By Margaret Elderfield
Ask any chef. The right seasoning is essential to creating a great dish. And according to Dominique Demarville, the cellar master at Veuve Clicquot, winemakers need their own ‘seasoning’ to assemble great wines.
Dominique was in London last week for the launch of Veuve Clicquot’s 2008 Vintage. In between sharing the latest news from Champagne and presenting the wines, he explained his rationale for reintroducing oak into the vintage wine.
For some time, he had been wanting to expand the range of vins clairs going into the vintage – to have more types of “seasoning” to use “like a chef”. When he is making the non-vintage, he can select from a broad array of reserve wines dating back years. Adding small doses of these complex, characterful wines can bring amazing complexity to the final blend. But to produce the vintage, he is limited to the raw materials from that year alone.
Reintroduction of oak
So starting in 2007, they purchased a range of oak foudres, large casks of 55-75hl in size, with capacity for temperature control. The oak is sourced from French forests in the Vosges, Alliers, Fontainebleau and the centre of France.
Being able to chose from tank-fermented and cask-fermented wines has given Dominique a wider palette of flavours and textures to choose from, with greater complexity in the final wine.
Dominique stressed that the use of oak is minimal (only around 5% of the 2008 vintage wine saw any oak, rising to around 12% for 2012), and he will only consider oak fermentation for the grapes “with the biggest shoulders”, i.e. fruit that can take well to oak without being dominated by it. In practice, this includes the very ripest grapes, typically harvested early in the vintage and often from the older vines.
To illustrate his point, he poured us several vins clairs from 2015 – Chardonnay from Cramant, Meunier from Villedommange and Pinot Noir from Bouzy. For each village, we tasted tank- and cask-fermented wines side by side. In each case, the cask-fermented wines had subtle but recognisable touches from the oak – slightly more roundness and breadth in the middle palate, and a bit more aromatic complexity. Dominique also likes the greater fruit length from cask fermentation.
He has no plans to introduce oak for the Grande Dame at the moment. According to Dominique, La Grande Dame is all about the pursuit of freshness and silkiness. He selects grapes with a very different fruit profile than the Vintage. With the Vintage, he is aiming to achieve power and complexity, as well as freshness and silkiness.
Veuve Clicquot 2008 Vintage wines
The 2008 Vintage overall has given wines of crisp acidity with great delicacy of structure. Dominique believes it will be a superb vintage for ageing potential.
Weather-wise, the early season in 2008 was cool and rainy in the spring. From flowering onwards there were good weather conditions, with hot days reaching 24-25C, and cool nights of less than 10C. The harvest at Veuve Clicquot took place from 14th September to 10th October – a very long harvest due to the very favourable weather conditions, so they could pick at the best moment. In bad years they will be forced to pick fairly early to avoid botrytis, but this was not the case in 2008. On average, the grapes came in at 9.8 degrees of potential alcohol, 8.6 total acidity, with pH of 2.96.
Vintage Rose is a very important and growing category for Veuve Clicquot, accounting for 30% of all vintage sales (compared with 8-9% for non-vintage). Dominique even has two full-time winemakers making only red wines. They share a winemaking facility dedicated to reds in the Cote des Bar with Moet.
Veuve Clicquot Vintage 2008 – from bottle
61% Pinot Noir, 34% Chardonnay, 5% Meunier.
Nose: Fresh, with some development. Nutty, biscuity, white peach.
Palate: Lovely texture and mouthfeel. Apple, fruity, yeasty, creamy dairy. Saline minerality. A honeyed quality to the fruit. Complexity and intensity. Drinking well now, sufficiently open. 95 pts.
Veuve Clicquot Vintage 2008 – from magnum
Nose: Very closed in comparison. Apple, lemon, some yeasty notes, but less overt than bottle sample.
Palate: Fruity, some citrus fresh lemon and ripe grapefruit, some more tropical fruit notes, with hint of spice. Seems too young, not open yet. 93 pts.
Veuve Clicquot Vintage Rose 2008 vintage – from bottle
61% Pinot Noir, 34% Chardonnay, 5% Meunier. Contains 14% still red wine from Bouzy.
Medium salmon pink in colour.
Nose is fruity and autolytic, apple and light red fruits, some apricot. Nutty and bready also, opening to dairy.
Palate: Dominant portion of pinot noir immediately evident. Steely base note, cherries, lemon, apricot. Crisp, mineral with some creaminess. Balanced. Gentle bitterness on the back palate, typical of Bouzy reds. One to have with food ideally. 93 pts.
Next Vintages and a Superb Cave Privee
Dominique confirmed that 2012 and 2015 will be the next Veuve Clicquot vintages. He said that although they typically have enough quality grapes to produce more vintage wines, there are no plans to raise the current average of around 3 vintages per decade. This is because they want sufficient quantity of reserve wines to maintain the style of the non-vintage.
To finish, we were treated to a glass of Veuve Clicquot 1989 Cave Privee from jeroboam, disgorged in January 2014. This delicious wine is drinking perfectly now. It was made by former cellar master Pierre Peters, who confided to Dominique that it was a personal favourite.
1989 Veuve Clicquot Cave Privee – from jeroboam
Disgorged January 2014.
Mature honeyed nose, with smoky and coffee notes, bruised apple.
Palate beautifully complex and powerful. Honeyed and silky. Apple peel with tangerine acidity. Finely textured with excellent length of fruit. Lovely bitter twist on the finish. Mature. Autolytic character strong but well integrated. 98 pts.
Thanks to Dominique for sharing so much of his time and his winemaking wisdom. And to all the team at Veuve Clicquot for the delicious Cave Privee and canapes!