Lauraine Jacobs

Food Writer and Author of Delicious Books

Wines to drink

9 June 2010


There’s no doubt that Champagne is the glamour puss of the wine world. It’s sassy, it’s always in fashion, it’s the celebratory drink every thinking wine drinker turns to, and the mere mention of Champagne evokes memorable moments of lives lived luxuriously. I love it.

Last week, I had the opportunity to share a most extraordinary tasting of Champagne. François Hautekeur (pictured above opening the mystery wine), the oenologist at Veuve Clicquot, was in Auckland and opened six magnums of Veuve Clicquot NV over a lunch for six wine writers at O’Connell St Bistro.

For those readers who are not sure, NV stands for non-vintage. Almost all wines record the year the wine was grown, picked and processed on their labels and that becomes the vintage of that wine. Champagne makers, under a fairly strict set of rules, can declare very a good growing season as one for vintage champagnes, and all the wine in those labelled bottles will be from grapes grown that particular year. These wines command a much higher price than the non- vintage house Champagne and are regarded as truly prestigious. Vintage Champagnes also display unique characteristics as they are a very real expression of the climate and conditions of that season.

It’s non-vintage (NV) Champagne, however, that forms the real backbone of any Champagne house, and it’s NV that most of us drink when we want a little uplift in our lives. As François Hautekeur explained, every bottle of Veuve Clicquot NV tastes exactly the same, regardless of which year it was made. Consumers can rely on this, and don’t need to worry as the clever wine making team conscientiously blend wines to ensure that Champagne NV offers a reliably consistent taste. Veuve Clicquot is proud of their vast cellar of more than 400 reserve wines which they can draw on to blend with the base Champagne each year to create the NV that pleases my palate.

Apparently there’s a code that allows the Veuve Clicquot team to identify which year the wine was actually bottled, and we were lucky enough to indulge in what was called an assemblage tasting. We worked our way (and yes, this was work!) through six glasses; from 2007, 2006, 2004, 2001, 1990 and a mystery vintage. Richard Yeomans, the NZ manager of Moet Hennessy wines, said in his nine years with the company he’d never had such a tasting opportunity before, which illustrates how privileged we were, the six writers present.

There’s no doubt that Veuve Clicquot NV has its very own unique and distinct taste and structure, regardless of when it is made. It’s a complex Champagne, with delicate flavours, beautiful perfume, lots of very fresh fruit notes underlying the bright effervescent mouth feel and a lingering finish that stays with you for ages after the last drop has slipped down. Even more impressive was the way that the wines had held on to these characteristics. I expected ‘07 and ‘06 would still be fresh and lively and they were. ‘04 was really superb, apparently from a very good growing year and the oenologist and wine making team had not had to add too much reserve wine to make this blend. ‘01, nearly ten years old, had lost some of the fruitiness, but was a really lovely wine still displaying loads of Veuve Clicquot style. Then came the 1990; a toasty wine that was crispy, sweet, quite weighty and had that distinct quince flavour that older wines develop. I was amazed to see that the bubbles were just as lively as the recently made Champagnes of ’07 and ‘06.

The mystery year? Aha! When this Champagne was poured it had a very different colour and aroma from the previous NV assemblages. It reminded me of a beautiful Cognac. It was sweet, with yeasty flavours that were like very slightly burned buttery toast and yet it was lively and magnificent. François invited us to guess just what year this wine had been blended. Even with two MWs (Masters of Wine) present no-one came within eighteen years of the correct date. It was revealed to be assembled from 1953. Fifty seven years old! I looked around the room and realised that even the oldest in our group would have been in the junior section of primary school then, so it was no wonder that the experienced team putting together this Veuve Clicquot NV far outweighed any experience and age we had.

This stunning tasting was followed by lunch, and on the cold wintery day O’Connell St’s hearty fried crumbed anchovies to start were the perfect match for the amazing wine that despite it’s non-vintage status, was still lively and luscious. It certainly proved to me that non-vintage Champagne does not need to be consumed quickly. In fact I will be hiding a case or two of Veuve Clicquot NV in the basement and hoping to drink it in years to come. But I doubt that I will still be around to repeat such a tasting in 57 years’ time.

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