What’s Past is Preface
Dom Perignon vs Veuve Clicquot represents the greatest names in champagne, with histories going back hundreds of years. They virtually invented champagne as we know it. They were instrumental at its inception, and they were responsible for every major innovation in its development.
To truly appreciate their contribution, it’s worth remembering that a pedigree going back centuries is worth more than just its snob value.
For generations the vintners and distillers attached to these houses didn’t just make champagne, they took notes: weather conditions, temperature changes, barometer readings.
They recorded their observations. They wrote down their thoughts and ideas for their own benefit as well as the benefit of their successors who were very often their children and grandchildren.
They made discoveries, planned and accidental. And they made breakthroughs. They gathered information and developed formulas and recipes so essential to champagne production that they became trade secrets – the lifeblood of the industry.
Champagne is for all intents and purposes a registered trademark.
Call it what you will but if your sparkling wine isn’t made in the Province of Champagne in the country of France, you can’t call it champagne. It doesn’t matter if you use the same processes and the same grapes, it’s not champagne and that’s that.
Even referring to color as champagne is off-limits. There’s an internationally recognized governing body that regulates and polices trade descriptions: the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne. The CIVC isn’t shy about filing lawsuits.
Nor is champagne made outside the Champagne region entitled to advertise itself as being made in the méthode champenoise – even if the process they employ is identical. Instead, confusingly, they must use the terms ‘traditional method’ or ‘classical method’.
Dom Perignon vs Veuve Clicquot
Circa 1670, the 32-year-old cellar master of Hautvilliers Abbey, a Benedictine monk named Dom Pérignon, all but invented champagne single-handedly.
This sounds like hyperbole until you realize that:
- He was the first winemaker to perform an ‘assemblage’: the blending together of single-grape wines to create a high-quality hybrid;
- He perfected a pressing process that made clear white wine from black grapes;
- He observed the natural tendency of wines to retain their sugar and exploited it to bring about secondary fermentation;
- He bottled his champagne in thick glass and capped them with cork rather than wood.
When Madame Barbe-Nicole Clicquot died in 1866, sales of her champagne had reached four hundred thousand bottles a year. By 1911, they were selling two million, four times as many as Ace of Spades sells today, at a time when there were no container ships and no diesel or electric locomotives.
The person responsible for this exponential growth in sales was none other than Madame Clicquot herself.
When Mme Clicquot took control of her deceased husband’s champagne business, there was only one way of removing the sediment, only one way of clarifying champagne, and that was decanting it in a method that later became known as ‘riddling’.
Champagne would be allowed to stand until the lees (the sediment, dead yeast cells) had sunk to the bottom. Then the champagne would be very carefully poured off into another bottle leaving behind as much of the sediment as possible. That bottle in its turn would be allowed to stand until the sediment had settled to the bottom and then…you get the picture.
Madame Clicquot not only invented a device – the riddling table – that could riddle a lot of bottles at once, she perfected a technique to go with it; a technique that is still in use, although now it’s fully automated.
This one innovation – along with some marketing strategies that were way ahead of their time (her husband was the first business owner to employ commercial travelers) – gave Madame Clicquot the edge she needed to outstrip her competition and establish Veuve Clicquot as the world’s leading manufacturer and distributor of champagne.
How is Dom Pérignon Made?
Anyone can make champagne: all it takes is the recipe and the requisite ingredients. Making a bottle of superlative champagne that people are prepared to pay a lot of money for is a different proposition entirely, a process so complicated and laborious it’s as close as the human race will ever come to actual alchemy.
Dom Pérignon is and has always been made according to the ‘méthode champenoise’ mentioned above, which goes something like this:
- Grape Selection: The grapes are sourced from vineyards designated as either Grand Cru or Premier Cru. The grapes must be whole with their skins intact or they’re not fit for pressing. Only two varieties of grape are used in Dom Pérignon: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. If that particular year’s harvest is especially tasty, DP will declare it a vintage year and only use grapes grown in that season.
- Pressing: Grapes are pressed, not crushed. Nowadays, hydraulic presses precisely mimic the action of the old vertical presses. They include a built-in mechanism that performs a natural ‘retrousse’ or ‘roll-up’ of the pomace (the pulped skins, seeds, and stems) using gravity.
- First fermentation: Yeast is added to both the Pinot Noir and the Chardonnay grape juices and they are left to ferment for six to ten weeks.
- Assemblage: The two base wines are mixed in equal parts to create a ‘cuvée’, a blend, or ‘assemblage’.
- The Liqueur de Tirage: The cuvée is bottled, but, before it’s corked, more yeast is added, along with a bit of sugar. This is the ‘liqueur de tirage’, the agent that precipitates the second fermentation once the bottle has been capped, trapping the carbon dioxide.
- Aging: Now the bottles are laid out flat in subterranean cellars. (Rich in limestone, the Champagne region’s soil is riddled with caves and tunnels.)
- Riddling: After lying underground for a minimum of nine – but often as long as sixteen – years, the bottles undergo ‘remuage’ or riddling. The bottles are inclined downward at an angle of 35° on purpose-built racks. Every day they’re lifted up, turned left or right, then dropped back into place. Every day the angle is increased until after a couple of weeks the bottles are pointing straight down and the sediment has settled into the neck.
- Disgorgement: In disgorgement à la volée, the bottle is turned upside-down and the cork removed, carbon dioxide pushes the plug of sediment out through the neck, and the bottle is quickly turned right-way round. In disgorgement à la glace, the neck of the bottle is lowered into a solution cooled to -27 degrees, trapping sediment in an ice plug. The bottle is then opened and the plug pushed out by the pressure of the carbon dioxide.
- Dosage, the liqueur d’expedition: This step determines how sweet or dry the champagne is going to be. Each bottle is topped up with a mixture of sugar and base wine. Sugar not only affects the sweetness, but it also balances the acidity essential to keeping the wine fresh well into the future. To tweak the color and flavor, the liqueur d’expedition might consist of sugar and a reserve wine instead of a base wine. The following table spells out the relationship between the different dosages in grams of sugar per liter:
- Brut Nature zero dosage or under 0-3 g/l
- Extra Brut 0-6 g/l
- Brut 0-12 g/l
- Extra Dry 12-17 g/l
- Sec 17-32 g/l
- Demi-Sec 32-50 g/l
- Doux 50+ g/l
- Corking: The cork with its metal cap and its muselet (the little wire cage) make an airtight seal but that doesn’t mean that the champagne is entirely sealed off. The cork is porous enough to allow some air in so that the champagne can still age.
- The last lap: After another six or seven months underground, the champagne is ready to be drunk.
How is Veuve Clicquot Made?
Veuve Clicquot conforms to all of the steps that comprise the méthode champenoise (which it is largely responsible for having established). Over the years, it has developed a number of styles:
- Non-Vintage: a consistent blend of varieties and vintages aged for a minimum of fifteen months.
- Vintage: made exclusively from an exceptional crop of grapes grown in a single season.
- Prestige Cuvée: the tête de cuvée or Grande Cuvée, the flagship of a Champagne house.
- Blanc de Blancs: made entirely of Chardonnay.
- Blanc de Noirs: made entirely of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, or both.
- Rosé: red and white blended before dosage to produce a pink wine.
What Are They Made Of?
Three varieties of grape go into the press:
- Pinot Noir, a red grape with a black skin, darkens the wine and enlivens its bouquet;
- Pinot Meunier, a red grape, with an acidic tinge that enriches the palate;
- Chardonnay, a green grape used to make white wine. Chardonnay imparts fruity flavors, enhances texture and sweetness, and adds a rich creamy smoothness;
- Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Arbane, and Petit Meslier are also used to enhance the assemblage.
How Are They Different?
Dom Pérignon is always and will forever be vintage champagne while Veuve Clicquot is not.
The Difference between Vintage and Non-Vintage
To qualify, a bottle of vintage champagne must satisfy two stipulations:
- It must be made from grapes grown in the same season and the same year;
- It must be aged at least three years.
Vintages are only declared when the grapes are exceptional. In eighty-eight years, Dom Pérignon has only produced forty-three vintages.
Veuve Clicquot has an ABV of 12% while Dom Pérignon’s is 12.5%
Each style of Veuve Clicquot has a signature color but yellow predominates.
Dom Pérignon is a pale golden yellow, deepening as it gets older.
Veuve Clicquot ranges from $292 for a 750ml Gold Brut through to $612 for a 750ml Silver Blanc de Blancs.
Dom Pérignon starts at around $185. Its average price is around $278.
Taste & Flavor
Dom Pérignon has a bright fruity flavor with mineral and acidic overtones.
Veuve Clicquot has an orange citrus flavor and a peach aroma.
|Item||Veuve Clicquot||Dom Pérignon|
|Production Area||The French province of Champagne||The French province of Champagne|
|Taste||Orange citrus||Bright, spicy fruit flavors|
|Price (per 750ml)||$79||$278|
|Color||Yellow||Pale, golden yellow|
How To Drink Them
Don’t keep champagne in the fridge. Store it in a cool, dry place like a wardrobe or a cupboard in the cellar. Half an hour before serving it, put it on ice.
Incline the bottle upwards at a forty-five-degree angle. Grab the base of the bottle with one hand and gently twist while holding the cork firmly in the other hand, your thumb on top.
Don’t fill the glass to the brim. Pour an inch or two, give the foam (or ‘mousse’) time to settle, then top it up to the two-thirds mark.
Alternatives to Dom Pérignon and Veuve Clicquot
If such a thing exists, it would be one of these:
The world #3, exported to more than one hundred and twenty countries. Average price (before tax): $47 for 750ml.
#1 in France, Nicolas Feuillatte is made by the Centre Vinicole, an 80-strong collective of winemaking cooperatives and more than five thousand vineyards. $37 for 750ml.
Perrier-Jouët’s signature Belle Epoque label ships three million bottles a year. #4 in the world. Average price (before tax): $53 for 750ml.
Moët (& Chandon)
Moët ships twenty-eight million bottles a year. Average price: $43 for 750ml.
Which is the oldest, Dom Pérignon or Veuve Clicquot?
It’s hard to say since Dom Pérignon had been made for centuries before it was finally incorporated. Both houses have been in business for hundreds of years.
Which one is the most popular?
Veuve Clicquot sells about 500 000 bottles a year. Dom Pérignon sells 5 million.
Why are they so expensive?
It’s an expensive business with high overheads. That said, the bigger houses sell enough globally to bring down the price to something more than reasonable.