Saturday, August 4, 2012

Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin's La Grande Dame (1998)

Veuve. Cliquot. Ponsardin.  Three words with a lot of history behind them.  The Champagne house was founded in 1772 by Philippe Cliquot-Muiron in Reims, France.  The Champagne house passed on to Philippe's son, Francois Cliquot.   François married Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin in 1798.  After François passed away in 1805, the Veuve Cliquot company -- which was involved in banking, wool trading and, of course, Champagne -- was in the hands of Madame Cliquot Ponsardin, a "veuve" or "widow" in French.  Hence, Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin.

After taking control of the company, Madame Cliquot Ponsardin focused on winning over the nobility, sending much of the Champagne to royal courts throughout Europe, as far away as Russia.  (Over one quarter of the Champagne production in 1805, the year during which Madame Cliquot Ponsardin took over the house, was sent to Russia.)  The Champagne won the favor of the royal houses, helping to boost the image of Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin as one of the premier Champagnes in the world.  Such royal approval continues today, with Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin holding a royal warrant of Queen Elizabeth II in Great Britain. (For those -- like me -- who may not know what is a royal warrant, it is simply a designation that allows companies to advertise they supply goods or services to a royal family.)

Madame Cliquot Ponsardin
Madame Cliquot Ponsardin also made several important contributions to the Champagne making process.  Working with the cellar master, Antoine de Müller, Madame Cliquot Ponsardin invented the riddling rack in 1816.  The rack allows Champagne bottles to be stored upside down (or sur point).  This allows the dead yeast to gather near the cork.  The yeast are then frozen and the plug is removed, which is the process known as dégorgement.  A small amount of wine is added, the wine is re-corked and then aged.  This rack allowed for the transformation of Champagne.  Prior to the invention of riddling and the riddling rack, Champagne was a sweeter wine, with large bubbles and sediment in the bottle.  Based upon her accomplishments and the success of the Champagne house, Madame Cliquot Ponsardin was often referred to as "La Grande Dame" by her peers.

Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin memorialized that title in 1969, when it produced the first La Grande Dame to honor Nicole-Barbe Cliquot Ponsardin.  The 1998 vintage of the wine is made with 64% Pinot Noir (Ay, Verzenay, Verzy, Ambonnay and Bouzy) and 36% Chardonnay (Avize, Oger, Mesnil-sur-Oger). The grapes come from Lot 510 2572, and désgorgement took place between December 2006 and January 2007.

The reviews of La Grande Dame set the bar very high.  For example, Robert Parker's Wine Advocate describes the Champagne as follows: "The 1998 La Grande Dame reveals notable clarity and precision. This focused, poised wine emerges from the glass with well-articulated flowers, pears, smoke, crisp apples and minerals in a medium-bodied style. The wine appears to have enough freshness and sheer depth to support another decade or so of aging."  That is a very impressive description.

It is not only very impressive, but also very accurate.  The pictures do not do justice to this Champagne.  La Grande Dame has a light golden color, and, as the wine sits in the glass, there are continuous streams of perfectly sized beads of bubbles race from the bottom of the glass to the top. As for the aroma, the winemaker describes La Grande Dame as having "typical Chardonnay characteristics" at the fore, "with the arrival of floral and mineral aromas (acacia, ferns, chalk)." After agitating the wine, the winemaker suggests "scents of candied fruit (citrus, apricots, quince) and sweet almond emerge..."  If one keeps agitating the wine, "rare notes such as peaty malt, tobacco and delicate herbs, are gradually unveiled."

I have to admit that I did not get all of those aromas from La Grande Dame, partly due to the fact that I did not want to sit around agitating the wine.  I wanted to get to tasting it.  Before I took a sip, I did get the sense of pears and apples, as well as some floral and a little mineral elements.  As for the flavors of the wine, I found that La Grande Dame was crisp, full of a bright, tart citrus flavors, such as grapefruit, which were accompanied by other fruits, including pears and apples, along with a little spice or mineral on the edges.

As for pairing this wine, once could certainly just enjoy La Grande Dame on its own without any food.  However, I wanted to see if I could pair it with a recipe or a dish.  After a lot of research, I paired this Champagne with Seared Sea Scallops with an Carrot-Orange Gastrique and Pureed Cauliflower.  This pairing originated with a blog post, Brigadoon with Bubbles: A Veuve Cliquot Brunch, where one of the courses was a Seared Diver Scallops with Carrot Orange Gastrique and Parmesan Pancetta Crisp.  I modified the dish by eliminating the crisp and adding the cauliflower puree.  I wanted to turn what was an appetizer into a main course.  Even with these changes, the pairing still worked very well.

I have tried and enjoyed many great wines from around the world.  La Grande Dame (1998) stands as the best Champagne that I have ever had.  If you have a chance to try this wine, do not pass on that opportunity.


For more about Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin, La Grande Dame, and Madame Cliquot Ponsardin, check out the VCP's website and Wikipedia.

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