Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label represents one of the most recognizable Champagnes in the world: not exactly a Wayward Wine.
Veuve Clicquot pushes 10 million cases, 90 billion milliliters, or 760 million flutes a year. Its critics rightly wonder how such mass-production merits sweater-vested pretense or an average bottle cost of $53.
But Veuve has always been this. Even back in its early days of Napoleonic France, the widow (veuve) went after Europe’s trend-setters: the elite royalty of Russia, France, Germany, and the like. Proof recently emerged in the form of shipwrecked bottles from the 1820s, trapped en-route to Czar Nicolas I (one bottle just auctioned for $43,900).
In addition to arbitrating taste, Barbe Nicole Ponsardin industrialized the dangerous production of bubbly. We can thank her money for the riddling rack and other funding innovations that made champagne Champagne.
Out of spite, I have never (knowingly) drunk it.
But then I get invited to lunch with Veuve Clicquot’s winemaker, Pierre Casenave. A magnum of 1953 would open, along a vertical comparison of other years. Arm twisted. Yes please. Thank you very much.
I climb to a secluded, dimly lit dining room. Stacked, orange light-boxes unknowingly glow of Halloween.
The 2012 release primes my glass with mild strawberry fruit, bitter pith, cream puff, and a fullsome, off-dry, please-all palate. Of course people like it.
Trim, short Pierre, in his gray suit, pops up from his chair and all too casually walks through an introduction. He knows he is better than us but too polite to rub it in.
Soon the 2008, 2007, and 2004 spiral into my flutes.
Now, Yellow Label is not vintage Champagne. Each year’s release blends around 65% of three-year old vintage champagne, with 35% from any dang year they choose. So this is not technically a vertical tasting. Still…
Yellow Label 2008 (aka mostly 2005): It looks like young Champagne with a innocuous lemon-lime color and aggressive fizz. Aromas and flavors are tightly bound up with acidity. They hint at granny smith apple, slight smoke, and chalky mineral. Very good (4 of 5).
The 2007 (i.e. 2004) is bigger, bolder, yet softer and rounder than the 2008. It tastes of smoke, brioche, even coffee and toffee, with a core of raspberry and golden apple. Fine chalk powder dusts its texture. The clear, pale lemon color hardly equates to its taste. Very good (4 of 5)
Deeper now, the 2004 (mostly 2001) tastes and smells limp by contrast. It is uncomfortably off dry. Sure I’ve tucked into the Foie Gras Rice Croquettes laced with apricot jam by now. But the 2004 can’t hold up to its kin. Sorry: Good (3 of 5).
The 2001 (1998) shows off louder. The strong aromas of Lemonhead candy, cream, baguette, even cedar impress a bit but overeach. It tastes dual, with ripe lemon and toast spices battling for balance: much like my first dorm-mate. Still it’s very good (4 of 5).
The 1990 (1987) comes next. I start running out of childhood memories. The color is still pale lemon. The quarter century hardly shows visually. Aromatic white fig, strawberry, cream, and angle food cake tell me to drink it.
Again, grams of sugar are noticeable. But medium plus acid sharpens the knife. Yet the body is soft and fleshy, slack in nerve. Flavors of golden apple again, strawberry pith, cream, and flowers lead with a slight saline seriousness. This is fruity with more pinot noir than usual. The length is long. The quality is unquestionably very good (4 of 5).
Then a bigger Burgundy glass arrives. The waitress weaves between tables, magnum in arms. Pierre bounces on his toes with pride.
While everyone oos and aws and slurps it down. I can only stare at it.
What does that even mean?
The vines were hibernating, while I Love Lucy gave birth and We Like Ike succeeded Truman.
Its buds first burst when DNA was discovered and Stalin died.
Flowering followed the first James Bond Novel and the first mounting of Everest.
Its grapes saw sun just as the first Chevy Corvette rolled.
Harvest began when JFK married Jackie.
By the time it was bottled, Playboy’s first issue went to print, and the first color tv sold for $1,175.
The Vintage 1953 Brut was one of a stack of 503 bottles forgotten in Veuve’s chalk caves. Only 250 are left. Pierre tastes it, grins, and claims that it tastes fresher and purer than one he opened last week.
En garde monsieur!
I reset my head to the present and test it.
It looks clear and bright with a medium intensity golden hue. The minute fizz casually caresses but dissipates.
With time aromas of white fig, white honey develop into a clarion call. Behind them, murmurs of a damp clay cave with slight truffle remind of time’s passage.
It tastes off dry. Acidity shocks me with its nervy youth, still holding at medium plus intensity. The body is medium.
Next, flavors bound about with fig, almond cream, ripe juicy apricot, lemon juice, even woody vanilla bean husk. It lasts forever, turning towards white smoke and chalk by the time it goes.
Veuve’s 1953 has to rank at outstanding (5 of 5). Not because it is old. Not because it is rare. Not because it is Veuve. But because it is sharp yet complex, bright yet balanced, and endlessly glamorous and pleasing. Sixty years on and life still packs into its edges.
I may never watch polo. I may never buy Veuve. But they have made some amazing wines. Maybe they just need half a century. Maybe that’s the difference between Yellow Label and Vintage Brut.
- Girls Go Grape On Tour – Veuve Clicquot ‘La Grande Dame’ (girlsgogrape.com)
- Naturally Veuve Clicquot (cantcooksowhat.com)
- Veuve Clicquot (fashionmayann.wordpress.com)
- Women in wine|the 19th century (wineaswas.com)
- Veuve Clicquot And Ferrari Announce Partnership (extravaganzi.com)
- Gallery: Clicquot Gold Cup Polo in Midhurst, Sussex (metro.co.uk)