There is no great secret to making Champagne; it's all in the quality of the grapes. Madame Clicquot understood this, and Veuve Cliquot's reputation rests on her having bought the best vineyards, 1,272 acres of them. Alain Lorenzo considered this as he read Veuve's notes de dégustation for eluxury.com, a startup Web site that he was recruited to oversee in 2000. Weird, he thought to himself, these descriptions of Champagne read exactly like descriptions of perfumes.
Lorenzo would remember this when he returned to his original job as president of Givenchy perfumes in 2004. Like his colleagues, he had grown uncomfortable with the pace at which new perfumes were being released. From 60 new fragrances introduced worldwide annually, the figure had more than doubled. He was increasingly wary of those transient scents based on marketing concepts - "stories," the industry calls them - that were basically empty vessels. "I felt we'd destroyed what was rare and luxurious about perfume," he said. But the Champagne people, it seemed to him, had escaped this. Nobody buys Champagne because of the shape of the bottle. "Think about flowers, these natural elements," Lorenzo said. "Influenced by the weather. Harvested. Distilled. Just like wine. I thought, Maybe the best way to focus people on better perfumes is to talk about the juice, the fragrance. When perfumes were first created, it wasn't about telling a story, or marketing, it was about the scent. Period."
He was not alone in his thinking. Rémi Clero, head of the French niche house L'Artisan Parfumeur, had become fascinated with grands crus wines that are not blended for consistency like Champagne but rather made almost entirely from a single grape harvest. In France, vineyards are spread among the villages and crus; each cru produces significant variations in quality and is ranked accordingly. Each year's grands crus are determined by that unique grape harvest, so Clero decided that L'Artisan would create perfumes that changed entirely with each flower harvest: perfumes - like wines - dictated by nature, all about one single flower.
Parfums Givenchy gets flowers from a number of suppliers; jasmine is grown in France, Egypt, Indonesia, India, Brazil and Morocco, and each source varies hugely in quality. And every single year, despite droughts and hailstorms that destroy fields full of roses and storms that rip mimosa trees out by the roots, Givenchy must ensure that the scent found in the latest bottle of Amarige - smelling mainly of mimosa, a tiny, luscious yellow flower - is the same in every bottle. This principle of consistency holds true for perfume as well as Champagne, with one notable exception. In a particularly good year, Champagne makers take the the very best grapes from their grands crus - the grape crop of 1998 was magnificent, for example - and create a vintage Champagne called millésime that is superior to the standard Champagne. Now, Lorenzo thought, what if you did something similar with perfume - take one spectacular harvest from one year and one single place and put that flower in a "vintage"?
This is how Givenchy came to create millésime versions of three of its fragrances. The first, Amarige Harvest 2005, appeared in mid-December. L.M.R., a company based in Grasse, France, which supplies much of the industry with its best ingredients, had reported that in Tanneron, a town on the Côte d'Azur, people had been talking about the exceptional 2005 mimosa harvest. Word among the locals, who pick the flowers that grow wild around the area, was that this mimosa was particularly powdery and beautiful. L.M.R. distilled this harvest, and Givenchy bought 70 percent of the entire stock. While classic Amarige contains only 10 percent natural mimosa, in Amarige Harvest 2005, Givenchy has boosted it to 25 percent. Givenchy acquired just enough 2005 Tanneron mimosa to produce only 100,000 bottles of Amarige Harvest 2005; it will be about 20 percent more expensive than the classic version. (Organza Harvest 2005 and Very Irresistible Harvest 2005 will appear in March and May 2006 respectively.)
Clero selected two sublime and very costly L.M.R. products, and L'Artisan's first "grand cru," which appeared this past fall, uses an L.M.R. orange blossom from the April 2004 harvest near the town of Nabul, Tunisia. Clero bought all of it; it will turn up in no other perfume in the world, and L'Artisan will make exactly 2,990 bottles. A hundred milliliters of the perfume will cost $250. L'Artisan's Narcissus 2005, to come out in 2006, uses an exceptional narcissus harvested on June 6th and 7th, 2005, in Lozère, southern France.
L'Artisan's Fleur d'Oranger 2005 has an almost violent impact, a rough, meaty presentation of the raw material. Givenchy's Amarige Harvest 2005 is the ingredients shown off to polished, velvety effect. They have one thing in common, however. Just as the great Veuve years vanish, these perfumes, and their great years, too, will disappear.