Armand de Brignac: The craft behind the bling
The father-and-son winemakers behind Jay Z's 'Ace of Spades' champagne discuss their new 100 per cent pinot noir assemblage
Jean-Jacques Cattier: Our family has owned vineyards in this area, the Montagne de Reims, since 1763 – I am the tenth generation of winemakers and my son Alexandre is the 11th. In the early days, most of the grapes were sold to the negotiant in Reims but in 1918, we began making our own champagne commercially. Now we are one of the last ten family-owned champagne houses selling more than a million bottles a year. Our range of prestige cuvees, Armand de Brignac, which we launched in 2006, accounts for a tenth of that.
Alexandre Cattier: We own 82 acres in this premier cru terroir, which is known for its pinot noir grapes, but we also grow chardonnay and pinot meunier, as well as buying grand cru grapes for certain assemblages.
Jean-Jacques: When Jay Z acquired the Armand de Brignac brand in 2014, we met in New York. He said his priority is for it to be recognised as the best champagne worldwide, so he is prepared to invest – for example, in the best grapes – as long as it is always to push the quality still higher.
Alexandre: Everything we do is designed to ensure that quality. When you press grapes for champagne, the first and best juice is called "la cuvee" and then comes "la taille", which has lower acidity and less subtle aromas, but more tannins. For Armand de Brignac, not only do we only use la cuvee, we take only the first four-fifths of it – the best part.
Jean-Jacques: We press four tons of grapes at once and the process takes four hours. From that, we obtain 550 gallons of juice, of which we use just the first 400 gallons. You can't go too quickly – you could certainly use more pressure and get the job done in half the time, but you won't obtain the quality of juice, because "la taille" will mix with "la cuvee".
Alexandre: When we bottled our first Blanc de Noirs assemblage in 2009, we did it as an experiment to see if we could make a 100 per cent pinot noir that was good enough. If it hadn't been, we'd simply have drunk it ourselves. Fortunately, it turned out even better than we'd hoped. We released it in the autumn of 2015 and it is already nearly sold out – especially since it was ranked the number one Blanc de Noirs of the 250 tasted by Fine Champagne magazine.
The pinot noir in this wine has very complex structure, a really long finish. You get red fruits throughout, of course, but with a lot more going on besides. There is peach and apricot on the nose, followed by crystallised citrus, orange blossom and brioche. The powerful palate reveals red fruit with hints of cinnamon toast.
We decided to make a second assemblage after the 2010 vintage, which we blended with the 2008 and 2009. It wasn't a great year overall – so-so for chardonnay and pinot meunier – but the pinot noir of the Montagne de Reims was exceptional. It had herbal notes, with hints of hay and mint, which is a great addition to the characteristics of the first assemblage that remain.
Jean-Jacques: We've disgorged [removed the sediment after fermentation] only 2,333 bottles of the Blanc de Noirs Assemblage Two. It's currently very fresh, with lots of minerality and we have the feeling its development is just at the beginning and it could flourish and intensify with even further cellaring – potentially 15 years or more.
JEAN-JACQUES & ALEXANDRE CATTIER are chef de cave and chief winemaker respectively of Cattier and Armand de Brignac champagnes. Both qualified as oenologists at the Universite de Reims Champagne-Ardenne. Jean-Jacques also earned a Master of Science degree and spent a year studying nocturnal luminescence on the French Antarctic island of Kerguelen, while Alexandre opted for Australian wineries for his post-graduation studies.
Champagne Armand de Brignac Blanc de Noirs Assemblage Two is available from Berry Bros & Rudd, priced £550, at bbr.com. The Brut Gold is £250, at armanddebrignac.com