The Armand de Brignac story is a remarkable one, and represents one of the great wine marketing successes of all time.
It begins with the Cattier family, from the village of Chigny-Les-Roses, in the Montagne de Reims. They have cultivated vines here since 1763, although the first wines weren’t made by the family until 1918. Jean-Jacques and his son Alexandre currently oversee this family business, and have 33 hectares of vines, producing around 1 million bottles a year, of which 60% are exported.
Then came Armand de Brignac. Also known as Ace of Spades. From a standing start in 2006, this is now one of the most successful of all prestige Champagne brands. It’s fiendishly expensive, with the cheapest bottle retailing at £250, and the priciest at £695. And these wines sell!
I was really interested to try them. How much of the success of Armand de Brignac is because of the packaging (which is remarkable, even though it will not be to everyone’s tastes)? And how does the quality of the wine stand up?
Head back to 2006. Roederer’s Cristal was the bling Champagne brand of choice for the hip hop scene in the USA. Rappers featured it in their lyrics and and were seen drinking it in their videos. But when quizzed about this association, Frédéric Rouzaud, Roederer’s MD, made a careless comment (‘we can’t forbid people from buying it’) that was taken as racist by famous rapper Jay Z. As a result, Jay Z issued a statement announcing a boycott of Cristal. So which Champagne would take its place?
Later that year, Jay Z released a video for a song titled ‘Show me what you got’. At the 3:05 point, he’s sitting in a club and is offered some Cristal. He waves it away. Then he’s brought a silver case: it’s opened, and inside is a bottle of Armand de Brignac in all its golden glory. Interestingly, this video was shot in advance of any bottles of this new brand arriving in the USA. So why did Jay Z have a bottle? Precisely what was his involvement in this new brand?
Back to the Cattiers. A new Champagne brand with a distinctive bottle takes some planning. This is because the secondary fermentation and ageing on lees takes place inside the final bottle. So, if you decide on a new bottle as part of your brand, it is at least a couple of years (and for a high quality Champagne, much longer) until the product is on the market place. The timing of the rejection of Cristal by the hip hop community, and then the subsequent launch of Armand de Brignac, suggests that if this was a brand that hadn’t been many years in the planning, whoever was behind the new branding would have had to choose a bottle that was already on the market and then add extra design features to it.
And Champagne house Cattier already had the distinctive golden bottle. I asked Jean-Jacques Cattier about the evolution of the Ace of Spades packaging. ‘80% of the design we made ourselves,’ he says. ‘The rest has been made by a US partner.’ (This was Sovereign Brands in New York.) ‘The metallization of the bottle is something we have done for a designer, André Courrèges. He was a very creative designer, so we made a bottle that was metallized silver—the first silver bottles produced in Champagne.’
The collaboration with Courrèges ran its course, and Cattier then used this metal bottle idea for their own brand, Antique Gold. Antique Gold stopped being produced by Cattier at around the same time that Armand de Brignac was born. Cattier currently produce an Antique Brut NV, but this is not in a golden bottle.
All was needed was a name and a concept. ‘Our American partner had the idea of the Ace of Spades,’ says Cattier. ‘The reflection was that Armand de Brignac is an aristocratic name for French people but difficult to pronounce for others. So we had to create a strong emblem to personalize this brand and this bottle.’ The resulting pewter label with the distinctive Ace of Spades logo works perfectly with the metallized finish. ‘When we launched this bottle in Champagne, which is very conservative, it has been like a UFO,’ says Cattier. But he adds, ‘It is not all about the packaging: we have made a good job on the product itself.’
So, what was Jay Z’s involvement in this new brand? The timing of its launch (just after the Cristal boycott), and the fact that it features in his video before it was launched in the USA, hints that he had involvement from the beginning, although officially this is denied. Then, in November last year, it was announced that Jay Z had bought Ace of Spades from Sovereign Brands, so he now owns it outright, while Cattier continue to produce the wines. In 2008 the Blanc de Blanc and Rosé cuvées were added, and this year a Blanc de Noirs has joined the range.
‘We couldn’t imagine the impact this brand would have,’ says Cattier. ‘It is something incredible for us.’
Added later: I asked Jean-Jacques Cattier about the connection between the Antique Gold and the Armand de Brignac wines, both bottled in the same gold bottle. This is his response:
Concerning your question, I can answer you that it was not the same blend and not the same product.
Beginning of the years 2000, we made a trial to test the capacity of the metallization to resist to the ageing in cellars.
Of course, 10 years before we made already a metallization with the French designer André Courrèges and we had already a small experience.
But it was not the same color, silver instead of gold, not the same company for the metallization and not the same process, and a much shorter ageing in cellars. We could not start without any guaranty.
That is why early in the 2000 years we made some bottlings with our classic Cattier blend, in small quantities, and as soon as we were sure of the capacity of resistance of the coating, we started to make a specific blend with grapes of our vineyards and grapes we bought in Cote des Blancs and Vallée de la Marne. And it is those bottles which were ready to start in 2006.
Of course, we sold the bottles used for this trial under a Cattier label, but it was a small quantity during a short period.
We could drink it but it was however too much.
Champagne Armand de Brignac Blanc de Blancs NV
From 2008/9/10. Fresh, bright and quite tight with light citrussy fruit. Very clean and attractive with a hint of creaminess and some subtle toast. Light, quite fine and well balanced. Not overly complex, but has finesse. 91/100
Champagne Armand de Brignac Brut Gold NV
from 2008/9/10. This is the original wine. Some toast and nutty notes on the nose with a sweet peachy edge to the citrussy palate. Some nuts and honey. Quite noticeable dosage. A bit grippy. 89/100
Champagne Armand de Brignac Rosé NV
Full orange/pink colour. Richly flavoured style with red cherries, strawberries and some toastiness. There’s a bit of grip here with fresh fruit and a hint of sweetness. A rich style. 88/100
Champagne Armand de Brignac Blanc de Noirs NV
This is 2006/7/8, and has spent 6 years on the lees. Lovely freshness. This is tight with some notes of cherry, toast, peach and citrus. Has real focus with lemony acidity at its core. Subtle herb and toast notes, too. 92/100
Champagne Armand de Brignac Demi-Sec NV
This is a very rich, off-dry Champagne. Grapey with some nice peach, apple and citrus fruit. Broad and richly textured with lots of flavour. It’s pretty sweet. 89/100