You may know Armand de Brignac champagne from its high profile in luxury culture. Poured in the music videos of Jay-Z and other hip-hop royalty, and famously ordered in bulk by Mark Cuban and the Boston Bruins after championship seasons, Armand de Brignac is the stuff of grand celebration.
One bottle can cost hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of dollars. The brand is sometimes known as “Ace of Spades,” after the logo. Their line of prestige cuvees — Champagne’s highest classification — includes the flagship Brut Gold, plus Rosé, Blanc de Noirs and Blanc de Blancs. All are made from Premier Cru and Grand Cru grapes.
Thanks in part to Jay-Z pushing the brand — and then purchasing it in 2014 — Armand de Brignac has become a trendy order in luxury bars and nightclubs across the globe. So what goes into crafting the Ace of Spades?
I had the chance to ask the winemakers themselves at a reception held last week atop the Lotte Palace in downtown Manhattan.
For starters, the full-time production team is only 14 people. This puts a cap on releases. There is no preset number of wines per bottling. It can differ from year to year. Some bottlings number only in the several thousand.
“We have no desire to make it the largest, but we must always make it the best,” explained Alexandre Cattier, an 11th generation winemaker (pictured above, right).
Alexandre works alongside his father Jean-Jacques (above, left). Their Champagne Cattier House owned Armand de Brignac before the deal with Jay-Z. The father-son duo carry on a family tradition of grape growing and winemaking in the Montagne de Reims region of Champagne, France that dates back to the 18th century.
Everything they do is based on tradition. Luxury isn’t manufactured but handcrafted. French law dictates that Champagne grapes are harvested through hand picking — but Armand de Brignac goes beyond that.
Grapes get squeezed by a Coquart press, rather than a modern high-volume mechanism. Only the best juice from each harvest makes its way into the final product. Armand de Brignac blends three vintages into each bottling.
The bottling component itself is done traditional-style by one craftsman — again limiting output. Then the wines age for four to five years in-bottle, 100 feet underground, in cool-climate chalk cellars.
Next is riddling, the process all champagne goes through of condensing lees for removal. Bottles are placed in wooden racks. Each day they are turned slightly and then placed back into positions gradually more tilted.
Most vineyards have mechanized this technique to reduce manual labor. But Armand de Brignac (like other prestige cuvees) still does this by hand.
After about 30 days riddling is complete. Gathered sediment is poured out, again by hand.
And in goes an oak-aged, proprietary “dosage.” This levels off the liquid. Bottles are then corked — by hand — and finished with pewter labels affixed and polished by artisans. Owing to the uniqueness of this craftsmanship, no two bottles are exactly alike.
The result is smooth and subtly flavorful champagne, light but bright, and in bottles befitting the wine’s elegance.
The Rosé launched in 2008 and the Blanc de Noirs was unveiled last year. Typical customers are obviously among the wealthier, though also younger than you might expect. Alexandre said his cuvees are popular among Millennials.
Whoever gets their hands on Ace of Spades can enjoy the end result of a lot of tradition and labor. It’s true luxury. Because all that hands-on work leads to such little supply.
But that’s the point. Explains Alexandre, “We focus first on the quality. We must keep the quality, and be comfortable with the volume.”
Kyle Swartz is the associate editor of Beverage Dynamics Magazine. Reach him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @kswartzz.