Armand de Brignac: going for gold

Launched in 2006, the Armand de Brignac Champagne brand is arguably one of the most controversial wine brands of our time. Made by the highly respected Cattier family, now in their 13th generation as wine-growers in Champagne, Armand de Brignac is a fascinating case study of reality verses perception. In 2010 the Brut ‘Gold’ took the #1 spot in a blind tasting of 300 Champagnes by top world expert Essi Avellan. More recently, Jancis Robinson has rated some cuvées 18/20, Wine Spectator rated the Blanc de Blancs 94/100, while just last month Decanter magazine awarded 96 points to the Blanc de Noirs cuvée.

Armand de BrignacSo a world-wide phallanx of respected critics rate this as a high quality Champagne, and yet a perception problem still dogs the brand. Let’s not beat about the bush here: the reason is obvious. Armand de Brignac Champagne, colloquially known as ‘Ace of Spades’ from the symbol that forms part of its logo, is bling.

First, there’s the metal-coated shiny bottles embossed with pewter labels, but also the not so secret news that the brand was sold to Americam rap singer Jay-Z, becoming a favourite of not only the Rap and Hip-Hop community, but hollywood glitterati and sporting superstars.  That, for some people, is problematic – though my hunch is that many in this camp will never have tasted the wines. Another factor has to be the wine’s price. The ‘basic’ Brut sells for £250 per bottle, and their recently released issue III of the Blanc de Noirs is a cool £1,095 for a standard 75cl bottle. Overall, it has to be the most expensive Champagne brand of all.

There is clearly a desire to have the wine judged on its merits. One senses the Cattiers are uncomfortable with so much focus on the ownership, packaging and price, and want to talk about the intrinsic quality of vineyards, fruit and winemaking. Brand ambassador, Sebastianella Gurrieri, presented a tasting which I attended last month, where the brand’s ownership was never mentioned: it was all about the wines.

The total production is only 100,000 bottles annually, making it a Champagne minnow volume-wise. Made from only the tête de cuvée (the finest juice from the first pressing of the grapes), and a selection of Première and Grand Cru vineyards, the dosage is base wine of the harvest, aged for one year in new French oak, and the vineyards are certified for the highest standards of sustainability by the French government.

Cattier cellars“All riddling is also by hand,” Sebastianella tells me, and winemaking overseen by the 12th and 13th generation of Cattiers, Jean-Jacques Cattier and his son, Alexandre. As the wines have been aged for years in their metal-coated bottles, each has to be hand polished before release, with four solid pewter labels attached by hand. A dedicated team of six can label 20 bottles each per hour. The wines are always multi-vintage blends, of three vintages (in this case 2009, 2010 and 2012) and the Blanc de Blancs and the Demi-Sec tasted here are considered ‘prestige’, only a few thousand bottles each are produced within the already small production.

I have tasted the wines before, awarding 93 points to the first release of their Blanc de Noirs, 94 to the Blanc de Blancs and 91 to the Demi-Sec. So whilst many remain sceptical about the high prices and ostentatious presentation, I approached this tasting with anticipation and no prejudice. One can argue about absolute quality verses price for sure, with the wines costing more than Krug, Dom Pérignon or Cristal, but do you know what? This is an excellent portfolio of extremely refined Champagnes. I’d like to think I would have thought that even served blind without the glitz and glitter.

This tasting was arranged in conjunction with Scottish distributor, Terroir Vines.

The Wines

(2019) The blend here is 40% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Meunier and like all of the wines in this tasting, it is a blend of vintages 2009, 2010 and 2012. The dosage, made from wine aged for one year in oak, is 9g/l. Beautifully creamy and refined nose, the sheen of almondy richness over quite full, peachy fruit, quite toasty but fruity too. Rich and rolling mousse, with lots of toast and nuttiness, buttery, but very good, precise acidity. Lovely and long, a tang of Seville orange in the finish.
(2019) Again the 2009, 2010 and 2012 vintages make up the blend in this all-Chardonnay cuvée with a dosage of 8g/l. Fruit comes from the Côte des Blancs, with around half from the Montagne de Reims. Elegant, pale gold colour. Lots of freshness here as well as creaminess, a soft lemon rind and lightly waxy character, citrus continuing with orange and more oatmeal and almond developing. Super fresh on the palate, a touch of salty minerals, though there is nuttiness and a hint of quite ripe pear and nectarine fruit beneath.
(2019) A blend of 50% Pinot Noir, 40% Pinot Meunier and 10% Chardonnay with a dosage of 8.5g/l.  Quite a deep pink with a hint of copper. Very fine bubbles. There is obvious red fruit on the nose, dry cherry and cranberry, but there's a meaty autolytic character. Dry on the palate, plenty of lemony character and acidity, there is still a touch of the dry red berry character, but it finishes dry and citrussy and would drink well with salmon, duck, or even grouse in season.
(2019) The basics are the same as the Brut Gold, with wines from 2009, 2010 and 2012 and a blend of 40% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Meunier. The dosage is 33g/l. The wine arose from experimentation in the winery, even though the Cattier's realised that Demi-sec was a controversial style, it was decided the wine could be launched as a Prestige cuvée, made with sweetness at the lower end of the Demi-sec category (which begins at 32g/l). Slightly darker in colour than the Brut, it has a lemony and yeast nose, some biscuit and autolytic character, and doesn't immediately reveal that it will be Demi-sec. The palate is soft and rolling, sweet nectarine and marshmallow vanilla note, but the sweetness very nicely balanced. I'm not generally a Demi-sec fan, but I have to say this is a terrific interpretation.

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