Prestige cuvees are the pinnacle of a Champagne marque’s production – representing the essence of the house and the purest expression of their Chef de Cave’s vision. Only produced on outstanding vintages, grapes are selected from their finest plots with the oldest vines, elaborated with great care, and the cuvees are only released when they are considered to be showing well.
Despite the history and quality of their production, it was only relatively recently, in the early 1960’s, that Veuve Cliquot decided to produce their own prestige cuvee – La Grande Dame. The first bottles weren’t released until 1972 to commemorate the bicentennial of the founding of the house. Pinot Noir from their Grand Cru holdings is dominant in the blend, the wines are aged for seven years on lees, and perhaps due to the natural sweetness of the Pinot Noir fruit tend to show well in their youth. According to cellar master Dominique Demarville “The goal is not necessarily to express the style of Clicquot… but to achieve the most delicate and elegant expression of pinot noir that we can.”
So when I received an invitation from Marina Olsson at Tasting Group Gomseglet Wine & Champagne Connoisseurs to join a vertical of La Grande Dame from the first vintage in 1962 and including some top Veuve Cliquot vintages I accepted right away. I wasn’t the only one, people flew in from all over Europe for what would perhaps be a once in a lifetime opportunity to taste such a comprehensive selection.
Old vintages of any prestige champagne are rare, however some of the bottles proposed for this tasting, like the 1962 and 1966 have never been sold commercially and not even Veuve Clicquot keeps examples of them all in their cellars. A number of the bottles for this tasting had been sourced from the same private cellar, where they have laid undisturbed since their release. It was therefore with huge expectation that I arrived at the Carl Jans Vinklubb in Stockholm. The tasting commenced at one o’clock, giving us ample time to work through 20 vintages.
We warmed up our palates with a glass of NV Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Anniversary Cuvee from magnum, kindly brought by Johan Tidelius. Johan’s knowledge and passion for champagne is well known in wine circles, he is possibly best known for organising the most extensive ever tasting of Salon incorporating 19 vintages ranging from 1959-1999, which took him 12 years to bring together. Consensus within the group was that this particular bottle of Anniversary Cuvee was heavily based on 1960’s vintages and in particular 1969 due to the high acidity and ripeness.
Then with great anticipation in the air we moved on to the main event – 20 wines to be served in five flights. The format of the tasting, so as not to influence our judgement, was semi-blind. We knew which wines would be in each flight, but not exactly what was in each glass. After the wines were poured we were given time to taste, contemplate and write our own notes before joining together as a group to discuss the wines and guess their identities.
Flight one: Veuve Cliquot 1995, 1990, 1988 and 1983
Veuve Cliquot vintages have a reputation for being very well priced considering their quality. The big surprise of this set for me was the 1983 – it was showing incredibly well and for me was the strongest along with the 1995.
- 1988 – 91 pts: Marmalade, roasted nuts, spices and dried figs on the nose. The middle palate was a little lean but elegant showing, marzipan, yellow plums, honey, smoke and a touch of bitterness.
- 1990 – 92 pts: Showed a depth and concentration of aromas, roasted nuts and fruits – figs, prunes and maple syrup. On the palate there was a wonderful structure, minerality and power, subtle aromas of baked apples and spices.
- 1983 – 93 pts: A complex and exuberant nose with multiple layers of aromas: spice, hazelnuts, cigars, lavender, roasted lemon, thyme. Intense and complex in the mouth but fresh and finely balanced with a long finish.
- 1995 – 93-95 pts: This wine showed pure floral aromas and a wonderful freshness. The palate was also fresh, mineral and elegant but with a firm underlying structure and a long slightly tropical finish.
Flight two: La Grande Dame 2004, 1998, 1996, 1995, 1993
Excitement builds as we move in to La Grande Dame vintages.
- 1995 – 92 pts: The nose retained fresh aromas of lemon zest, seaweed and green apple but had started to develop showing some nuts and dried fruit. It was intense but elegant in the mouth, with the same orchard and tropical fruit flavours. Lacking slightly mid-palate.
- 1996 – 94 pts: Lovely fresh floral aromas on the nose. Elegant in the mouth showing depth and concentration, aromatic lime acidity and a long finish.
- 1993 – 91 pts: This showed a more mature nose of toffee apple, tobacco and Madeira cake, but still some freshness. In the mouth I found tobacco and round caramelised flavours, the finish was medium.
- 1998 – 92 pts: I found parallels to Dom Perignon in this wine. The nose had a gun powder minerality, with pencil shavings and green pepper. On the palate it was powerful and round with a long chocolate minty finish.
- 2004 – 90 pts: This was my least favourite of the flight, less characterful than the others. The nose has strong flinty notes, it was fresh and elegant. In the mouth it was a little short and lacking something in the mid-palate.
Flight three: La Grande Dame 1990, 1989, 1988 and 1985
- 1988 – 93 pts: A wonderful developed nose with smoke, spices, pine and beeswax. Round in the mouth showing honey and eucalyptus, but missing mid palate.
- 1989 – 96 pts: An elegant and powerful nose with smoky bacon and eucalyptus. Powerful in the mouth with an intense minerality and a long finish. An outstanding wine, quite Krug-like.
- 1985 – 96 pts: Served from an old bottle, the nose on this wine was smoky and mature. Wonderful carrot cake aromas with walnuts and whipped cream! In the mouth were deep spicy caramelised flavours, stunning but just starting to fade.
- 1990 – 95pts: Fresh and elegant with patisserie aromas. In the mouth it was rich, creamy and round with honey and botrytis notes.
Flight four: La Grande Dame 1979, 1978, 1976, 1975 plus 1976 vintage.
- 1975 – 94 pts: Some really deep aromas on the nose, roast beef with herbs, black olives and leather! In the mouth it was round and honeyed, a little short but pleasant.
- 1979 – 94 pts: A stunning nose with a real freshness. The palate was creamy, round, pure and wonderfully balanced. It has a long finish but possibly coming to the end of its lifespan.
- 1976 – 96 pts: Mature, spicy notes, very smoky, with beeswax, molasses and some oxidation. Stunningly ripe and creamy in the mouth, with high but balanced acidity.
- 1978 – 96 pts: Subtle nose showing depth, focus and precision – not complex but an elegant balance of lemon thyme, flowers and marmalade. Quite high in acidity, intense, mineral, focussed and long. A serious wine.
- 1976 Vintage – 96 pts: What an incredible nose on this vintage – quite Riesling-like with gunpowder, flint and char-grilled green pepper. In the mouth the smoke and minerals continue, joined by roasted caramel notes. A seriously good vintage wine but slightly lacking the finesse of the Grande Dames from the same decade.
Flight five: La Grande Dame 1966, 1962
- 1966 – 95 pts: Age has given this wine deep colour. There are oxidative and earthy notes on the nose: leather, dried apricots, dried thyme and mahogany – still great but getting tired. In the mouth there were nuts and toffee, peaty single malt and salty dark chocolate – stunning
- 1962 – 97 pts: Showed oxidative notes, but more fruit than the ’66. Stunning depth and concentration, layers of tobacco, molasses and candied fruits. Creamy in the mouth with a balanced acidity – complex but still fresh. Apart from the slight oxidised notes this could have had a perfect score.
It had been an incredible afternoon, after the tasting my dear friend Paulius and I took a walk by the water, the flavour of the 1962 still lingering in our mouths, we shared our thoughts on the tasting. We then finished the day with a seafood platter and a cold beer – what wine could possibly match up to what we had drunk earlier?
I can’t thank Marina enough for putting together a memorable afternoon, probably one of the best organised tastings I have attended, and I have attended a fair number. If you have the opportunity to attend one of her events or trips in the future I would highly recommend it. The next is a Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Francaises 1988-2005 in September. And after last year tasting all vintages ever made I can say with confidence this will be special.
While I was in Stockholm I also took the opportunity to visit the Richard Juhlin Champagne Bar. I was greeted by a smiling Richard Bjorntierne holding two glasses for us to try blind. We deduced the first wine – 2005 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne but the recently released NV Jacquesson 733 defeated us. It all goes to show that in the amazing world of champagne there is always more to learn.