A Solaire Veuve Clicquot Grande Dame Visit

A Solaire Veuve Clicquot Grande Dame Visit

With its sunny yellow labels, Veuve Clicquot is one of the largest and most recognizable champagne houses in the world. Founded in 1772 and based in Reims, France, it has a captivating history. Innovation, entrepreneurship, women’s empowerment, and most recently, environmental sustainability. I had the opportunity to immerse myself in their solaire universe this weekend through a Veuve Clicquot Grande Dame Visit. This experience included several tastings, a guided tour of the cellars, as well as stops at the vineyards and facilities in Verzy. It ended with an exclusive visit to the grounds of the private mansion.

On the Menu:

About the Veuve Clicquot Grande Dame

The Cellar Visit + First Tasting

The Vineyards

The Facilities

The Grounds

Grande Dame tastings

The Gift Shop

Overall Thoughts: Veuve Clicquot Grande Dame Visit

About the Veuve Clicquot Grande Dame

The story of Veuve Clicquot is also the story of the severe looking woman on the bottle capsules. Before starting the story, let me explain that veuve is the French word for widow. At the young age of 27, Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, better known as Madame Clicquot (her married name), took over her late husband’s champagne business after his sudden passing. At this time, this was extremely unusual. Widows were the only women allowed to run businesses and it was rare if they actually did (even rarer if they were successful). Madame Clicquot was actually the first woman in charge of a champagne business. And she completely turned the industry on its head!

During my visit to the cellars, my guide explained Madam Clicquot’s ingenious breakthroughs that are still in practice today. Her resume includes inventing the first known vintage champagne, inventing the riddling table process (explained below), and inventing blended rosé champagne (blending still red and white wines).

Her tenacity doesn’t stop there. She played an important role in establishing champagne as a favoured drink of nobility and high society throughout Europe. Madame Clicquot’s peers called her the Grande Dame of Champagne because of her outstanding work.

Today, Veuve Clicquot continues to honour its namesake in several ways. La Grande Dame is their exceptional line of vintage cuvées. Only the finest grand cru grapes from extraordinary years make it into the bottle. They recently started collaborating with top female artists (Yayoi Kusama, Paola Paronetto) to create collectable packaging.

The Cellar Visit + First Tasting

The Cellars

The cellar visit described Veuve Clicquot’s fascinating story in detail. Crayères is the proper name for Champagne cellars. The word actually means “chalk pit”, referring to chalk quarries — nothing to do with wine storage! In fact, these maze-like structures, located quite a few meters underground, were not built for wine. It is the leftover space from the excavation of the soft, white rock to build Reims and its magnificent cathedral.

Eventually, someone realized that these chalk caves are perfect for storing wine. In addition to their size, they have the perfect temperature and humidity levels. Coincidentally, they are also perfect for growing champignons de Paris (France’s favourite button mushrooms), so it is not unusual to find little mushrooms growing alongside or even on bottles. But I digress.

The cellars that I visited are actually real, working spaces. The bottles inside are not props but real products, ageing away quietly and undisturbed. The cellars are huge: Veuve Clicquot’s alone are approximately 24km long and several meters high. The largest network of tunnels of all the champagne companies in Reims! Listed as World Heritage sites by UNESCO, they can hold millions of bottles. Of course, I only visited a small section of the caves, but the vastness of what I saw impressed me. It seems that different tours visit different areas. Some of these caverns and tunnels have names: throughout are plaques bearing the names of employees who have spent at least forty years working there.

My visit presented lots of highlights and interesting information. These are a few that I particularly liked.

Tour Highlights

The explanation of the champagne production process took place right by the riddling tables invented by Madame Clicquot. They are part of a meticulous process that removes the lees, or dead yeast, leftover from production. The original tables no longer exist (apparently, her kitchen tabled served as the first prototype), but the same principle is still used today. Riddling by hand is an art. Today, it is reserved for exclusive products like La Grande Dame, and large formats. The average bottle is riddled by machine. Even though I have seen riddling tables before, it was special to see them in their birth-place so to speak.

My next highlight is the staircase showcasing all the exceptional champagne vintages (millesimes in French). Vintages are champagnes made from grapes from a single year. Generally, champagne houses only make vintages of the very best years. These wines are more complex on the palate and they are made in much smaller quantities. As a big fan of vintage champagnes, this wowed me.

On the topic of vintages, a 170 year old bottle of Veuve Clicquot is on display. In 2010, a group of divers found the sunken remains of a trade schooner off the coast of Finland, in the Baltic Sea. The treasure trove included 168 bottles of champagne! Laboratory analysis showed that the stash included several champagne brands, including Veuve Clicquot. The tests showed other interesting results: champagne used to be made with a lower alcohol content and much higher sugar levels. In fact, it was like drinking bubbly syrup. My favourite part of this story is that the wine is still drinkable and has remarkable tasting notes. Some of the bottles auctioned for more than 100,000 euro each. It was a real treat to see one of these live!

My final highlight is a magnificent bas-relief. There are lots of grafitti and markings on the cellar walls from stonemasons and cellar masters, as well as civilians and military refugees from the World Wars. This particular one was the result of generations of workers adding their own flair. Photos do not do it justice!

The Tasting

Halfway through the cellar visit, we stopped for a tasting: Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label 250th Anniversary Edition. The tasting area included nice photo-op spots and I could continue the visit with glass in hand. It was a nice way to appreciate their flagship product and the amount of work that goes into producing it.

It was also a nice way to connect with others on the visit. As a small group, this helped break the ice and everyone helped take each other’s photos. It was convivial and friendly!

The Vineyards

Main Vineyards

Since moving to Reims, visiting the vineyards and surrounding villages is one of my favourite pastimes. I have already been to the village of Verzy often, but visiting the Veuve Clicquot vines officially with a guide is pretty special.

Veuve Clicquot owns owns 393 ha of vineyards, most of which are classified as Premier Cru and Grand Cru. They are located around several different villages, including Verzy, Verzenay, and Bouzy (a village famous for producing red wine from Champagne, in case you are curious!). Like most other champagne producers, they also buy grapes from other grape growers to meet their demand. A few of these 400 producers are actually descendants of the first grape growers to sell to Madame Clicquot’s successor.

The leaves are still too small to guess what variety is here, but we assumed it is Pinot Noir, the emblematic grape of Madame Clicquot. Believing that these grapes offered the widest range of expression and the greatest potential for creating the best champagne, she famously said, “our black grapes produce the best white wines”.

It was interesting to learn about the care that goes into growing the grapes. I learned a lot of this during my WSET studies but I love seeing it in reality. I also learned new things about grape growing techniques that were not in my books. For example, champagne vines must be pruned according to legal regulations. And they are pruned close to the ground because heat from the ground protects them from the cold!

Environmental Innitiatives

In addition, I learned that Veuve Clicquot’s vineyards have HVE certification. Haute Valeur Environnementale is a French classification system that certifies sustainable agricultural practices. Though not quite the same as organic certification (something the Maison is working towards), pesticides and harmful chemicals are not authorized in the grape growing process. Instead, natural solutions must be used. For example, the tractor in the photo above is spraying copper sulfate instead of fungicide to combat mildew. Squash, beans, and clover are planted between rows of vines. They are later tilled into the ground to maintain soil health. Destructive insects are scared away by tags of pheromones attached close to the vines. Knowing all this gives me more appreciation and respect for Veuve Clicquot.

Grande Dame Vineyards

La Grande Dame, the prestige cuvée of Veuve Clicquot, is made from Grand Cru grapes, 90% Pinot Noir. We drove up the Montaigne de Reims, deeper into the village of Verzy to see one of the Grande Dame vineyards. Higher up and on a steeper slope, the grapes here are better quality than for the other products from the same brand. The particular vineyard was newly planted (vines are replaced every 40 or so years). The new seedlings were covered in wax for protection against pests and disease.

The remaining older vines have yellow tags attached. Continuing Madame Clicquot’s legacy of female entrepreneurship, these tags commemorate the winners of Veuve Clicquot’s Bold Woman Award. This is an initiative that celebrates business women emulating the founder’s enterprising spirit and courage. It is very on-brand and I love the concept.

The Facilities

Next to the first first vineyards, I had the chance to visit one of Veuve Clicquot’s pressoir and cuverie. I did not realize that this would be part of the visit, so it was a nice surprise. As part of the experience, I saw photos and videos from previous vendanges (harvests) and the work is INTENSE. Bunches of grapes are picked by hand. Hunky firefighters will manually empty large buckets of grapes into the presses. The press will create 4 different juices. The first press produces the best, most fragrant juice used for Veuve Clicquot champagne. Other estates will buy second and third juices. The last press is not good enough quality for champagne. Instead, it is used for local spirits like Ratafia, Marc de Champagne, etc.

The cuverie is where the fermentation happens. It is pretty standard across champagne houses, so I won’t go into detail. It was very clean with lots of natural light. Veuve Clicquot has several smaller facilities like this. They also just built a huge new modern facility outside of Reims. It is a little less charming for visits though.

During the harvest season, it is impossible to visit these facilities. This part of the champagne-making process is incredibly precise and time-dependent. After the grapes are picked, for example, they must be pressed within the same day!

The Grounds

Le Manoir de Verzy is a romantic mansion that has been part of the Veuve Clicquot estate for over a century. Perched beside the village church, it offers spectacular views of the house’s historic Grand Cru vineyards. A wondrous cedar, hundreds of years old, stands before it. Production and administration take place elsewhere: the grounds and manor are used for events, such as weddings, picnics, private dinners, and tastings of prestige cuvées.

For me, one of the most fascinating parts of the grounds is the vegetable garden. This huge 2000 square meter potager is planted according to the principles of permaculture. It is volunteer-run by winegrowers and hosts over 300 species of plants, including 17 different types of mint and rare/endangered plants!

The garden is a collaboration with natural farming specialists and agricultural engineers. The idea is to create dialogue between viticulture and permaculture, inspiring the winegrowers and vineyard managers, bringing new sustainable methods to the table. Produce from the garden is sent to the kitchens of Hôtel du Marc, the Veuve Clicquot private guesthouse. Restos du Coeur, a French charity, receives the surplus.

Even though the growing season has just begun, there are already notable plants popping out of the ground. Asparagus stood proudly in the middle of the garden. Mugwort – Artemisia arbotanum – perfumed the air with its curious coca-cola scent (apparently good in sorbets or with game meat). Watermelons are the newest edition to the garden this spring.

I could have spent the day in the garden — there were so many interesting plants and growing techniques! I can see why people volunteer. Besides the vegetable garden, there are other lovely flower gardens and lots of big trees. This was one of my favourite parts of the visit.

La Grande Dame Tastings

I tasted two cuvées, La Grande Dame Brut 2015 and La Grande Dame Rosé 2012, in the Manoir garden. I have tried the La Grande Dame Brut 2012 before (last year’s release). This tasting focused on the newly released vintage, 2015 (literally launched only 2 months ago!). It was also my first time trying La Grande Dame Rosé. The 2015 vintage of this one has not been released yet.

2015 is a solaire vintage: no frost and lots of sun. The summer was dry, leading to concentrated fruit. La Grande Dame Brut 2015 was a pleasure to drink. Very soft, fine bubbles. The nose has the faintest hint of smokiness. Lemon, white flowers, and honey also make their way through. It is intriguing for a champagne that is 90% Pinot Noir. The mouth has buttery pastry notes and a hint of iodine. Really, really lovely and I would even pair it with a meal.

La Grande Dame Rosé 2012 was the real star for me this time. I am not a fan of rosé, so this one really surprised me. Lots of fresh summer red fruits on the nose, a bit of maple, some rose. The mouth deliciously silky and complex, again with a slight buttery brioche taste and a long finish. It was a revelation. Remember when I mentioned the famous red wine village of Champagne, Bouzy? This champagne uses red wine from a single parcelle in that village, Clos Colin. The winemakers use techniques from Bourgogne to create a bright, fruity base wine that can actually be enjoyed as a still red.

The Veuve Clicquot Gift Shop

My Veuve Clicquot Grande Dame Visit ended at the gift shop. I have not really seen any information about the shop online, so I thought I would share a little. In a sunny modern space, all sorts of products are available! Besides the flagship products, there are the new vintage releases, Grande Dames, different size formats, and even the current collectors editions. There is a personnalization counter for the Veuve Clicquot arrow, as well as for La Grande Dame bottle charms.

My personal favourite section was the paraphernalia section that included glasses (which can be purchased at unity), picnic kits, umbrellas, aprons, books, and more. They just launched new Veuve Clicquot coffee mugs in partnership with Pantone. I brought a couple home! There is also a very cool retro TV ice bucket, but it was a little out of my price range…

Overall Thoughts: Veuve Clicquot Grande Dame Visit

Overall, the Veuve Clicquot Grande Dame Visit is one of my favourite champagne house visits. For several hours, I could fully immerse myself in the Veuve Clicquot universe. I went behind the scenes of this iconic estate, even visiting places that other guests have not. My day ended with a fantastic tasting and even lunched at the newly opened Café Clicquot pop-up. I would highly recommend the Veuve Clicquot Grande Dame Visit to any other Veuve Clicquot super fans or anyone else who appreciates good stories and exceptional champagnes. Big thanks to the Clicquot team for this amazing experience!

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