Veuve Clicquot, house of the legendary grand dame of champagne

With its eye-catching and distinctive yellow label, Veuve Clicquot is almost impossible to miss. But the champagne house is so much more than just "that champagne with the yellow bottle".

Founded in 1772 by Philippe Clicquot-Muiron, it is one of the true pioneers of the champagne industry. It is credited as the producer of the first ever vintage champagne back in 1810, and also the first champagne house to produce rose champagne.

"Veuve" means "widow" in French, and refers to the widow of Francois Clicquot (the founder's son), Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, who took over the company in 1805, thus becoming the first woman to lead a champagne house.

She went on to become one of the legends of champagne, not only astute in running a business, but also pioneering several champagne-making techniques that continue to be used even today, including the invention of the riddling table, which enables the winemakers to make a crystal clear wine.

Even today, the champagne house continues to push the boundaries of innovation, while remaining true to their traditions, according to Pierre Casenave, Veuve Clicquot's development, innovation and communication manager, and one of the eight winemakers on the champagne house's tasting committee.

"We try to keep the traditions of the house while being innovative at the same time. It's tough, but we do it because this is what defines Veuve Clicquot," he said.

One of the key elements of Veuve Clicquot's champagnes is the amount of old reserve wines that are used in the blends, Casenave explained.

"We use a large amount of reserve wines even for our non-vintage champagne. For the past 10 years, the Yellow Label has been made with 35 per cent of reserve wines, and that's a huge amount. The average of the big houses only use 30 per cent maximum, 25 per cent are old reserve wines, and that makes us quite unique," he said.

Casenave, who joined Veuve Clicquot in 2008 as a winemaker, was in Kuala Lumpur recently to conduct a tasting at Braserrie Enfin in Oasis Ara Damansara. During the event, members of the media got to try three styles of Veuve Clicquot champagne.

Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label

The Veuve Clicquot flagship expression is also one of the most recognisable champagnes in the world, thanks to its trademark yellow label. A non-vintage Brut Champagne, the Yellow Label is a blend (or assemblage) of some 50 to 60 different crus, with a traditional composition of 50-55 per cent Pinot Noir, 15-20 per cent Pinot Meunier, and 28-33 per cent Chardonnay.

What's unique about the Yellow Label among other non-vintage Brut champagnes is the high proportion of reserve wines used (25-35 per cent, sometimes as high as 40 per cent), some of which have been aged up to nine years.

"There are two things that are quite distinct about this champagne - the nose is very yeasty and bready, like toasted bread. The toastiness comes from the old wine we use," Casenave said.

"Secondly, the texture on the palate - because of the heavy pinot noir influence, it is a very full bodied champagne, but it is refreshed by the acidity of the chardonnay, so it's very well balanced. The Pinot Meunier gives it a bit of roundness as well."

Veuve Clicquot Rose

Veuve Clicquot was one of the first Houses to sell rose champagne back in 1775, and launched this non-vintage version in 2006. It is largely made in the traditional style of the Yellow Label (50-55 per cent Pinot Noir, 15-20 per cent, Pinot Meunier, 28-33 per cent Chardonnay, and a large proportion of reserve wines), but with an additional 12 per cent of still red wine from a number of black grape crus.

The result is a champagne that smells deliciously of freshly picked strawberries, a fruity aroma that continues on to a refreshing and crisp palate, and ends with a slightly sweeter finish than the Yellow Label.

"When making this rose, we look for three things - fruitiness, texture, colour," Casenave explained.

"We need a red wine with a certain concentration, but not too much or it'll kill the freshness of the champagne. Champagne with a lack of freshness is too powerful and doesn't match the champagne style. We're also looking for a wine that can give it a nice pink colour." Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 2004 Vintage

The highlight of the afternoon was undoubtedly the one they call "The Grand Dame", named after the Widow Clicquot herself. All the wines in this particular vintage are from 2004.

"We get the grapes for this champagne from eight different villages: Ay, Bouzy, Ambonnay, Verzy, Verzenay, Avize, Oger and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, all from vineyards owned by Madame Clicquot," said Casenave, adding that it is made up of 61 per cent Pinot Noir and 39 per cent Chardonnay.

According to him, in 2004, the grapes in these villages reached the optimal ripeness, thanks to a spell of exceptional climatic conditions in September that year, producing Pinot Noir wines that are fruit-forward and fleshy; and highly distinctive Chardonnay wines.

"2004 is a great vintage. We got a good quantity of good quality grapes that year. This is a very clean, fresh champagne, with a nice structure, and a lower level of sugar. It tastes very fresh for a 10-year-old champagne. You can feel the tannins, but it is very gentle, no greenness, no aggressiveness," he said.

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