,200 (!!!) already-vinified non-bubbly base wines aging in full stainless steel tanks in Veuve’s cellars in order to determine which wines will be used to populate each of the house’s different Champagne releases.  These base wines are from the present year’s harvest plus nearly twenty prior vintages, and all are ultimately rolled into a multi-vintage, multi-source patchwork tapestry that the Cellar Master weaves into the emblem of Veuve Clicquot, so that the buying public gets the taste experience they expect out of every single Veuve Champagne, regardless of the year in which they buy it.

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The complexity of the undertaking is perhaps revealed best in the house’s most recognizable bottling, the Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label NV, which you have all undoubtedly tasted at some point in your lives, and with which we led off this tasting.  The Yellow Label was pleasantly crisp and primary, with joyously rounded bubbles and bright orchard fruit flavours accompanied by a squirt of fresh lime juice, an elegant aperitif for what was to be an excellent meal.  But behind that introductory experience lay an intricate assembly mission:  Yellow Label is made from only 60% of wine lots from the current year’s harvest, with the remaining 40% (a very high percentage for an entry-level Champagne) comprising a combination of reserve wines from between 9-13 different prior years.  All in all, between 500 and 600 different individually vinified wines from 60 to 80 different parcels from at least a decade’s worth of different vintages goes into each batch of Veuve’s workhorse Champagne.  Read that sentence again.  That is why skillful blending is at the very heart of what is Champagne.

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Veuve Clicquot Extra Brut Extra Old NV

Never have I seen a bottle of wine that uses the word “Extra” twice in its name, let alone when that name is only four words long, but this does so for eminently good reason here.  Veuve Clicquot’s newest release is a fascinating concept, a continuation and elevation of the blending work done for Yellow Label but focused only on the reserve wine (non-current-vintage) portion of Veuve’s base wine stocks.  In order to create this special non-vintage cuvée, the Cellar Master and tasting committee selected six different top-end reserve wine lots from six different years to create the base blend that was then bottled for secondary fermentation:  Pinot Meunier from 2010, Pinot Noir from 2009, Chardonnay from 2008, Pinot Noir from 2006, Pinot Noir from 1996, and Chardonnay from 30 years ago, 1988.  That explains the Extra Old.  After bubble-inducing secondary fermentation was complete, the resulting Champagne was given a scant, nearly imperceptible 3 g/L of dosage before bottling, just enough trace sweetness to avoid any impression of bitterness on the palate.  That explains the Extra Brut.  A smaller amount of sugar was also added before secondary fermentation started to encourage a lower-pressure resulting wine (Champagne’s bubbles come from carbon dioxide released from fermentation in bottle that are trapped in the wine, so the less sugar there is to incite and continue fermentation, the less CO2 is generated and the less bubbly and pressurized the wine is).  This was to enhance creaminess of texture in order to balance the low sweetness and emphasize the reserve character of the wine.

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It worked.  The Extra Brut Extra Old (or Double Extra, as I will call it forevermore) was deeper in colour than the Yellow Label but not by much, still nowhere close to golden.  Although it is based on Pinot Noir, which Bertrand called “the pillar of our house” and which forms the majority partner of all Veuve Champagnes, it comes across as almost classically white on the nose, melding orange zest, grapefruit pith, green tomato, chalk, blackboards, new copper pennies, tangy Wine Gums, dried grass and carrot cake aromas, the last leaving a slight butterscotch candy impression and constituting a welcome reflection of the wisp of sweetness hidden inside the wine.  This was short-lived.  The Extra Brut nature of the Champagne is extra evident as soon as the first drop of it hits the tongue, its torrents of acidity carrying waves of bracing green apple, Key lime juice, lemon  and grapefruit rind, rock salt and quartz rocks, all bitingly achingly dry and blissfully pure and watchmaker precise.  You would only guess that something 30 years old was part of this wine due to its continually unfolding layers of complexity; it was otherwise fresh, powerful, pulsing with energy, tight, linear and just this side of austere.  A gorgeous addition to the Veuve’s family.

92-93 points

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2008 Veuve Clicquot Vintage Blanc

Vintage Champagnes are only made in “unique years”, according to Bertrand, and not every house makes a vintage cuvée based on the same harvest.  For Veuve Clicquot, its devotion to Pinot Noir as its beating heart means both that its vintages are normally declared in the years where its Pinot vineyards show the best and that the resulting vintage Champagnes are heavy in Pinot content.  The 2008 is no exception:  it is 61% Pinot Noir, 34% Chardonnay and 5% Pinot Meunier.  Even though it comes from a single year’s harvest, it does not fully escape the blending ethos of Champagne, as it is a combination of 14 different lots made from only Premier Cru or Grand Cru vineyards.  After 6 years of aging pre-disgorgement and another year maturing in bottle after the lees are discharged, it is significantly pre-aged by general wine standards but still just starting the marvellous development curve of vintage Champagne.

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Despite being 10 years old, the 2008 vintage emerges from the bottle almost lemon-green in colour, without a trace of gold.  It is more intense and open aromatically than its predecessors, a swirling mixture of anise and frozen pear, currant and fresh air, dusted lightly with icing sugar.  The mousse is powerful and consistent, a continual pillar of bubbles running up the centre of the glass and forming the spine of the wine.  Mealier on the palate (the Pinot emerging?), the 2008 is still crisp and manages to exude an exuberant freshness, thanks in large part to a remarkable texture that both bathes the tongue in cleansing bubbles but yet also sticks around with a persistent residual fuzziness after you swallow.  Sandpaper, blood orange, black plums, lemongrass, water chestnut, celery salt, almond, lime and gelatin form a briny, nutty, citric whole that is perfectly balanced and tremendously persistent, the ghosts of the flavours lasting for over a minute on the palate after you swallow.  Roasted cashews and hazelnuts provide a turbulent whisper in the background, and here and there a dollop of nougat hits home.  A towering Champagne.

93-94 points

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Veuve Clicquot Rich

With dessert you get to have some fun.  You know your wine blog has been around the block a bit when this is the SECOND Champagne that you’ve written up that’s intended to be served with ice in the glass.  Veuve Clicquot Rich is a Doux Champagne, sweetened with a hefty 60 g/L of dosage, and was served to us in a large bowl glass containing four giant ice cubes and a swirl of grapefruit rind.  It is an intentional “cocktail Champagne”, produced and destined for mixology purposes and geared in part towards keeping cocktail culture’s hands off of Yellow Label, which is blended and built for enjoyment as its own person.  Pinot Noir (45%) remains the base of the Rich, in line with the Veuve identity, but a whopping 40% Pinot Meunier joins the party to lend fleshiness and joy to the proceedings, with 15% Chardonnay rounding things out.  Bertrand advised that this is aged less on the lees than the Yellow Label, only two and a half years, to avoid any bready autolytic notes and emphasize immediate pleasure.

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It is refreshing to see that a house that has been around for 246 years still hasn’t forgotten how to enjoy itself.  This is exactly that, all canned pear, blood orange, nectarine, quince and melon fruit spiked with ginger ale, its aromas juiced by the grapefruit peel in the glass and its flavours rounded by the panna cotta and pastry creation on our plate.  It is still brisk on the tongue but notably rounder, fuller, and fleshier than anything previous, balanced by a hint of cool green herbaceousness (like nostalgic old grass clippings from a lawnmower bag) but still unabashedly sweet, if not at all syrupy.  Yellow Door Bistro has this on its pool menu, which is where I would want to drink it, every day.  Merci Bertrand, and safe travels.

88-89 points

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