WineInk: Aspen’s Favorite Wine?
It must be Clicquot.
“And I’ll bring a bottle of Veuve Clicquot,” said my friend who was hosting a little caviar and Champagne gathering in one of the bubbles on the deck at Bonnie’s in honor of his birthday.
Truth be told he didn’t need to offer anything other than his company for the celebration. I would have stopped by to give my condolences … er congratulations, on his reaching another milestone regardless. But seeing as how he is in the fish business and caviar is his thing, the added enticement of a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut was a bit of lagniappe, “a little something extra” as they say it in New Orleans, the home of my aging friend.
To say the salty fish eggs and creamy bubbles in the sunshine were sublime would be an understatement. And there was something that just felt, well, extravagant about the smile- and laughter-filled gathering. There is no doubt that the shiny bottle of Veuve enhanced the feeling.
Following lunch on my next ride up Lift 3, I came into the station and saw that the newly christened Snow Beach was going off near the Aspen Mountain Club. Folks in or by the multicolored cabanas and lounge chairs were dancing, smiling, taking selfies, and spraying Champagne. They too had the feeling. But with a slightly higher cover charge than those of us at Bonnie’s.
Monday afternoon, with the spring sun and cobalt blues skies still holding court over the Rockies, I stopped for lunch at the Cliffhouse at the top of Buttermilk. There, with Pyramid Peak as a backdrop, a group of young women, all dressed in the latest and greatest ski fashions, sipped from three yellow bottles of bubbles set just-so in the snow.
They giggled and laughed, and clearly, they too got the feeling as they posed for not one, not two, but literally hundreds of snaps featuring themselves, the Champagne, and the Pyramid. As they chatted rapidly in Spanish, the group, from Monterrey, Mexico, sent photos to friends back home, showing that they were living the dream. It was all they could do to keep from taking a tumble into the ravine below as they queued up for the pics, glasses in hand.
I did not make it to Aspen Highlands this week, but I am certain that, if I had, I would have seen variations on the same theme taking place at Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro, purported to be the largest single vendor for Veuve Clicquot in the county, state, even the country. I’m not sure that is true but anyone who has played or partied on the deck of Cloud Nine has seen plenty of Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut used as spray-guns by grinning maniacs who have come to the former ski patrol shack to get the feeling.
There was a social media post that made the rounds in February featuring a crumpled receipt from Cloud Nine with a total tab of $27,841. In addition to a Jeroboam of Veuve (3 liters or 4 bottles for $1500) and a Magnum (2 bottles for $400) the gang that came to play also bought 125 bottles of “Veuve Spray” for a total of $17,000. If everyone in the group got a Cloud Nine trucker’s hat, they bought 10 of the collectables, then their individual tabs came out to $2,780 each. Not sure if they all threw in their AmEx cards, but that is a pretty hefty bill to get the feeling.
Let’s face it, nothing connotes luxury and celebration like a glass of bubbly. But a bottle of the Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut, which retails for anywhere from $65 to $85 a bottle depending upon your liquor store, is a comparatively affordable bit of luxury. It is the wine that many take to friends as a dinner gift in this town. It is also sold regularly by the case to visitors who come for a week of partying. Rare is the restaurant in Aspen that doesn’t sell the wine by the bottle or by the glass. It is as ubiquitous as a Range Rover on Mill Street.
For more than two centuries, the Champagne region has been the epicenter of production of the world’s finest sparkling wines. Right around the time of the birth of America, the great Champagne houses were first setting up shop in a region 90 miles east of Paris. In 1729, Ruinart opened its doors, followed by Moët & Chandon in 1743 and Veuve Clicquot in 1772. Today all three, along with the legendary Dom Pérignon, which has history dating to 1668, operate under the LVMH luxury brand corporate label. They represent some of the top-selling Champagnes in the world.
The history of Veuve Clicquot reads like a pitch for a Netflix series. Perhaps the most striking chapter occurred in 1805, following the death of François Clicquot who ran the fledging Champagne house his father had founded. His wife, Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin – who was just 27 at the time – aspired to take control of the winery and run the business. At that time, it was unheard of in France for a woman to hold a position of such prestige. Indeed, it was only because of her widowhood that Napoleonic Code, the law of the land at that time, allowed her to helm the business.
But her ability to sell wines in the early 1800s to the Russian empire put the Veuve Clicquot name, which literally translates as “the Widow Clicquot,” in the pantheon of successful Champagne houses. The wines at the time were sweet, with high residual sugar, designed to meet the tastes of the eastern and central European palates of the times. Not at all like the dryer style of Yellow Label Brut (Brut, by-the way, refers to the dryness, or lack of sugar, in a sparkling wine) that is sprayed with vigor and enthusiasm on the slope of Highlands these days.
Madame Clicquot lived until the ripe old age of 89 (perhaps longevity is a benefit of drinking the bubbly) and changed the industry. Not only through shrewd marketing which, over her six decades of stewardship, saw the image of Champagne evolve as a wine exclusively for the wealthy to a product to be consumed by all in times of celebration, but also through her product innovations.
Veuve Clicquot is credited as the house that added red wine to sparkling wines in 1818 producing the first blended Rosé Champagne helping to craft the process that is used to this day. And the Madame is also said to have invented the “riddling” process in which bottles are turned at regular intervals as they age in the cellars, allowing the sediments and lees to gather in the necks of the Champagne bottles before being disgorged prior to being corked and released.
Today Veuve Clicquot, based in Reims in the Champagne region of France, sells over 1.5 million cases of wine annually. The majority being the Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut that we have come to know and love. This is a non-vintage Champagne, meaning that the juice in bottle is a blend of wines grown in different years, or vintages. The house style is to always have Pinot Noir as the predominate grape to provide structure to the wine with elegance and finesse added by the lesser blends of Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. The Veuve Clicquot Brut Yellow Label is sourced from as many as 60 different crus, or vineyards, and it is aged for a minimum of three years.
And about that Yellow Label: In a day in which companies pay enormous fees for the creation of names and logos and package design, it is refreshing to realize that there once was time when a brand identity could be created by instinct. The first yellow label was affixed to a bottle of Veuve Clicquot to help identify wine styles in the 1830s. In 1877, 145 years ago, the company applied for and received a trademark for the distinctive label that lights up any table upon which it sits.
It is said that Madame Clicquot never traveled beyond the borders of her homeland, France. But I like to think there is a part of her in every birthday celebration, every toast, every Veuve spray and every posted selfie that features the Yellow Label.
Yes, even (or especially) here in Aspen.
Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut
So what does a bottle of Yellow Label Brut taste like? Oh honey, if you have had it you know. The first thing you notice is the dance of bubbles in the glass as they float to the rim like little pearls. Put your nose in your fluted glass and you’ll smell the freshness of a basket of summer fruits. There may be a bit of green apple, a little peach, maybe some fresh lemon. Take a sip and be dazzled by the sparkle and the crisp full structure and elegance of the wine. It may tickle your nose and bring a smile to your face.
But no doubt, you’ll get the feeling.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“2023 predicted to be the Vintage of a Lifetime in Napa Valley,” proclaimed the headline this week in a press release sent out by the Napa Valley Vintners, the trade organization that represents the growers and producers in America’s most famed wine region. If there is anyone more optimistic than winemakers, it is the group that represents them.