The Buyer
Champagne de Castelnau on creating its Prestige Cuvée: Hors Catégorie

Champagne de Castelnau on creating its Prestige Cuvée: Hors Catégorie

Champagne Castelnau has largely been known through the on-trade in the UK. It decided to change its image and launch its first Prestige Cuvée, called Hors Catégorie. But, as Anne Krebhiel discovers there’s much more to this Champagne than a marketing makeover.

Six years ago, when Champagne de Castelnau decided on launching a flagship Prestige Cuvée, Hors Catégorie, they didn’t go for fancy bottles or labelling, they went for age – each NV bottle spending six years on the lees.

There is not a single wine region in the world that cannot learn marketing lessons from Champagne.

Likewise, any Champagne house knows the importance of a well-honed message. This goes (more or less) hand in hand with wine quality.

Champagne de Castelnau, aimed primarily at the on-trade and independent merchants and hitherto not a hugely prominent player in the UK market, despite it being served in the business cabins of BA, was in London to tell us what sets its Brut Réserve NV apart from other multi-vintage blends and to let us witness the birth of its first prestige cuvée.

How do you make an NV Champagne different?

Champagne de Castelnau, founded in 1916 in Epernay and owned since 2003 by the Coopérative Régionale des Vins de Champagne in Reims, has thought clearly about its edge: Keith Isaac MW, agent for Champagne de Castelnau in the UK, posed the question: how do you make a NV Champagne different? Instead of deciding on a fancy and distinctive bottle shape, Castelnau decided in favour of time: a minimum of six years’ lees ageing for every NV bottle. The base wines see no oak at all and undergo full malo-lactic fermentation.

Export manager Thomas Jorez said: “We bring the Brut Réserve to the maximum of its complexity while keeping freshness. It has the spirit of a vintage wine in an NV cuvée.” This was demonstrated by a direct juxtaposition of Brut Réserves NV with 24, 36, 48 and 72 months on lees – all disgorged in March this year and all dosed to a level of 9g/l.

Their blends, despite vintage differences of the base wines are largely similar with 40% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir and 40% Pinot Meunier. The flight of the wines proved instructive in its progression from frothy freshness to creamy complexity – just based on the length of time spent on lees. They make ideal and complex aperitifs: they bring depth and richness in a well-proportioned, suave body.

A total vintage steal

As a transition from the NV to the unveiling of the prestige cuvée, Castelnau showed off its vintages. The Blanc de Blancs 2003, disgorged in September 2015 and the Brut Vintage 2002 disgorged in April 2015 were particularly impressive, the latter a blend 50% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Noir and 40% Pinot Meunier: a restrained but expressive mix of roasted, salted cashew and fresh torrone held in a creamy, lemony frame, proof that Castelnau can also deliver in the vintage stakes, in more ways than one: at recommended retail prices of between £35-45 these vintage wines are a total steal.

Scaling Peaks: The birth of Hors Catégorie

Pascal Prudhomme, general director, knows all too well that brand identity is paramount.

“We wanted to show that we can reach the level of some of the greatest Champagnes. We also wanted to express our dynamic spirit, our agility and ability,” he said.

It was with Castelnau’s centenary in mind that the house started thinking about a new, different cuvée in 2010. Based on the vintages 2008, 2009 and 2010, all aged for about nine months in Argonne oak, bottled in 2011 and disgorged in November 2015, Hors Catégorie is creamy and elegant. Crucially it comes with a lower pressure of just five rather than the usual six bars which underlines its softer creaminess. It’s a blend of 55% Pinot Noir, 17% Chardonnay and 28% Pinot Meunier.

Its name – Hors Catégorie – was inspired by the grading of steep ascents and the toughest peaks of the Tour de France. This initial wine, of which a mere 3,500 bottles were made, all individually numbered, references the Col du Tourmalet. It is the highest paved mountain pass in the French Pyrenees and incidentally was on the Tour de France route the same year as the wine was bottled.

Clearly, Hors Catégorie will be a great calling card for the house? Jorez responded: “The flagship is the Brut Réserve NV, Hors Catégorie is the jewel in the crown.” And a very elegant and convincing one I have to say – not just bling. Another marketing lesson learned: a convincing story, a style distinct from other wines, pleasing rarity and deliciousness in one.