Armand de Brignac is a Champagne brand that everyone has a view about – irrespective of whether it has been tasted or not. The juxtaposition between the humble Pinot-driven Cattier family and owner Shawn Carter (Jay-Z) is a fascinating one; there is the ostentatious packaging, the stratospheric price tags and the flamboyance and technical mastery of the 30-litre format. Which all leads to the same question – is this a Champagne House that has the Midas touch or not? So who better to answer that question than Simon Field MW, ex-Champagne buyer for Berry Bros & Rudd, who accepted The Buyer’s invitation to a first tasting of the third assemblage of its prestigious cuvée Blanc de Noirs A3 alongside all of the other new releases.
“A-list? A-Road? A third release in point of fact, the ‘A3’ a nod to Dom Pérignon’s ‘P’ series probably,” writes Simon Field MW.
It is far too easy to be dismissive about Armand de Brignac. Rude even. The fabulously ostentatious metal cladding, complete with an embossed pewter ace of spades leitmotif; the dubious origins, marketing-driven one infers; the tall tales of nightclubs and rappers; the far from completely blameless reputation of owner Shawn Carter (Jay-Z); the almost hubristic flamboyance of the 30 litre format, named, needless to say ‘Midas’. One could go on.
Far more interesting, almost paradoxically, is the prosaic and almost humble story of the winemakers themselves, the Cattier family from the Montagne de Reims village of Chigny-les-Roses. When I first visited over 10 years ago, I was impressed by the quality of the wines, their carefully crafted Pinot-dominated cuvées finely drawn, maybe a touch rustic, with primus inter pares the more polished Le Clos du Moulin, immediate forebear of the Brignac range.
Jean-Jacques Cattier, even then, struck me as an old-school winemaker, albeit one from the top drawer. To see him now, suited and booted, towering super models on each arm, looking just a touch perplexed, is little short of surreal. Jean-Jacques has a suitably enigmatic smile, it has to be said. Quite right. What is bred in the bone, however, will out and the juxtaposition of the brand and its executors almost adds to the fascination, such is its lack of congruence!
Enough speculation, however, and onto the key question which is, unsurprisingly whether or not the wines are any good.
Last year’s much hyped ‘international’ winemaker, Emilien Boutillat, has mysteriously disappeared (defecting to become chef-de-cave at Piper Heidsieck) and the process is now entirely in the hands of the Cattier family – head winemaker Alexandre Cattier – representing the thirteenth generation of his family now at the helm. A lot has changed, it seems, in the last three hundred years.
The Cattiers are keen to stress the differences between their eponymous brands, where most of the vineyards are owned, and the Armand labels, sourced independently yet more widely. Either way, there is little recourse to the Cru system as part of the message; Chigny itself is Premier Cru, and there are Grand Cru wines in the blends, but these are far from exclusive; indeed one of the impressive and certainly convincing chapters in the story relates to the diversity of provenance; Vitry favoured for example for the purity of its Chardonnay and an increasing percent of the Pinot Noir now sourced further south in the Aube.
The Cattiers, for all the limelight, are very experienced farmers; good winemakers to boot, a fact that has never been in doubt. But how good? There is no lack of ambition in the Brignac pricing model, so one is entitled to ask the question….
The pre-tasting rhetoric focuses on the broad selection of vines, the quality of the fruit, the fact that only the coeur de cuvée is used in the blends, the oak-aged dosage and, probably most important of all, the ubiquity of the triple-vintage sourcing. No single vintage or, for that matter non-vintage wines here; the entire range is made up of wines that are assembled from three different vintages. One is not too far from Krug or Laurent Perrier Grand Siècle here, but neither cleave exclusively to such a philosophy. From a purely qualitative view, and notwithstanding the potential limitations of such rigour, I would suggest that this approach is the key to the qualitative success or otherwise of the house of Armand de Brignac.
As the notes below demonstrate, the results are mixed, but generally favourable, and in at least one case outstanding. The wine actually released on the day, the A3 Blanc de Noirs, was the standout by a country mile………What a relief! An expensive relief, for all that…….
Brut Gold (tasted in magnum) 40 PN, 40 CH, 40 PM
The engine-room of the brand, if such a vulgar term may be used for such a gilded name; the Gold is a blend of 2012, 2013 and 2014, relatively recently disgorged and dosed at 9 g/l, the liqueur de triage the only component which has been oak aged. For all that, there is an impressive vanillin richness, hints of acacia and buttered toast; ripe semi-tropical fruit is grounded by soft chalk, powdery yet discrete. The finish is a little raw; business must be good as I may well have been tempted to leave this on lees for a little longer; it has the concentration for such treatment. Impressive nonetheless, with plenty of energy….. as it should have at £300 a bottle!
Blanc de Blancs (tasted in magnum)
Interesting one this, as Cattier have always to me, been a Pinot-dominated house. How does the Chardonnay fare when cut loose on its own? The blend is considerably more mature (2009, 2010 and 2012, the first and third of these excellent in their own right) which makes for a promising start and the fact that the blend is sourced half from the Côte des Blancs (the traditional Chardonnay homestead) but also half from the Montage de Reims only adds to the intrigue. The results combine a seductive nectarine and orange grove character with the more traditional Côte des Blancs descriptors of flinty purity and linear grip. The marriage has not quite got into its stride, but with a little more time the disjoint may recede; there is a lot of matière here, once again, so let’s wait and see.
Rosé (tasted in magnum) 50 PN, 40 PM, 10 Ch
A confident copper blush and an immediately seductive nose of soft spice, red currants and sweet almond. One is almost surprised to learn that the three vintages in question are 2013, 2014 and 2015, therefore frighteningly young, even for a rosé, none of the vintages in question especially auspicious in their own right. For all that there is a beguiling savoury depth and an integration which, somewhat mysteriously, belies the youth. The secret may lie in the quality of the red wine, 15% added as Pinot Noir from exceptionally old vines in the village of Ludes. Old vines and a young wine; wisdom and precocity, a potentially fraught combination…. Here it works.
Blanc de Noirs A3
A-list? A-Road? A third release in point of fact, the ‘A3’ a nod to Dom Pérignon’s ‘P’ series probably. Be that as it may, this is a standout wine, made only in bottle with all 3535 bottles uniquely numbered to add yet further to their undoubted collectability. As with the Blanc de Blancs the exemplary contributory vintages are 2009, 2010 and 2012. The wine has had six years on its lees and was disgorged in April this year. Here, unsurprisingly, famous Grand Cru names are wheeled out – Bouzy and Verzenay most significantly – also, near to home, Ludes, Chigny and Rilly and, from the 2012, a significant tranche from the Aube.
The results are outstanding; incredible rich burnished gold colour then an immediately seductive nose of tobacco, fig, crème brûlée and cassis; an absolute archetype of a Blanc de Noirs, its intensity on the palate fulsome and commandeering, underwriting further layers of complexity; now we are in an Andalusian orange grove, now on the chalky terraces of the Marne…. and so much more. Generous and yet vinous, pure yet incredibly opulent, this is a definitive statement wine and carries the reputation of the house with enormous aplomb.
Demi-Sec 40 PN, 40 CH, 20 PM
The Cattiers are great advocates of this once unfashionable style; its three contributory vintages are, as for the Gold, (12, 13 and 14) although it is vinified separately and has been dosed at 33 grams. The first Demi-Sec was released the year after the purchase by Jay-Z (2014) and its reputation has bedded-in incredibly quickly; there is a definition and purity here, sometimes forsaken in this style, with notes of raspberry, sherbet and taste tatin all elegantly intertwined. Crystallised citric fruit and brioche complete the package and ensure that the seduction scene ends happily for all parties.