The VinePair Podcast: Exploring ‘La Grande Dame,’ a Champagne Icon

On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” host Adam Teeter speaks with Didier Mariotti, cellar master at Maison Veuve Clicquot, about the iconic Champagne house’s approach to winemaking, and in particular how he crafts their tête de cuvée bottlings of La Grande Dame and La Grande Dame Rosé. Tune in for more.

Listen Online

Listen on Apple Podcasts

Listen on Spotify

Or Check Out the Conversation Here

Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter. This is a special edition of the “VinePair Podcast” because today, we are extremely lucky to have the Maison Veuve Clicquot cellar master, Didier Mariotti, in the studio with me. Didier, thank you so much for coming.

Didier Mariotti: My pleasure.

A: Before we jump into anything else, I just want to say I feel like cellar master is the most baller title of anything in wine. You’re not just the winemaker, you are the master of everything. How come only Champagne has “cellar master” in the title?

D: My title is sometimes difficult to explain. I’m a winemaker, but you have to imagine that the treasury in Champagne is in the cellar, so my title is “chief of the cellar,” which means I have to protect all the bottle aging in the cellar because it’s a big treasury. It’s why we are winemakers, but also I’m the chief of the cellar, so I’m in charge of keeping the wine and looking at the wine during the aging and ensuring that when we decide to sell the wine that the quality is perfect.

A: Obviously, you’re talking about the importance of the cellar because so many Champagnes are made with multiple wines to create that one Champagne, multiple vintages of those wines, et cetera, so that’s why the cellar is so important. Correct?

D: Yes. The cellar is huge because you have to imagine that, by law, we have to keep a non-vintage aging minimum of 15 months in the cellar, but at Maison Clicquot, we age for two and a half, three years. Vintages are normally a minimum of three years, minimum aging in the cellar, and for Maison Clicquot, it’s about five years minimum. For the vintage, seven, eight years for La Grande Dame, so it’s a long time.

A: We are here to talk about La Grande Dame and your work at Maison Clicquot but before we truly begin, we do have a wine in our glass. What wine do we have? Do you want to just tell me a little bit about it?

D: We have La Grande Dame ’15. It’s a new release of La Grande Dame. We don’t do La Grande Dame every harvest, we just produce. We make the blend when we decide that it’s a great harvest. It’s a great vintage to express La Grande Dame.

A: I want to talk a lot about vintage, but first I think there are probably a lot of people listening who are unfamiliar with La Grande Dame. Can you explain, obviously, you are the cellar master of Maison Clicquot, but La Grande Dame is the vintage expression of the cellar. What is La Grande Dame?

D: La Grande Dame is a prestige cuvée. It’s the ultimate expression of Madame Clicquot’s savoir-faire, I would say. Of course, the most important part of my job is to make, to create the non-vintage, a yellow label plan every year. It has to be consistent every year, which is not very easy. For me, it’s the most difficult part of my job.

A: You make the most popular Champagne in the world.

D: I try to, yes. It’s difficult because nobody really understands that this part of the job is the most difficult part, because La Grande Dame, you decide to make it or not to make it depending on the quality of the vintage, whereas for yellow label, you have to make it every year and it has to be exactly at the same level of quality every year. We know that all harvests are very different.

A: When you’re talking about this, you decide to make it or not to make it. That is what makes vintage Champagne so special, correct?  That every year, there are years where there will not be a year on a label of Champagne, it will only be non-vintage. What goes into that thought process when you think about whether you will make a Champagne vintage or not?

D: First, of course, we have to harvest and we have to do the vinification. Then we start to taste all the base wine. We start tasting the base wine in November, December. I have to taste about 700 different wines from the harvest. We taste about 20-25 samples every day. It’s a very precise description of each wine to understand the wine, but also to start to understand the vintage. It’s very important for me to have a global picture of the vintage, of the quality of the vintage. I need to manage all the wine to understand how I can use all the wine from the vintage, of course, for the yellow label, but also the one I want to keep in reserve because we also have to manage the reserve wine, which is very important in Champagne for the quality of our non-vintage. Then I can decide if I want to make La Grande Dame blend, for example.

A: When you talk about a base wine for people who are unfamiliar with it, what makes it different from a wine that’s only going to always be still.

D: What we call base wine are still wines. It’s after the alcoholic fermentation, you have the alcohol, of course, but it’s without any bubbles. That’s also the specificity of Champagne. We do a second alcoholic fermentation inside the bottle which will create the fizz. Until we do the bottling, it’s still wine.

A: Is the acidity often higher than it would be in other, let’s say, in Burgundy, for example? I know you have a family connection to Burgundy. Would we see the Pinot Noirs, which are the main basis for La Grande Dame, be a higher acid level than you might see, still Pinot Noir being made in Burgundy or no?

D: On average, I would say yes because we are a bit more north than Burgundy, so we don’t have the same maturity. With global warming, everything is churning also. I will say we have a bit more acidity than Burgundy, for example. Then with the blend, finally, it’s also a way to manage the quality of the wine. If you have a very acidic vintage, for example, with the reserve wine, you can also balance that acidity if you have a very mature vintage. You can use fresher and younger reserve wine to bring more acidity and more freshness to the blend. Our role when we do non-vintage is really to understand the quality of the vintage and how to blend the reserve wine and the vintage still wine together to recreate exactly the same blend. Whereas with La Grande Dame, it’s different. We want to express the spirit of the La Grande Dame blend, and also we want to add characteristics of the vintage at the same time. We are blending, finally, the spirit of La Grande Dame with the spirit of the vintage.

A: We jumped a little bit ahead. We started immediately going into winemaking. I want to take us back a step to actually La Grande Dame and what it is. Can you tell me a little bit about how this wine came to be, and what it embodies, and how it fits into the entire world of Clicquot?

D: La Grande Dame family, it’s our prestige cuvée. For us, it’s the best way to pay tribute to Madame Clicquot.

A: Who was Madame Clicquot?

D: Madame Clicquot was the founder, I will say, of Maison Clicquot 250 years ago. Unfortunately, she became a widow very young. She was 26, 27 years old. At that time in France, a woman was not allowed to run a company except if she was a widow.

A: Interesting.

D: She decided not to sell the company, she decided to keep it, to run it, and it’s why on the label, you have Veuve Clicquot. Veuve means widow, so it’s a widow Clicquot, in fact.

A: Interesting.

D: She decided to fight and she was very full of energy, full of passion for her maison. She really wanted to explore the wine. She decided to develop the business. She created the vintage. She was the first to create the vintage because Champagne was only producing non-vintage wine.

A: Wow.

D: She was the first to invent the riddling table to extract the dead yeast from the barrel. She was also the first to invent the rosé blend. She was very creative, she was very passionate.

A: She’s basically responsible for some of the most amazing things in Champagne.

D: Exactly. We are very lucky because we have a very strong woman who created a lot of innovation for Champagne. We really wanted to pay tribute to Madame Clicquot. Her nickname in Champagne was “La Grande Dame de Champagne.” It’s why we decided we have to use her nickname on the label just to pay tribute to Madame Clicquot.

A: When did the first bottling begin for La Grande Dame?

D: 50 years ago. The first release of La Grande Dame was for the 200th anniversary of the house.

A: I know you were not at the house at that point in time, but as that was being created, what were people thinking about in terms of how they wanted to make this truly a tribute to her? Was there a thought process going into how it pays tribute both to the yellow label as well as to the larger world of vintage Champagne? What were the characteristics they were looking for in the wine that you still look for today?

D: I would say first off, it’s the energy of Madame Clicquot. It’s really something we want to show in the wine, that energy here. Just to run the company, a very young widow. I’m not talking about the percentage of Pinot Noir wine in the blend. For me, the idea is really to have this energy, to have this spirit. The fighting spirit and it’s really something I want to find in the wine. It’s really something that inspires me every time I create the blend. It’s always as if Madame Clicquot was behind me and pushing me to just have this energy and to have this spirit.

A: When you’re talking about energy, for someone who’s tasting the wine, what do you think they’re tasting that gives them that energy? Is it that bright acidity that I’m getting on the palate? Is it through the finesse of the bubbles? Is it all combined?

D: It’s all combined. You can’t focus on one point. For me, the energy is really something. When we are tasting the base wine, the still wine, the question is not which one is good. It’s how we can use them in all the different blends, and the one which has a spirit. Some are very elegant, some are very uptight, some are very precise or sharp, and then in which blend you can integrate them. For La Grande Dame it’s to find a lot of Pinot Noir because it’s part of the DNA of the house. Pinot Noir, which is very elegant and very precise and that precision for me gives that energy.

A: Let’s talk a little about Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir is one of the grapes used to make Champagne but really defines this Champagne more than any other grape. What is it about Pinot Noir that makes it so incredible for Champagne?

D: I don’t know if it’s only in Champagne. I love Pinot Noir.

A: Yes, me too.

D: Part of my family is in Burgundy. I’ve been raised, born, and educated with the Pinot Noir wine in my blood, I will say. Red. The difference is in Champagne where I’m making white wine, so we are using Pinot Noir, but we have to avoid skin contact just to extract only the juice, so we are not looking for the tannins. What I like with Pinot Noir, it’s very complex. You have a rather different expression of the Pinot Noir depending on the exposure, if it’s a south exposure or north exposure. The age of the vines also can express differently. I like the complexity and the diversity of Pinot Noir.

A: Interesting. One grape can bring a lot of different characteristics in all these different still wines you’re making, then go into blending the vintage wine.

D: Yes. For me, if there is an example. If you compare just a percentage of Pinot Noir in vintage and in La Grande Dame. La Grand Dame is about 90 percent Pinot Noir. The vintage is 65 percent Pinot Noir. If you do a blind testing, and if I ask you which one has the highest percentage of Pinot Noir, people will definitely say it’s the vintage. The percentage is much lower, so I never look at the numbers. For me, the numbers don’t mean anything because finally for the vintage, even it’s a lower percentage. I’m looking for Pinot Noir, which expresses much more texture, much more volume, much more roundness because vintage is designed to pair with food, I will say much more. La Grande Dame, the idea is really an apéritif to pair with fish more, like Japanese food, sushi. I’m looking for Pinot Noir, which is very sharp, very precise. The difference is for the vintage, I’m using much more Pinot Noir from the south of the mountain. They have a south exposure, so you get much more maturity. With La Grande Dame, I’m using Pinot Noir much more from the north. You don’t have the same maturity, but you have more acidity, more structure, more bitterness in a way which is very interesting because it keeps the wine very sharp, very precise, and very elegant.

A: Interesting. You really believe that this La Grande Dame is the Champagne that you would drink on its own or with high-end sushi as you’re discussing fish, et cetera? That’s really, for you, the ultimate with the wine?

D: Yesterday, I had a great experience on the rooftop in New York with a good friend. We started like just a glass just to refresh your palate after a long day where the first glass was perfect, and then she just brought a tuna. We had just tuna, very simple. Just tuna with a glass of La Grande Dame was amazing.

A: Wow. That sounds delicious. I wish I had been invited.

D: Next time.

A: In terms of how this wine sits in the larger conversation, obviously Veuve is part of a wonderful Champagne company that has many incredible Champagnes. How do you see how La Grande Dame plays against all of the other ones? I’ve heard it referred to as the Pinot Noir-focused prestige cuvée. How do you think about it? Obviously, you work with all these other cellar masters. They’re making other amazing wines as well.

D: I’m not competing. It’s not against.

A: No. Just in comparison.

D: In comparison, I think every house has defined a style. Even in Maison Clicquot, for example, we have defined different styles, different for the yellow, for vintage rosé. Then you just keep that in mind when you create your blend. The idea is not to compete with others, it’s more like to just focus on what you have to do and to achieve. With La Grande Dame, it’s really like 90 percent Pinot Noir, but very precise, very elegant. If I don’t find the wine, I decide not to do a La Grande Dame vintage. For me, it’s really to respect that style. It’s the most important. Every house has defined a different style. Then you decide to explore the diversity of Champagne, and it’s what I really like with Champagne also. A lot of people now are discovering that Champagne is not just bubbles, it’s real wine. When you start to understand that Champagne is real wine, even if it’s a sparkling white, it’s a wine. Diversity of Champagne is amazing. You can taste a blanc de blancs, blanc de noir, vintage, rosé, back vintages, so it’s very complex and it’s very beautiful world for me.

A: In terms of the creation of La Grande Dame, how many still wines on average would you use?

D: 15, 20, 25.

A: A good amount, though, in terms of giving that entire amount of precision and elegance that you’re looking for?

D: Yes.

A: Wow. Is there an average amount of time, for people who are curious in terms of vintage, that you do or don’t declare a vintage? Is it every two or three years you think of vintage as yet declared? Does it just totally depend on what’s happening right now in our own global warming situation?

D: Yes. It depends on what’s happening around us and global warming, the quality of the vintage. We want to express something which is very complex and very elegant. If I’m not sure I can get that I’d much prefer not to make it than to make it wrong.

A: That’s got to be so hard though, for people who love it and then they can’t get it in that year.

D: I know, but I think it’s also the beauty of wine. It means we have to be very humble. Everything comes from nature and you have to respect that. I never try to push or fight against nature. I much prefer to follow what nature gives to me, and that’s very important. That’s a gift.

A: Right. Then that’s what we see reflected in the glass, is that amazing energy. We’d have to assume exactly what Madam Clicquot would’ve wanted. You are a Pinot Noir-focused Champagne, and you said that Madam Clicquot invented rosé Champagne, so you obviously make one.

D: Yes.

A: How much do you think about this? I feel obviously there has got to be a lot of pressure to just create the vintage group, but now to be creating the vintage which she created, rosé which she created, must be something that you think a lot about. What goes into your thought process when it comes to creating this wine?

D: The rosé?

A: Yes.

D: In fact, when you have decided to create La Grande Dame white, it’s very easy to create the rosé.

A: Interesting.

D: The most difficult part is to create the La Grande Dame, to decide to make it one year. Why? Because now you have to be sure that all the wine together will respect that philosophy. For the rosé, the blend is very easy. I use a La Grande Dame blend, white blend then I will add a certain amount of red wine into the blend. The rosé blend was created by Madame Clicquot. She used to say, “I always first taste my rosé with my eyes.” She was not really happy about the rosé, which was a skin contact method before. She decided to go to Burgundy to learn how to make red wine. She came back to Champagne and she went to Bouzy, which is very famous in Champagne, for the red, where Madame Clicquot had some great parcels of wines. She decided to select some of the parcels to make her own red wine. For La Grande Dame it’s only one parcel, and it’s the same parcel for years and years or maybe decades and decades. That parcel is Clos Colin.

A: I’ve tasted the still wine from it. It’s amazing.

D: In fact, the still wine you have tasted is the wine we use to create the rosé.

A: That’s it?

D: Yes, that’s it.

A: Is that common in Champagne now? Do most people who are making a rosé Champagne follow Madam Clicquot’s methods, or are some people still doing skin contact?

D: Some people are still doing skin contact, but most of them are now using the Madame Clicquot method.

A: That allows you to give, I would assume, more structure, color, vibrancy?

D: Yes. With the red, the idea is we are not making a red to create a Coteaux Champenois. We are re-making red dedicated to rosé. The maturation, we don’t want to do a very long maturation. It’s six, eight, 10 days max depending on the vintage. We don’t want to extract too many tannins. We don’t age the red in oak barrels. We will keep it in a stainless steel tank. The idea with the red for us is really to bring that very smooth red fruit, which brings a bit more texture in the mid-palate. When you taste rosé, you want to taste it?

A: Let’s taste it. You open it, please. I was going to open it and just make a really loud popping sound.

D: I can make a popping sound if you want. The rosé, finally, thanks to Madame Clicquot, for me, it’s easy to make the rosé blend.

A: I love the confidence with which you say, “It’s easy for me to make this because I make it.” That’s great. I wish I had something like that at work where I was like, “I deal with this one thing. This one’s way easier.” I don’t feel that way. How much production is different? Is there much more of the brut than there is of the rosé?

D: Yes, it’s much more.

A: Much more, and what vintages are there currently on the market?

D: For the white, we just released the ’15. For the rosé, we need to age the rosé a bit more to perfectly integrate the red into the white. We age the rosé one or two more years, and we’re on ’12.

A: That’s all in-bottle, aging?

D: Yes.

A: Each bottle is integrating the red itself?

D: Yes. What we do, we do the La Grande Dame blend. Then we will integrate into the vats, the red for 12, 13, 14 percent. We will do the bottling. We will do the second alcoholic fermentation.

A: Then just on the leaves for —

D: On the lees for seven, eight, nine years.

A: Wow.

D: For the rosé. For the white, it’s about seven, eight, and for the rosé it’s eight, nine.

A: Wow. The brut is really lovely, but the rosé has this just absolutely beautiful really light salmon pink. It’s gorgeous. It smells lovely too. This one, 2012, will be what’s on the market for the foreseeable future?

D: Until next year.

A: This is really great. I actually would like this with a really nice piece of salmon or fish would be really delicious. It would be really, really delicious. How did you gain such a passion for Champagne? Being from Burgundy you would think that obviously, especially now people talk about Burgundy as one of the hottest still wine markets, and Champagne is obviously the hottest sparkling wine market. How did you find your way from Burgundy to Champagne?

D: I went to the east of France to study food and beverage. My background is food and beverage engineering. I was really specialized in beer, sparkling products. I had to do a six-month internship and I did it in Champagne. Starting working for Moët et Chandon. I really fell in love with the Champagne region. For the first time, I really understood that Champagne is a wine. I started to taste. I did my first harvest with Moët et Chandon and the chief winemaker at that time told me, “You should stay in Champagne, you are good at making Champagne.” I decided, why not? It’s a good place. It’s a nice place. People are really nice.

A: It’s beautiful. It’s so close to Paris.

D: It’s close to Paris, it’s close to Burgundy, so why not?

A: I love it. So you just stayed?

D: Yes, I stayed, like 27 years later, I’m still there, I’m still happy. It’s a fantastic wine. I love red, I really love red. If you think about Champagne, it’s the only wine and spirit you can drink 24 hours a day.

A: That’s true. I could drink these wines 24 hours a day.

D: With the red wine, for example, it’s Sunday brunch, Champagne is perfect. Apéritif, Champagne perfect. To pair with food, not all types of food, but you can pair it with food. You can have a glass in a bar. You can go to an all-night club and still drink Champagne. That’s the beauty of Champagne. That’s the diversity of all Champagne you can find. For me, it’s very easy to enjoy a good moment with Champagne.

A: I think one of the experiences for me that was very instructive in that was, I was in Reims this last year, just on holiday with my wife. We went to The Glue Pot. It’s a bar and it’s just these incredible Champagnes and you’re having a burger and it’s amazing. You think to yourself, “only Champagne could you do this.” These very fine red wines would never be in a place like that. You’d be in a fancy restaurant, Michelin star. Champagne can be there as well. I think that’s what makes it such a special wine.

D: You have the private wine list at the Glue Pot, which is very special.

A: I did not know about that.

D: Next time ask Stefan for the private wine list.

A: I will.

D: He has the nice wines. We are wine lovers.

A: Yes.

D: When you realize that Champagne is a wine, it turned my mind and opened my mind to explore that universe. You start with non-vintage. You start OK, tasting rosé. Then you go to vintage, prestige cuvée. Then you go to back vintages because Champagne has an amazing ability to age in the cellar. Then when you start to taste all vintages, like from 2000 or from the ’90s, from the ’80s, ’70s, it’s very complex. It’s still very fresh because finally, the bubbles are the best way to preserve the wine from aging.

A: I did not realize that.

D: The pressure inside is the best way to protect the wine from aging.

A: You can hold these La Grande Dame for very, very long if you wanted to?

D: Yes. We still have, yesterday night, we opened a wine from 2004, very fresh. One of my favorite La Grande Dame is 1990. It’s so fresh. If you do a blind test, it’s impossible just to imagine that it’s from the ’90s.

A: Wow. That’s super cool. So La Grande Dame now is available across the entire United States, correct?

D: Yes, I think so. I haven’t traveled to all the places in the U.S. Of course New York, Miami, L.A., Dallas.

A: Amazing. Didier, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me about these wines. They’re really very impressive, absolutely delicious. I’m a huge Champagne lover, and I fell in love with these wines the first time that they were brought to the office and I tasted them. It’s a true honor to have you here to chat with me about them.

D: My pleasure. And next time you come to Champagne, let me know. We’ll have a glass together.

A: I would love that. Deal.

D: Deal.

Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast,” the flagship podcast of the VinePair Podcast Network. If you love listening to this show or even if you don’t, but I really hope that you do, as much as we really do love making it, then please drop us a review or a rating wherever it is that you get your podcast. Whether that be iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, anywhere.

If you are listening to this on a device right now through an app, however you got this audio, please drop a review. It really helps everyone else discover the show. And now for some totally awesome credits. So, the VinePair Podcast is recorded in our New York City headquarters and in Seattle, Washington, in Zach Geballe’s basement. It is recorded by Zach, mastered, and produced by Zach. He loves all the credit. Keep giving it to him. Drop his name in the reviews. He’s going to love hearing how much you love him. It is also recorded in New York City by our tastings director, Keith Beavers, who is the managing director of the entire VinePair Podcast Network. I’d also love to give a shout-out to our editor-in-chief, Joanna Sciarrino, who joins us on every single podcast as our third and most important host.

Thank you as well to the entire VinePair staff and everyone who’s been involved in making VinePair as special as it’s become. Thanks again for listening and we’ll see you next week.