No. 1. Standing out from the pack:
Champagne Armand de Brignac – more commonly known as Ace of Spades – was launched in 2006. The Brut Gold Cuvée, the flagship wine of the range, was first seen in American rapper Jay-Z's "Show Me What You Got" video, shot at Monte Carlo Casino and released in October that year.
In the video, Jay-Z is seen to refuse a bottle of Cristal before he accepts the lavish gold Armand de Brignac bottle presented in a silver case. The Champagne was immediately catapulted to fame and its first release quickly sold out. Today, the Ace of Spades gold bottle comes in a lacquered black box lined in rich black velvet. At around $300, it remains one of the most expensive, yet most desired, bottles of Champagne in trendy clubs from New York to Tokyo.
No. 2. The golden partnership:
Armand de Brignac is the brainchild of the Cattier house, located in the Champagne village of Chigny-les-Roses, and the New York drinks distribution company Sovereign Brands.
The Cattier family have been growing grapes in the Montagne de Reims area since 1763, and have made Champagne since 1918. The house is still family owned and run by Jean-Jacques Cattier and his son Alexandre, both respected winemakers. Champagne specialist and writer Michael Edwards speaks highly of the Cattier Champagnes and is particularly fond of the family's single-vineyard cuvée Clos du Moulin.
According to Jean-Jacques Cattier, Armand de Brignac aims “to present something authentically luxurious and which does justice to the once-in-a-lifetime events at which Champagne is so often present.” He believes that Champagne produces "bubbles in the eyes."
No. 3. The Jay-Z connection:
Since propelling Ace of Spades into overnight stardom in 2006, Jay-Z has promoted the Champagne in his songs and clubs. The endorsements by the ex-Cristal lover have been pivotal in the Champagne’s positioning and success. No surprise, then, that there have been several questions raised regarding the exact nature of this savvy businessman’s relationship with the brand. However, to date there is no hard proof that Jay-Z has a direct financial involvement in Armand de Brignac – nowhere is he named as one of the owners or shareholders.
Jean-Jacques Cattier confirms that the rapper did once visit the winery – in June 2010, after a concert in Paris. They spent "a good morning together, touring the cellars and tasting through the range."
No. 4. How to drink it:
The Cattier Champagne house recommends a serving temperature of 6–8°C, achieved by placing the bottle in the refrigerator the night before or in an ice bucket for half an hour. Use a flute or tulip-shaped glass (never a broad-rimmed glass) and ensure it is no more than two-thirds full. A useful tip: make sure the glass has no remaining trace of any washing-up products, or the Champagne will lose its effervescence.
Start by looking at the wine, say the Cattier experts, "then bring the flute up to your nose and breathe in slowly to perceive the scents and aromas. Finally, take a sip and keep it in your mouth for a few moments to discover the Champagne's personality."
The unusual opaque Ace of Spades bottle was inspired by a design of André Courrèges, a French fashion designer and one of the inventors of the miniskirt. In the 1990’s, Courrèges approached the Cattier family to produce a limited-edition Champagne in a metal bottle to reflect the colors of his fashion house.
Jean-Jacques Cattier had always admired the innovative concept of the metallic bottle, which he revisited for the launch of the Armand de Brignac brand. The ace of spades insignia was added to make reference to the royal heritage of the Cattier family vineyards.
No. 6. It’s all in the name:
De Brignac was the name of a hero in a book that Jean-Jacques Cattier's mother once read. She liked it so much it became stuck in her memory, though no-one nowadays can remember which book the character was in. Later, Jean-Jacques' sister added "Armand" to round out the name. The family registered it as a brand in the 1950’s with Champagne's wine authority, the Comite Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne (CIVC). It then lay dormant until 2006, when they dusted it off for their prestige cuvée and the forgotten hero once again enjoyed the limelight.
No. 7. What's the blend?:
The Ace of Spades brut gold cuvée is an even three-way blend of the traditional Champagne grape varieties chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. The grapes are pressed in a traditional Coquard basket press and only the first pressing of the cuvée is used to make the wine.
Unlike Cristal and Dom Pérignon, it is a non-vintage cuvée, comprising 60 percent wines of the current vintage and 40 percent reserve wines from the two previous years. The Champagne is aged for three years in the deepest part of the Cattier cellar (more than 30 meters underground) and riddled and disgorged by hand. The liqueur de dosage, which is added at this stage, has been aged in oak casks to bring extra complexity and “soul” to the wine. The total production is around 60,000 bottles, which is relatively small.
No. 8. The power of pewter:
The Armand de Brignac bottles are completely paperless – instead of normal labels, genuine pewter is used. All labels are hand-made and applied with subtle individual differences; hence, every bottle is a unique work of art. According to Jean Jacques Cattier, the company wanted to do things a bit differently and this is why they opted for the “one-of-a-kind pewter labels.”
Cattier's Armand de Brignac Champagnes come in four colors. The flagship Ace of Spades Brut Gold bottle is, naturellement, gold; the Blanc de Blancs, made exclusively from grand and premier cru chardonnay, has a silver label; the Ace of Spades Rosé comes in metallic pink to match its delicate salmon color; and the very limited Golf Cuvée, released each year at the Masters Golf Tournament, sports metallic green.
Armand de Brignac’s director of public relations, Yvonne Lardner, confirms that the Ace of Spades range will soon expand with a single-vineyard Champagne. Jean-Jacques Cattier let slip that the cuvée will be a Blanc de Noirs made from 100 percent pinot meunier.
No. 9. Size – and brand loyalty – matters:
In addition to the standard 750 milliliters, the Ace of Spades Champagnes also come in eight larger sizes, all the way from magnums (1.5 liters), through methuselahs (6 liters), to the record-breaking 30-liter Midas Brut. The Midas size was launched in 2011, with the name inspired by the Greek myth of King Midas – who turned everything he touched into gold. Several high-end clubs stock various large bottles of Ace of Spades, with prices reaching $200,000 for a Midas.
According to Professor Damien Wilson, from the Burgundy School of Business, “Armand de Brignac is an iconic brand, relying on image and endorsement above all else. Their audience will be more aspirational than real connoisseurs.” He believes its followers are more loyal than those of many other Champagne brands.
No 10. What do the wine critics say?
How good is the wine, really? At Fine Champagne Magazine’s 2010 “Top 100 Champagnes” blind tasting, the de Brignac Ace of Spades took first place. According to U.S. wine critic Peter Liem, a Champagne specialist and author of the Champagne Guide website, this is not so surprising.
“The brut gold cuvée is very well made, even if it may not be the most exciting Champagne," says Liem. "This means that it will not offend or puzzle the tasters, which generally translates into a relatively high aggregate score of all panel members for the wine.”
Stephen Charters MW, Champagne chair at the Reims Management School in France, agrees that the wine is well made, although he believes it lacks a little complexity. Ironically, he says, it's this that makes the wine more commercially approachable.