This series of articles will focus on the top wines from a number of Champagne Houses. In Champagne these top wines are referred to as that house’s “Tête de Cuvée”. The Tête de Cuvée will be made from a strict selection of the best barrels from the best vineyard parcels. The Tête de Cuvée is very limited in production, but it is very important to the Champagne house as it represents the best of the best, the crowning achievement that defines what the house is capable of.
Champagne André Clouet is one of the oldest houses in Champagne, having been producing wines since 1741. We first wrote about their top wine, Un Jour de 1911 after we encountered it while dining at the Herbfarm in Woodinville, Washington. That article focused mostly on the historical significance of that day and what it meant to the future of Champagne and the Champenois. In this article we want to continue the theme of the Tete de Cuvée series and talk more about what goes on behind the scenes to make the wine as special as it is.
You know that when a winery is 280 years old, history and tradition will play a large part in their winemaking. Champagne André Clouet is no exception. The Clouet family had in fact been in Champagne for 2½ centuries before they started making wine there. The Clouet’s were in fact the printer to the Royal Court at Versailles under Louis the XV. The ornate gold filigree that adorns their Champagne labels today is an homage to the work of the original printing Clouets.
The Clouet’s made their home in the town of Bouzy, in the Montagne de Reims department within the Champagne appellation. Today Jean Francois Clouet makes the wines and lives in the house his ancestors built in the 18th Century. Clouet owns 8 hectares (20 acres) situated in the town of Bouzy and the neighbouring town of Ambonnay. The significance of these addresses cannot be overstated.
Both Bouzy and Ambonnay are designated as Grand Cru villages within the Échelle des crus system which was established in 1911 as a way of grading each villages potential to grow quality grapes. We published an article on this system and the differences between classifications which you can read here. The important thing to note is that there are only 17 Grand Cru villages of the 321 villages ranked in the Échelle des crus, and they, of course, are at the very top.
Both Bouzy and Ambonnay are situated at the most prime location on the south side of the Montagne de Reims hill. The two towns share a border. To give you a sense of how small an area we are talking about, the distance from the most eastern houses in Bouzy to the most western in Ambonnay is just 700 metres. The villages are located at the lower part of the slope with the vineyards above them. Each village has just over 900 inhabitants and Ambonnay has just under 400 hectares under vine while Bouzy has just under 300 hectares under vine.
Both have Champagne’s famous limestone/chalk soils that bring a uniqueness to Champagne’s sparkling wines.
But the south facing slopes make a big difference to the vineyards in these two villages. These are warm sites that allow the thicker-skinned Pinot Noir grapes to achieve levels of ripeness not found elsewhere in the appellation. This gives wine from these two villages their powerful signature. Over 80% of the grapes planted in the two villages are Pinot Noir, and these villages are the acknowledged leaders in the Champagne appellation at growing this grape.
Jean Francois Clouet is very mindful of the history he has grown up in. Living in that 18th Century ancestral home, how could he not be?
While he is guided by tradition, he is certainly not bound by it. Jean Francois makes 8 different Champagnes: the Brut Grand Reserve, a 100% NV Brut; the Silver Brut Nature which has zero dosage; the V6 Experience which is a non-vintage blend of 5 vintages that spends 6 years on the lees (spent yeast cells); the Brut Rosé; the Vintage Symphony Cap Leopard Brut Millésimé which has 20% Chardonnay added to the blend; the Dream Vintage which is made from 100% purchased Chardonnay; the ultra-rare Le Clos, made only in 2006 and 2008 so far in sold in magnum only (500 bottles); and his Tête de Cuvée, the Un Jour de 1911.
Un Jour de 1911 is made in very limited releases of just 1,911 bottles per release. When Jean Francois originally came up with the concept it was a blend of 3 vintages, the dominant vintage being 50% of the blend and the adjacent vintages being 25% each. This blending of adjacent vintages is also used by Laurent Perrier’s Tête de Cuvée, Grand Siecle. The first 1911 we had was blended in this way and was 50% 1996 and 25% each of 1995 and 1997. Recently the format has changed. In 1998 Jean Francois started a perpetual reserve where different vintages are added to the same barrel until it is full and then a fraction of the blend is drawn off to make room for the new harvest to be added. This perpetual reserve system is used in Krug’s Grand Cuvée where they blend more than 120 different wines from at least 10 different years. The Clouet perpetual reserve is aged in used Sauterne barrels that Jean Francois won in a card game with the owner of Doisy Dene!
The bottle of Un Jour de 1911 we recently tasted was bottle 93 (of 1,911) disgorged on June 2, 2020. The wine is 100% Pinot Noir from his 10 best lieu dits (small topographically unique parcels within the vineyard) in Bouzy. 50% of the blend is from the 2008 vintage and 50% comes from the perpetual reserve. That means it spent 12 years in bottle on the lees before being disgorged. An indication of the care that has gone into the making of this wine. Unlike most of the Tête de Cuvées in Champagne, which often come from grapes harvested across the region, this wine comes from a very small and specific site in a single village, making it the most site-specific, and terroir driven of all the Tête de Cuvées. The perpetual reserve also differentiates the 1911 from most of the Tête de Cuvées that are single vintage. The miniscule production also sets it apart; consider that Dom Perignon is reputed to make 5,000,000 bottles when it declares a vintage. This is a highly unique and very rare wine indeed. If any bottles should come your way, make sure you get one. You will not be disappointed!
A relatively deep, golden hue with fine bubbles. Notes of brioche, honey and lemon lime reach your nose well above the glass. The palate is full and quite dry. Flavours of pear, apple, almonds and hazelnuts. Beautifully textured with great balance between the acidity and the fullness of the mouthfeel. A chalky minerality adds to the complexity. This wine clearly has a long future in front of it and will likely improve for another decade, probably more.