In March, we met with Veuve Clicquot’s current Chief Winemaker, Gaëlle Goossens, to get an overview of vintage 2017. Goossens, who joined the house from Bollinger in 2016, is a true oenologist. Young and progressive, as she shared her vision of winemaking for the future, her passion for improving the art of champagne production was evident. “We need to bridge the gap between the vineyards and oenology,” she told us. Goossens believes that by focusing on the main material of their trade – wine, oenologists have been overlooking the initial ingredient – grape. “We should focus more on the vineyard… by looking at amino acids and which tastes each specific acid produces,” she added.
This proposed merge of oenology and viticulture is a fascinating perspective. Given the rate at which technology in winemaking is advancing, a future in which taste profiles can be predicted from the biochemical structure of vines – long before the wine itself is produced – is not a wholly unimaginable concept. That said, such technology may not have helped in 2017, where the timing of the harvest caught the region off-guard.
“We are not used to early harvests in Champagne… we don’t know how to deal with the maturity,” Goossens said. The harvest came as a surprise to many last year, with some growers even on holiday in late-August, when picking started. “Everyone was panicking during the harvest,” she said. Unfortunately, due to the wet, hot and humid weather in August, botrytis had spread throughout many vineyards and the effect on the grapes was tangible. “We had to refuse delivery of a lot of grapes,” Goossens told us, reflecting what we’d heard at other houses. As such, sorting of the grapes this year was key. The Veuve Clicquot philosophy? “If you wouldn’t eat the grape, then don’t use it.”
Vins Clairs 2017
Introducing the vins clairs, Goossens summarised 2017 as a “a difficult year, but good for Chardonnay.” The Chardonnay we tasted was from Chouilly, an area fortunately unaffected by rot last year. The wine was clean, fresh and rich and consequently featured heavily in the 2017 Yellow Label NV blend. Both the Pinots we sampled were from the Vallé de la Marne. The Pinot Meunier was from Souilly, a small village to the east of the region that was amongst the least affected last year. However, it was the Pinot Noir that bore the brunt of the weather. The base wine we sampled was from Aÿ, a typically high-quality Grand Cru that succumbed to widespread rot in 2017. “Heavy rain followed by warm sunshine created tropical conditions for 44 hours, which didn’t help,” Goossens said.
|Chardonnay | Chouilly | Grand Cru, Côte des Blancs
Lots of yeasty character, lemon and richness. This has a good mouthfeel.
|Pinot Meunier | Soilly | Autre Cru, Vallée de la Marne
So much ripe apple character and lemon freshness. Good vibrancy, ripe lemon on the palate and rich texture.
|Pinot Noir | Aÿ | Grand Cru, Vallée de la Marne
Challenging year for Aÿ. Lots of fruit and acidity but has that dusty/musty nose showing the rot characteristic.
In some of the worst cases last year, the impact of botrytis on the grapes was visual. However, the most common detection methods are unsurprisingly smell and taste and there are two undesirable qualities in particular that winemakers in Champagne look out for. The first is ACF (Arôme de Champignon Frais), which translates as ‘fresh mushroom aromas’ and is detectable on the nose. The second is GMT (Les Goûts Moisis Terreux), which means ‘earthy, mouldy, flavours’ which are noticeable on the palate as a musty, mildewy taste.
ACF and GMT appear to be on the rise in the region. The percentage of wines that Clicquot are noticing them in has risen from 5% in 2009, to 12% in 2011, to over 30% in 2017. “Some musts [last year] seemed okay initially, but the aromas came back around November/December,” Goossens said. The winemaking team had to taste all of the wines for the Yellow Label NV blend three times – they kept changing their minds about the same wines as they kept evolving.
Before tasting the 2017 Yellow Label NV blend, we sampled a few reserve wines that contributed to it. All Pinot Noirs, the first was from Ambonnay 2015, a vintage of which Goossens is particularly fond – although it seems to be maturing very quickly. The second was from Very 2008, the darling vintage of the century that can do no wrong. The final reserve was a prized blend of wines from the Aube 1996. Despite being two decades old, it was tasting surprisingly fresh still, though very rich and with a remarkable fusion of fresh fruit aromas. This wine contributed to the first Extra Brut Extra Old NV blend and a very small amount features in the new Yellow Label NV.
|Ambonnay 2015 | Grand Cru, Montagne de Reims
Smoky and rich, wow this is lush and very upfront. Goossens suggests “maybe aged too quick though, seems older than it should.”
|Verzy 2008 | Autre Cru, Côte des Blancs
Lots of fruit ripe and spicy apples, some lychee and lemon ripeness.
Very intense and goodness some bright acidity; the abundance of ripe fruit, apple, banana, guarva and pineapple carry the bright acidity, still so fresh.
Difficult though the harvest may have been, Veuve Clicquot’s impressive reserve wine stock means they can not just survive, but even thrive, in the harshest of seasons. Due to the poorer quality and lower yield of the crop this year, the reserve wine content of Yellow Label NV has once again increased, following a trend in recent years. “In 2015, it [the reserve wine] was 40%, in 2016 it was 45% and in 2017 it is 48%,” Goossens told us. The oldest wine in the blend was from 2009 and less than 1% of the wines were aged in barrel. We have to say the final blend is mightily impressive – rich and already quite mature (a consequence of the high percentage of reserve wine), we look forward to tasting it with bubbles in a few years time.
|Veuve Clicquot Brut Yellow Label NV | 2017 Base Year
50% PN, 30% CH, 20% PM | Base Vintage: 2017 | Reserve Wine: 48%
Wow, this has such a richness and freshness with loads of ripe fruit flavour. Quite tropical and floral with great texture.
In summary, 2017 will not be a Veuve Clicquot vintage year. Although they experimented with the idea of making a Blanc de Noirs, Goossens said it was too difficult to find great Pinots. Looking forward to 2018 though, Goossens remains optimistic. “When we have a tough and cold winter, we typically have a good, warm summer,” she said.
To conclude our visit, we tasted some current release finished champagnes: Extra Brut Extra Old NV and La Grande Dame 2006, and an old bottle of Cave Privée 1982. Speaking of EBEO, Goossens informed us that it wasn’t originally intended to be an Extra Brut. However, after tasting the blend, the winemaking team decided it only needed a small dosage – so just 3 g/L was added. This new champagne was a real success story for Clicquot and the next blend will likely be met with similar excitement. We will have to wait some time though – bottled in 2016, the second EBEO will likely not be released until 2019 or 2020.
As we tasted La Grande Dame, Goossens talked of the anticipation and enthusiasm surrounding the future vintages. As we know, the house is due to transition to La Grande Dame 2008 in the coming months. We tasted a trial disgorgment of La Grande Dame 2008 with Chef de Cave Dominique Demarville last year and it had a wonderful purity of fruit and tension on the palate then. However, it is the next vintage that Goossens is really looking forward to. The house are jumping from 2008 to 2012 and Goossens tasted La Grande Dame 2012 just two weeks ago. Her words? “Perhaps even more potential than 2008.”
|Veuve Clicquot Extra Brut Extra Old NV
47% PN, 27% CH, 26% PM | Lees Ageing: 3 Years | Disgorged: June 2016 | Dosage: 3 g/L | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 21 Months
Wow. Packed full of ripe and fresh fruits like apple and pear. This has loads of richness and power and tension. Lovely creaminess and a hint of spice, with honeyed notes on the finish. Such a youthful palate, the finish is dry but fresh and precise. This is very good. 17.5+/20
|Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 2006
53% PN, 47% CH | Lees Ageing: 9 Years | Disgorged: June 2016 | Dosage: 9 g/L | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 21 Months
At first has that array of fruits, ripe apples, pineapple and tropical fruits then you get some layers of buttery-ness and caramel and hint of smokey cashews. Bright and fresh on the palate, with a good texture and mouthfeel . 18/20
|Veuve Clicquot Cave Privée 1982
66% PN, 34% CH | Dosage: 5 g/L
Quite full and vibrant nose, loads of lime character and those mushroom and tertiary notes with nuttiness; although fully mature it is still holding together. 17/20