Look through the rows of bottles available to buy nowadays and you’ll come across a few with ‘Cuvée’ on their labels. Not many people know what a ‘Cuvee’ is or why we should keep our eyes peeled for them . . .
Cuvée is a French word that basically means ‘special blend’ and although it originated in France you’ll see it applied to wine labels from all over the world. The word Cuvée is derived from the word ‘cuve’ meaning ‘vat’ and dates back to 1825 when French wine makers started to put special emphasis on their quality blends. Cuvées tend to be distinctive house-style blends made to finely crafted recipes that generally denote a wine of superior quality; one that is better than the wine maker’s regular production.
Sadly the term Cuvée is not regulated. If it was controlled, countries outside France would probably not be permitted to use it. Some producers will put Cuvée on their wines labels to dupe the consumer into thinking that the bottle contents are a notch above the rest. However the majority of producers stake their reputations on their Cuvées which are of real quality and reflect true craftsmanship.
When selecting a Cuvée it’s useful to bear in mind who produced it and where it comes from. You’re most likely to see the word Cuvée on a bottle of champagne or sparkling wine but it is also widely used to label reds and, less commonly, still whites. If the Cuvée is a red or white wine and comes from a chateau or estate that you recognise you can be assured that it is no ‘ordinary’ wine.
If in doubt, check the small print on the label. A lot of good Cuvées have been recognised with awards and medals.
Bordeaux wines are blends so usually when you see the word Cuvée on the label you know that the wine maker has singled this wine out as exceptional to the norm.
Bordeaux Cuvées are often named after the wine maker, the founder of the chateau or a famous person eg:
Chateau de Cappes ‘Cuvée Cedric’ is named after the young, up and coming wine maker who is the son of the founder, Patrick Boulin. Cedric studied oenology at Chateau La Tour Blanche in Sauternes and gained experience in the King Valley, Australia. ‘Cuvée Cedric’ is his first special blend and merited a Gold Medal.
Chateau Les Combes Bordeaux Superieur ‘Cuvée Saint Louis’ is named for King Louis IX of France who reigned from 1226 until his death. He was canonised in 1297 and is the only French monarch to be declared a saint. He is the patron saint of distillers. Made by the Borderie family, Cuvée Saint Louis was awarded a Silver Medal for the 2011 vintage.
Bordeaux producers also name their choice blends ‘Prestige Cuvées’ eg:
Chateau Perrot ‘Cuvée Prestige’ is so named to highlight its superior quality which goes above and beyond their Bordeaux blend. The chateau is owned by the Chavaux family and ‘Cuvée Prestige’ is aptly named as it gained a Gold Medal for the 2010 vintage.
Cuvées are sometimes named ‘Cuvée Vielles Vignes’ after the old vines they were made from.
Old vines in Bordeaux can live to over 100 years old and with age they produce smaller grapes and yield less clusters. Smaller grapes mean a higher ratio of skin to juice which results in deep, intense wines of great quality.
Chateaux owners in Bordeaux are not the only producers of wine, Bordelaise wine merchants (negotiants) make wines as well.
You’ll often find a negotiant produces a Cuvée as a house speciality eg:
‘Cuvée’ de Jean Baptiste Audy is made by the negotiant House of Audy (established in 1906) and is named after its founder, Jean Baptiste. Cuvée is an old style Claret made with a little Syrah in the blend (as was common in 1855) and hails from Audy’s flagship estate Chateau du Courlat in Lussac Saint Emilion.
Tête de Cuvée in Sauternes is the ‘cream of the crop’
The sweet whites of Sauternes and Barsac will sometimes name their wines made from their best grapes ‘Tête de Cuvée’ (tête meaning ‘head’, or in this instance ‘the top or the best”). Chateau Suduiraut ‘Creme de Tête Cuvée Madame’ is a superb example.
Rhone producers follow the same patterns in naming their Cuvées as those in Bordeaux but it’s worth remembering that some producers name a Cuvée after an historical event.
Rocca Maura ‘Cuvée 1737′ from the Cotes du Rhone is a great example. This award winning Cuvée hails from Les Vignerons de Roquemaure in the heart of the southern Rhone Valley. These ancient vineyards gave birth to the term ‘Cotes du Rhone’ in 1737. Roquemaure, with its historic castle and port, was their commercial cradle. A royal decree specified that no wine or harvested grapes could be brought into Roquemaure from outside the area and the letters CDR (Cotes du Rhone) were branded by hot iron into the Roquemaure wine barrels to mark their quality. Les Vignerons de Roquemaure, named their Cuvée ‘1737’ as it represents the quintessence of the Cotes du Rhone and honours this auspicious year.
In Champagne the word Cuvée is used in two different ways:
Cuvée in Champagne can mean a particular blend that the champagne maker has created or the first juice that comes from the pressing of the grapes.
La Cuvée – similar to Extra Virgin Olive Oil, this is only made from the juice extracted from the gentle first pressing of the grapes. This is considered to be the finest and best quality. Champagne grapes are pressed in batches of 4000kg known as a ‘marc’. A maximum of 2,666 litres can be extracted by 3 separate pressings:
1. La Cuvée – 2,050 litres (most top end Champagne Houses only use La Cuvée)
2. La Taille (the tail end, which is closer to the bitter pips and stems) – 410 litres
3. La deuxieme taille (the last drops) – 206 litres
Champagne Cuvées – in Champagne the word Cuvée has been widened to mean a special blend. But as most champagnes are a blend, all champagnes are Cuvées! Just because a champagne has Cuvée on the label it doesn’t mean that it is higher quality than normal.
Prestige Cuvée, Speciale Cuvée – these Cuvées can be something special. Cristal (created in 1878 for Czar Alexander II of Russia) from the Champagne House of Roederer and Dom Perignon (created in 1921) from Moet et Chandon, are both Prestige Cuvées.
Prestige Cuvée commonly refers to a vintage champagne, carefully blended from the best parcels of grapes, that sells for a premium. However as the term isn’t regulated you may find that a champagne labelled Prestige Cuvée isn’t all that it is cracked up to be.
Remember; if in doubt, check it out!