The story of Armand de Brignac, or ‘Ace of Spades’ as it’s colloquially known, begins with a very public break-up. Since the infancy of his career, Jay-Z had been an ardent supporter of Louis Roederer’s Cristal champagne brand. The bottle regularly starred in his lyrics and videos, and as early as 1999 in the track ‘Hard Knock Life’ Jay-Z rapped about wanting to “sip the Cris and get pissy-pissy”.
It took just one throwaway comment to end the love affair. Frédéric Rouzaud, managing director of the company that makes Cristal, made his feelings clear in an interview published in The Economist. “That’s a good question, but what can we do?” replied Rouzaud when asked how the company felt about its popularity amongst rappers and on the clubland scene. “We can’t forbid people from buying it,’’ Rouzaud continued. “I’m sure Dom Pérignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business.”
Not long after the dramatic Cristal break-up, Jay-Z formalised his association with Armand de Brignac by buying the brand. According to the Cattier family whose champagne house in the charming village of Rilly-La-Montagne produces the showy golden bottles, Jay-Z is a hands-off boss who gives the expert winemakers a carte blanche to do their thing.
Bottles of the brand’s iconic Brut Gold sell for £300 in Harrods while the newest release, the limited-edition Blanc de Noirs Assemblage Three, will set you back £1,095. And then there’s the 30 litre Midas bottle which cost one lucky punter £125,000 in the former Playground nightclub in Liverpool.
So, why the hefty price tag? To find out just what goes into making the world’s blingiest champagne I took a trip 27 metres underground into the Cattier family’s ancient cellars. The Cattiers have owned vineyards in Chigny-les-Roses since 1763, but it wasn’t until 1916 when Jean Cattier was sent home from the Front with severe injuries that the family began bottling its own champagnes rather than simply selling on the grapes.
Today the company is run by father-son duo Jean-Jacques and Alexandre Cattier, 12th and 13th generation winemakers respectively who oversee the production of Armand de Brignac’s full range of champagnes.
Not long after the dramatic Cristal break-up, Jay-Z formalised his association with Armand de Brignac by buying the brand
As we wander through the Cattier family cellars the weight of history is literally written on the walls. Deep scratch marks pock the walls where hundreds of years ago workers hewed the cellars out of the chalk by hand. Elsewhere someone has left their initials along with the date, 1868, inscribed in a heart motif, and the brickwork bears the marks of smoke left by locals sheltering deep below the earth from second world war bombing raids.
My guide produces an antique key the size of his palm which grants access to the Armand de Brignac section of the cellars where golden bottles glint in the low light. The gold skin might bring a flash of bling, but it also serves a very practical purpose. The material helps to protect the precious champagne inside from so-called ‘light strike’ which occurs when the wine is damaged by exposure to UV rays.
The bottles here are undergoing ‘riddling’, a month-long process which requires cellar employees to slightly turn each bottle once a day until the yeast is collected in the neck. The bottles are then disgorged to remove the yeast and finished by hand with the striking pewter labels by the team of all-female employees.
Working like this is slow, but thorough. There are 18 staff members in the cellars who can each finish just 20 bottles an hour. While the intensive manual labour isn’t cheap, it allows the Cattiers to inject a drop of individuality into each bottle and keep a close eye on quality.
Back above ground I meet with Jean-Jacques, who expands on the Armand de Brignac story. The idea for the prestigious golden bottles first came up in 2000, but it wasn’t until Ace of Spades featured in Jay-Z’s music video ‘Show Me What You Got’ in 2006 that the brand took off in clubland.
“The day after the launch of the video we received hundreds of emails from people all over the world asking where they can buy this bottle,” he explains. A few years after Jay-Z’s divine intervention, in 2014, the rapper proved his devotion to the brand and his shrewd business sense by buying a controlling stake in the highly successful company.
From the original Brut Gold bottling which starred in Jay-Z’s video, the Armand de Brignac range has grown to include five distinct champagnes each with a jewel-like metallic skin. Each is a multi-vintage cuvee which incorporates wines from three different vintages. The grapes are selected from Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards across the Champagne region. The composition of each blend is then painstakingly honed by Jean-Jacques and Alexandre Cattier.
The Brut Gold is mainly composed of pinot noir and pinot meunier along with some chardonnay. “The blending is to bring out the characteristics from each variety of grape,” explains Jean-Jacques. “The pinot noir brings structure and depth, pinot meunier the fruity side, and the chardonnay gives elegance.”
“We use only the first press to produce la creme de la creme, the best of the best”, continues Jean-Jacques, describing how the winery takes just the finest juice for its Armand de Brignac champagnes. This commitment to quality puts strict limits on the quantities of Armand de Brignac available. That upper limit is capped at 100,000 bottles across the entire range with no plans to increase in the future.
This laser-like focus on luxury and quality doesn’t come at the expense of innovation
As we progress with the tasting, I feel like I’m a kid in a very special kind of sweet shop. Each champagne in the Armand de Brignac family is encased in a different colour metallic foil. The Rosé made from old vine pinot noir is robed in a delicate pink, while a bright silver has been chosen for the breathtakingly pure Blanc de Blancs which is crafted from 100% chardonnay sourced from the Côte des Blancs.
This laser-like focus on luxury and quality doesn’t come at the expense of innovation. Our final tasting is of the Armand de Brignac Demi Sec which is adorned in a metallic hot pink skin. Jean-Jacques explains that often in the past winemakers would make a demi sec by taking “the last juice to come out of the press” and sometimes add sugar to cover up faults in the base wine. Armand de Brignac does things very differently; the Cattiers take the finest first juice from the press and add the minimum amount of sugar allowable by law, just 33 grams per litre.
Before we taste the Demi Sec, Jean-Jacques reveals the secret ingredient in Armand de Brignac champagnes. Unlike almost every other champagne house, its dosage – the sweetened wine added to the champagne just before it is corked – is aged in oak barrels.
The oak immediately makes its presence known in the Demi Sec, adding exotic spice and sandalwood notes to the gentle touch of sweetness and red fruit flavours. This is the dark horse of the brand, produced in tiny quantities for the appreciation of true connoisseurs. With a tangible sense of pride in his voice, Jean-Jacques confides in us that for him, “the Demi-Sec is the Chateau d’Yquem of champagne”.
All too soon it is time for us to take our leave, and my eye falls on Jean-Jacques’ phone case. It’s adorned with the Armand de Brignac pewter label. At face value it might be flashy, but beneath the showmanship lies a deep commitment to quality spanning 13 generations. Jay-Z’s “switching gold bottles” is undoubtedly a status symbol, but it’s also a shrewd investment in a brand which will endure and thrive long into the future.
Oeno specialises in sourcing the finest bottlings for private investment and trade. See oenogroup.com