PHOTO: : Champagne Armand de Brignac
If a soundtrack invariably accompanies a big celebration—an engagement, say, or winning a division championship, or the closing of a monster deal—it’s the popping of Champagne corks.
Here comes a bottle for the most major celebration: Armand de Brignac’s Blanc de Noirs Assemblage Two, aka A2, from the centuries-old house owned by the rapper Jay-Z, which hits the market on April 18.
The release of its predecessor A1, in its eye-catching gun-metal-coated bottle with a hand-hammered pewter label, generated serious buzz in 2015. People noted its $760 price tag, one of the costliest for a nonvintage Champagne, and wondered how much Jay-Z and his friends and family might hype it. Would it feature in a video the way the brand’s blanc de blancs figured in the bathtub of the Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj Feeling Myself music video? Would he continue building $100,000 Champagne towers, which he did with Armand de Brignac’s Brut Gold for a Barack Obama fundraiser at his 40/40 Club in 2008?
Yet mere prop it was not; the rich, fruit-forward A1 was named the No. 1 Blanc de Noirs in the world in a blind tasting by Fine Champagne magazine in the summer of 2016. Wine writer Mark Oldman admires the wine’s complexity and nuance: “It holds its own against the world’s best Champagnes,” he maintains. He cautions, however, that it doesn’t necessarily taste like $750 and that many other sparklers are as delicious for one-10th the price. “Those finer details are often lost on the casual drinker,” he says. Our own wine critic, Elin McCoy, called the A1 “full, rich, and tangy—and way better and more elegant than it has to be for a wine that may end up more status symbol than collectible.”
We haven’t tasted the A2 yet—it hasn’t yet arrived in the U.S. We do know that it features pinot noir grapes picked from the 2008, 2009, and 2010 vintages, almost exactly the same as the fruit used in A1. It’s said to taste quite similar to its predecessor, except for a subtle flavor of peppermint, a refreshing undertone on the finish. And that the bottle looks almost exactly the same as A1’s—a status symbol for a certain kind of celebrant. “I know people who buy just one bottle so they can show it off whenever someone comes to their home,” says Oldman. “It’s bling bling for the Frigidaire.”
Therein lies a key to the success of Armand de Brignac. Fine wine drinkers love it, and so do people who are in it for the flash, as Champagne is one wine whose packaging counts for a lot. Every inch of an Armand de Brignac bottle is coated in metallic gold and silver or shiny pink, as with the rosé. It looks like no other wine you can find.
“Champagne is a wine that historically is associated with quality, uniqueness, and celebration; Armand de Brignac embodies that in its product and design,” says Jordan Salcito, founder of Bellus wines and Ramona wine cooler. “They understand that their consumer is interested in luxury. They have five sizes of large format bottles. If a regular size A1 bottle is good at creating a moment, imagine how show-stopping a magnum or a jeroboam is.”
Yet even with the flash, Armand de Brignac is turning to a subtler sort of signaling with A2: The only thing that announces the bottle as different than its predecessor is a discreet label on the back with its number stamped on it. Only 2,333 bottles of A2 are being released onto the market at a price of $850, the cost of a new Samsung Galaxy S8. (If you can score a case, it will cost a little more than $10,000.)
Numbering the A2 bottles responds to a demand from collectors.
“We hadn’t thought about numbering them originally. But customers and collectors were requesting specific numbers: 888, or their birth date,” said Chief Executive Officer Sebastien Besson over the phone. Does it have anything to do with the rise in counterfeit wine? No. “We haven’t found counterfeit wines. With the pewter bottles and the boxes, it’s tough to do. Anyway, it’s harder to counterfeit champagne than it is to fake a red wine. It’s just too complicated.”
Besson maintains that even though the new version is $100 more than the original release, A2 is “accurately priced.” He compares it with the value of a great red wine and points out that the cost is much lower than that of many DRCs. Many of the bottles have already been preordered from Armand de Brignac’s top clients. “We anticipate they may only be available for a few months,” he said.
Armand de Brignac won’t release its sales figures, but it produces about 100,000 bottles of its six Champagnes annually, “a drop in the ocean of the 300 million bottles of Champagne produced annually,” said Besson.
As for the celebrity ownership, Besson says Jay-Z’s influence has been understated since he took ownership in 2014, leaving development up to the house’s venerated winemakers. Three new Champagnes have been released since then—the A1 Blanc de Noirs, A2, and a sweet prestige cuvée Demi Sec. “Jay is a very strong businessman, certainly one that likes to understand what consumers want and here to build the business for the long term,” said Besson. “He always has a few bottles on hand for a celebration, I know that for sure.”