Meaning No. 1
Not only is the he word cuvée bandied about willy-nilly, but it seems that people associate it with superior quality, or something rare, but that’s only partly true.
The first meaning of the word is related to the pressing of the grapes immediately after the harvest.
Now, there is only a certain amount of juice that you are allowed to extract from the grapes – in fact it is 2,550 litres from 4,000 kg of grapes.
Pressing the grapes takes three hours or more and the juice is classified according to whether it comes off the press at the start of the process or towards the end.
Normally the very first 100 litres, or so, will be put to one side and not used to make champagne because it might well be watery, full of dirt, or have bits of leaves and other stuff in it that you don’t want in your wine.
Then we come to the best quality juice. It’s the heart of the press; it’s the most sought after juice and it’s what you are looking for to make the best quality champagne and… it’s called La Cuvée
So far so good: the word Cuvée is indeed associated with good quality. This juice has the ideal balance between sugar and acidity so it’s going to make well balanced champagne with lots of ageing potential.
The juice that comes off the press towards the end of the pressing cycle is called La Taille ( literally, The Cut). It’s still fine for making into champagne, but it’s more coarse and may have a little more astringency to it than La Cuvée and it is generally accepted that great champagnes don’t come from La Taille.
It’s not surprising therefore that you’ll often hear champagne makers proudly proclaiming that they use only the La Cuvée in their champagnes. Only the finest juice for the most exclusive champagnes. This certainly sounds like a seductive and convincing argument.
However, and here’s the thing. La Cuvée represents 2,000 of the 2,550 you’re allowed to extract. That’s almost 80 % of the juice so perhaps it isn’t that exclusive after all. In fact it’s difficult not to use La Cuvée; there’s not much else left .
So, in my view, you should take any statement about a producer only using La Cuvée, with a healthy measure of scepticism.
If someone talks about using La Tête de Cuvée, that’s another matter because that means a smaller fraction of the juice: the Best of the Best so to speak, but I don’t believe there are any hard and fast rules about what volume of juice La Tête de Cuvée represents, so you need to ask each champagne maker exactly what he or she means and then make up your mind whether or not you’re convinced.
Meaning No. 2
Another way to impress people is to put the word Cuvée in the name of the champagne that appears on the label. Again, it seems to convey some aura of quality on the content of the bottle and this is a fair enough marketing tactic to enhance the image of the product.
You may see Cuvée Joséphine, or Cuvée Exceptionnelle, Cuvée Réserve, or Cuvée Douceur as in this picture ( look just beneath the words 'Grand Cru'), or a hundred and one other variations.
Now I don’t want to be a killjoy and there’s nothing wrong with marketers presenting their products in the best possible light, but from the consumers’ point of view it helps to have enough information to be able to sift through which bits of the marketing pitch are useful and which are not.
Used in this sense the word cuvée means nothing more than ‘ champagne’ or perhaps, ‘batch’ would be a better, although less attractive, approximation. It has absolutely no bearing at all on the quality of the champagne.
Cuve is the French word for a vat or vessel in which the first fermentation is done and in which wine may be stored. So by extension the cuvée is what’s inside the vat. So a cuvée in this sense might be said to mean a ‘vat full’. It means a particular batch or a particular champagne.
So, if a champagne maker makes 6 different types of champagne, he will say he has 6 cuvées in his range. It’s as simple as that.
So searching on Google and the like, for cuvée champagne is like searching for champagne champagne.
As ever, the best method to discover the champagne you like best is to learn whatever you can about the subject, taste as often as you can and then make up your own mind.
All the best from Champagne