Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame
Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame
Image: Supplied

SA is now in the top 25 of the world’s champagne-consuming nations, drinking its way through more than 1.4-million bottles a year — a volume slightly greater than the whole of China. Thirty years ago we put away less than 20% of this volume.

Don’t waste your time wondering if there’s a connection between the birth of our democracy and this sales boom. The champagne socialists of the ANC made French fizz the beverage of choice among that class of people for whom “work” means “working the system”.

The champagne producers are perfectly happy with this state of affairs. They ply their trade most successfully wherever there’s easy money and a sense that it won’t be forever. The tsars will tell you that champagne pairs best with life on the edge.

Given the increased importance of the champagne market in SA (our volumes exceed the next three African markets combined), producers are visiting us in ever greater numbers, waving their flags for the category as a whole and for the products they represent. The bigger the brand, the more marketing money reaches our shores, the more the champagne business grows. This may be what is called a virtuous circle.

Champagne comes in several categories: sweet/dry, white/pink, single vintage/nonvintage blends, entry-level wines up to deluxe cuvées. But there is also a hierarchy of producers: small family operations that own a few hectares of vineyards and make their wines only from their own fruit, to cellars that supplement their own harvest with grapes from other growers. There are also several co-ops producing for their members, for their own brands, and for brands belonging to third parties. At the apex of the pyramid are the so-called grandes marques — the world-renowned brands. Most of these great houses are under corporate ownership. A couple are still in private, usually family, hands.

The floor price for champagne is largely determined by the grower organisations, which set a minimum fruit price and a maximum yield. The upper limit is whatever the producer (or the marketing department) regards as appropriate for the image of the brand. However, this comes with a catch: to justify and sustain a seriously premium price, any house, but especially one of the grandes marques, has to deliver palpably better wine.

In SA we have a handful of really credible prestige cuvées whose pricing is driven by a quality that has stood the test of time: Cristal, Dom Perignon, Krug, La Grande Dame, Comtes de Champagne and the Winston Churchill. All have their defining features. Comtes is made entirely from chardonnay, Grande Dame is at least 90% pinot noir.

I chatted recently to Pierre Casenave, a senior winemaker at Veuve Clicquot, who was here to talk about La Grande Dame 2015, the luxury cuvée for which he is responsible and which has just been released after almost a decade in bottle. He’s no stranger to SA, having done some work in and around Stellenbosch in the early 2000s before joining Clicquot in 2008.

In the 60 years of its existence, La Grande Dame has been released only 24 times. Despite the immense buying power of Veuve Clicquot, in most years the house cannot source suitable grapes for it. This makes the focus on pinot noir an added constraint — but one that respects the views of the Widow Clicquot who, more than 200 years ago, remarked, “Our black grapes give the finest white wines.”

The 2015 vintage was hot and dry, saved by August rainfall. Despite conditions that in theory don’t favour finesse in red grapes, the recently released Grande Dame is surprisingly bright, fresh and layered. It evolved slowly in the glass, losing none of its precision or delicacy along the way, and gaining in texture and nuance. 

Further bottle ageing is essential if you want to experience the complexity implicit in the premium pricing. Champagne is not always ready to drink the moment you pop the cork. The great bottles test your ability (or willingness) to defer gratification.

This column originally appeared in Business Day. 

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