Veuve Clicquot tasting of 1839 fizz found in Baltic wreck

Champagne experts from around the world gathered last Friday (25 May) for a historical tasting of old vintages at Veuve Clicquot’s Hôtel du Marc headquarters in Reims, the highlight of which was to be a bottle of Veuve Clicquot thought to date from 1839, found on a shipwreck at the bottom of the Baltic in 2010. At the tasting there were eight wines to try starting with the yet unreleased 2008 Yellow Label white and rosé bases, continuing with La Grande Dame Rosé 1988 (magnum); La Grande Dame 1962; Yellow Label 1953 in magnum; Vintage Rosé 1947; Vintage 1904 and finally the wine from the Baltic, Clicquot’s archivists believe dates from 1839.

This bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne had been lying at the bottom of the Baltic Sea in a ship that sunk near the Åland Islands in the first half of the 19th century, over 170 years ago and came from a batch of 145 successfully salvaged champagne bottles, all of which were tasted by expert tasters including wine writer Richard Juhlin, with some 79 being assessed as ‘drinkable’ and re-corked.

Out of the 145 bottles of champagne bought up from the seabed, four are from Heidsieck & Co, 46 are from Veuve Clicquot while the remaining 95 are bottles of Champagne Juglar, a house the name of which disappeared from labels in 1829 when it merged with Champagne Jacquesson. A total of 162 bottles were salvaged in July 2010 of which one was opened and tasted by the divers who found the wreck, four are beer bottles, two were impossible to identify, two were broken, three bottles leaked and five further bottles were left in Åland’s museum.

The remaining 145, the oldest intact champagne bottles ever found under the sea still with their corks in place, were identified and dated thanks to the marks on their corks found during reconditioning, during which process the 79 of them judged as drinkable were given new corks. That the old corks survived intact, until they came into contact with oxygen when bought to the surface, is thought to be partly thanks to the pressure at the depth of 48 metres being very similar to that inside a champagne bottle at around 5 bars.

It’s also partly down to the Baltic Sea’s particular characteristics, namely that it is less salty, relatively calm with dark, cool waters and a constant temperature of around 4-5degC.

The Åland government in whose territorial waters between Finland and Sweden the wreck was discovered plans to auction 11 of the ‘drinkable’ bottles of champagne – one from Heidsieck & Co, four from Veuve Clicquot and six from Juglar — on 8 June 2012 hoping to beat the record set by one of the two bottles they auctioned last year for €30,000. Funds raised by the sale, which will also include 17 prestigious lots donated by Veuve Clicquot –magnums of 1989 Cave Privée Rosé, 1980 Cave Privée and 1990 Cave Privée being the pick of these – will be used for a charitable marine preservation fund set up by the Aland Government.

Speaking at the Clicquot tasting last Friday, Juhlin said the Clicquot wines were generally in better condition than the others, partly because their corks appeared to be higher quality.  He has written a tasting note for the 11 different champagnes being auctioned on 8th June giving the wines marks out of 100 with each scoring between 93, the highest mark for one of the four Clicquot bottles, and 80 the lowest for the single bottle of Heidsieck & Co.

Each of the 11 wines featuring in the auction still had some fizziness left and Juhlin notes each ‘popped’ when they were originally opened and re-corked back in November 2010. At the tasting last Friday the bottle of Veuve Clicquot ‘1939’ again made a gentle popping noise when opened by Clicquot’s Chef de Cave Dominique Demarville, revealing it still had a certain amount of fizz left in the bottle. Anyone expecting it to rival the previous delights of the Clicquot wines from 1988 to 1904 would however probably have been disappointed.

Woody and recognisably sweet but not overly so — during this period in the early nineteenth century champagne had very high dosage levels varying between around 50 to close on 300gms/l, the lower end being five times the average for Brut styles of champagne sold today – the wine had an almost overpoweringly pungent agricultural aroma, a little like an over-ripe soft cheese and this strong smell dominated the taste too.

But then few people who like modern champagne would have enjoyed the heavily doctored,  sweetened wines produced in Champagne in the early nineteenth century in perfect condition. Tastes have changed.  We should be thankful that this historical tasting gave a rare opportunity to try such a wine, a wine that has survived nearly two centuries in the bottle it was made in.

Bolly launches ‘mini magnum’ shaped bottle

Bollinger bottles new (on the right) and old shapes

Bollinger has introduced a new ‘magnum shaped’ bottle for its champagnes based on a bottle dating from 1846 found in the company cellars in Aÿ.

As well as looking more distinctive, the unique shape with a narrower neck, initially to be used for halves, bottles, magnums and jeroboams of Special Cuvée, comes much closer to replicating the ideal ratio of air to liquid found in the traditional magnum, a relationship which affects the rate of oxidation in this format. Experience tells us champagne matures more slowly in a magnum and for some reason always seems to taste better, so it appears that Bollinger is onto a winner here.

“In the new bottle format the speed of ageing will slow,” says Bollinger MD Jérôme Philipon, “keeping the wine fresher for longer. We have been working on the project for four years. The brut rosé will move to the new shape next year and we have bottled the 2008 La Grande Année in it too. The unique bottle shape will also enhance the authenticity of our brand and while it weighs the same we will be able to put 600 as opposed to 500 bottles on a pallet, making it more eco-friendly too.”

Bollinger MD Jérôme Philipon with the new Bollinger bottle at the London Wine Trade Fair launch in May

Ruinart and Clicquot move further on disgorgement dates

Ruinart has in fact already begun putting disgorgement dates on its vintage wines, starting with the 2004*vintage released in 2009, Frédéric Panaiotis confirmed at the recent launch of Dom Ruinart 2002. “I wanted to introduce disgorgement dates at Ruinart when I first came here [from Veuve  Clicquot] five years ago,” he told me, “but only for Dom Ruinart and the vintage wines, it’s too complicated to manage for the non-vintage.

Frederic Panaiotis, Ruinart Chef de Cave
Frederic Panaiotis, Ruinart Chef de Cave at the launch of Dom Ruinart 2002

“We started with the back label of the vintage 2004. We only have two different back labels for vintage and it’s released in two batches so it’s easier to do. Dom Ruinart is released in four batches with 25 different back labels so it’s very difficult to manage but we are going to do it soon, giving the month and year of disgorgement.”

Veuve Clicquot is also moving in this direction and plans to go further, eventually putting the date of disgorgement even on its non-vintage Yellow Label, or at least supplying this information via its website or a QR  code on the bottle. Cyril Brun from the winemaking team at Clicquot says at present they give both the date of disgorgement and the dosage, but only for the Cave Privée range [re-releases of older vintages]. But he confirms: “We are currently working on extending this step by step to the rest of the range.”

These moves from LVMH owned brands follow the decision at Krug to make this detail available for all the wines in their entire range (except Krug Collection) bottled since July 2011 via a unique ID code on the bottles you can look up on the Krug website.

*We don’t officially see Ruinart straight vintage wines in the UK, because the marketing people at Moët Hennessy have decided to concentrate on promoting Ruinart Blanc de Blancs and rosé NV styles that are positioned at a slight price premium to vintage and being cheaper to produce (they are not aged for nearly the same length of time) are more profitable. But you could in fact find them in the UK at Nicolas shops until very recently (priced at £62.99 vs the Rosé and Blanc de Blancs price of £63.50) as the chain made all its champagne purchases in France.

Disgorgement dates: who else will follow?

Is the move to put a date of disgorgement on all quality champagne gathering momentum? Moët has revealed it is going to put disgorgement dates on the 2004 Grand Vintage in white and rosé styles when they are officially launched later this year. Perhaps this is partly to highlight the longer ageing these wines are now getting, and the importance winemaker Benoît Gouez is placing on additional post-disgorgement ageing before release – the white 2004 will get 12 months, we understand, in addition to nearly seven years on its lees. Richard Geoffroy at Dom Pérignon has also been giving longer post-disgorgement ageing to recent releases of DP.

Moët management has always claimed that it would create problems and confuse consumers if they did this with Moët Brut Imperial NV, following the line taken by many other houses, that consumers might think it was a ‘sell by’ or ‘best before’ date. There is no hard evidence that they have changed their minds, but perhaps they have seen that Lanson now puts a date of disgorgement on all its range of champagnes, vintage and non-vintage, and it doesn’t appear to have caused them any such problems.

It can hardly have escaped their notice either that many other small, quality-minded producers are also giving this information now, along with the majority of higher profile growers. Krug too has just started making this detail available for wines bottled since July 2011 via its website, although Olivier Krug doesn’t see it as important. It can’t be long before Veuve Clicquot and Ruinart follow suit, surely? Clicquot already gives this information for its Cave Privée range of vintage re-releases and head winemaker Dominique Demarville is certainly open to the idea. It will be interesting to see what Frédéric Panaiotis, Chef de Cave at Ruinart, has to say on the subject at the release of Dom Ruinart 2002 later this week.

Rising cost of grapes will affect Champagne prices

Although we are currently seeing heavily discounted champagne prices in UK supermarkets in the run-up to Christmas it seems clear that the major brands will all try to raise their selling prices early next year following widespread rises in the cost of grapes from the 2011 harvest. On average grape  prices have risen by at least 3% across the board but there are reports of  larger increases for grand cru grapes.

“We are hoping the increase won’t be higher than 2 to 3%, but this will depend on the Crus involved, says Bruno Paillard, chairman of BCC, Champagne’s  second largest group and owner of Lanson. “Some places in the Aube this year should see their price 5€ per kilo, while some grands crus grapes will cost more than 6€ per kilo.”

Alexandre Penet-Chardonnet, a small producer with vineyards in the Montagne de Reims grands crus of Verzy and Verzenay says the price is “around 5.85€ for grand cru Noir”. At Champagne Mailly, the grand cru co-operative, MD Preau puts the increase in prices for grand cru material at “around 5%”. While a press operator dealing with a number of the major houses based in the grand vallée de la Marne says: “It will be 5.85- 5.9€ per
kilo for basic grapes at my press house which is a 4.5% increase on 2010 prices  and he is seeing prices as high as 6.40€ per kilo for certified grand cru Pinot Noir”.

Veuve Clicquot Cave Privée tasting, February 2010

Originally published in Decanter.com, 11th Feb 2010

This year is the 200th anniversary of vintage Champagne and Madame Clicquot was the first person to produce ‘vintage’ Champagne, using a blend of grapes all from that year’s harvest, back in 1810, according to the Veuve Clicquot archives. To celebrate this landmark Veuve Clicquot new cellar master Dominique Demarville, he succeeded Jacques Peters on his retirement last March (2009), came to London last week to conduct a tutored tasting of the five older vintages – 1990, 1989, 1980, 1978 and 1975 — that Clicquot has just re-released under the name Cave Privée.

Clicquot has only recently sold out of the two previous older vintages it marketed under the ‘Rare’ banner – the white 1988 and the rosé ’85 (both very fine vintages) — but now it is both extending the range of older wines and releasing some of them in different formats, a mix of bottles, magnums and there are even Jeroboams of the 1990.

The rich, full-bodied Clicquot vintage style (white and especially rosé) is very much Pinot Noir based with grapes sourced from grands crus like Verzenay, Aÿ, and Ambonnay. In addition as Demarville confirms, Bouzy’s south-facing slopes, where Clicquot owns 30 hectares and buys in fruit from another 20, is particularly significant for the rosé.

Tasting notes on the nine wines

1990 in bottle, magnum and jeroboam, all disgorged in October 2008

Blend: 56% Pinot Noir, 33% Chardonnay, 11% Pinot Meunier; dosage 4g/l in the bottle and magnum, 3g/l in the jeroboam

A light gold colour (very little difference between the three formats), possibly slightly paler than you might expect from such a ripe vintage famous because all three grape varieties came in the press houses in near perfect condition and while potential average alcohol levels at 11.1deg were the highest since 1962, there was also good balancing acidity at 8gms/l.

As you would expect, the bottle was considerably more developed than the magnum or jeroboam, rich, with ripe quince-like fruit, some toasty notes, a savoury, yeasty mid-palate, plus an exotic ginger spice element. The magnum was considerably fresher but seemed less complex (Demarville noted the magnum we had was a little disappointing if not actually faulty) and needed more time. The jeroboam was glorious, at once spicy and ripe of the nose, noticeably fresh for a 20-year-old wine with lovely palate intensity but well short of its peak in terms of complexity. Demarville suggested it could easily be cellared another ten to 15 years.

1980 in bottle, the original disgorgement in May 1986 and magnum, disgorged in October 2008

Blend: 53% Pinot Noir, 37% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Meunier; dosage 9g/l in the bottle, 5g/l in the magnum

Rich gold in colour, the bottle of 1980 with a full 24 years of post-disgorgement ageing was the star of the show, reaching a glorious peak of complexity, slightly honeyed with very ripe fruity notes, a vanillan crème caramel mouth feel, a very long finish with some coffee/mocha notes but still enlivened buy a streak of fresh acidity.

In magnum, the late-disgorged 1980 vintage is amazingly young and fresh. More restrained and elegant there is nevertheless an underlying richness and intensity with notes of candied fruit and a hint of chocolate on the finish. As Demarville says, it needs more time and he thinks it will get better and better over the next five years.

1989 Rosé in bottle and magnum, both disgorged in October 2008

Blend: 67% Pinot Noir, 33% Chardonnay, 12.8% Bouzy Rouge, dosage 4g/l in both formats

Pale copper in colour, the ’89 rosé in not quite so obviously Burgundian Pinot Noir in style as the previous ’85 release or the two older rosés (’78 and ’75) we also tasted which still have more colour and were made with a higher Bouzy Rouge component. A ripe year (the same potential alcohol as ’76 and only lower than 1990 and 2002 in the past three decades) with lower acidity (7.1g/l on average) ’89 was a vintage which many houses predicted wouldn’t last that long, but this rosé remains remarkably fresh. There are roasted coffee, mocha notes, strawberry fruit on the initial palate then a meaty, savoury mid-palate.

The magnum is even less evolved with notably more freshness and attack, more obvious red berry fruit notes and a touch of spiciness. As Demarville says it still has great further ageing potential, more than a further decade.

1978 Rosé in bottle disgorged in October 2008

Blend: 63% Pinot Noir, 33% Chardonnay, 4% Pinot Meunier, 15% Bouzy Rouge, dosage 4g/l

Light red in colour, like a mature lighter Burgundy with some perfumed sweet cherry notes. Delicious, supple with developed mouth feel, forest floor aromas and a hint of leather, crying out for food, perhaps a chicken dish with truffles, or some feathered game.

1975 Rosé in magnum disgorged in October 2008

Blend: 64% Pinot Noir, 31% Chardonnay, 5% Pinot Meunier, 19% Bouzy Rouge, dosage 4g/l

Less perfumed than the ’78, it shows red berry fruits, a hint of toast and surprisingly crisp acidity with some chewy tannins in the mouth. Meaty and yeasty with a distinct savoury, almost saline finish. Very Burgundian, one taster suggested Côte de Beaune as against the Côte de Nuits style of the ’78. Demarville believes it has the potential to age for at least another ten years.