You’ll find the term ‘cuvée’ (pronounced koo-vay) on the bottles of everything from prestige Champagne to relatively-uninspiring table wine, so given its ubiquitous appearance, what does the word actually mean?
In its literal translation, cuvée means ‘tank’ in French, which accounts for at least one of the term’s several meanings – we’ll come back to that. But in the world of investment-grade wine – and more specifically, Champagne – the term is used to refer to the first, very gentle pressing of the grapes, which produce the finest wine.
In Champagne, the cuvée is the first 2,050 litres of grape juice from 4,000kg of grapes (a marc), while the following 500 litres are known as the taille (tail). Both are said to give wines a coarser character. As such, cuvée in this respect is used to denote quality.
Indeed, some Champagne houses will produce what they call a ‘prestige cuvée’ – the very cream of the crop – which can command prices as much as six times higher than their standard Champagne offering.
But here’s where things become slightly muddled, because while on its own the word is used as a descriptive noun, it is not a category in its own right. Instead, harking back to its literal French translation of ‘tank’, the term is also used to indicate wines – still or sparkling – that comprise a blend of more than one grape from specially-selected vats (or tanks). And this is of course a very common practice.
Additionally, the use of the term is not regulated in any way, so while ‘cuvée’ is used to imply prestige or quality, the term can – and does – appear on the labels of very ordinary wines. Many producers use the word to differentiate a more superior wine from the rest of their offering, but that does not necessarily put them on par with those from more reputable estates.
But common sense often prevails in identifying which end of the spectrum a particular cuvée lands on. Top producers and genuine Champagne houses are unlikely to use the term arbitrarily, while a £7 supermarket bottle brandishing the term should be approached with some scepticism!