by Cynthia Sin-Yi Cheng
April 29, 2007
At the end of March I returned to Champagne. This time, all my activities were grouped in the southern part of the region around the second champagne capital of Epernay. My initial intention was to spend time with some of the best brut zero style producers. This style was first launched by Laurent-Perrier in 1889 and aptly sold under the label Grand Vin Sans Sucre (literally “Great Wine without Sugar”). A decade later, L-P’s famous cellar master, Alain Terrier, paying homage to the original wine, created the Ultra Brut. By law, brut zero (also commonly referred to as brut nature, extra brut, and sans-dosage) permits up to six grams of sugar per liter in the final stage of the champagne-making process. Compared to the most prevalent brut style champagne — which allows up to fifteen grams of sugar per liter — this bone-dry style bubbly shocks with its bareness. The secret behind L-P’s Ultra Brut is its ripe grapes and extra ageing on lees. The result is a nutty wine that balances out the bright acidity yet needs no sugar cover-up for the premium, matured base wine.
As with any trip, you set out with specific goals and end up making unexpected discoveries along the way. I am thrilled to share what I came across beyond brut zero wines:
1. Brut zero is being taken one step further to brut zero rosé.
2. Anticipate a lot of new wines for the holiday season.
3. Traditionally, champagne is all about blending — grape varieties, vintages, and parcels — yet we see more and more terroir-driven wines.
4. Who says Pinot Meunier is the working-horse blending grape in champagne? I tasted a producer who is making stellar Pinot Meunier based wines.
Chardonnay in a Top Pinot House
My first stop was to visit an old friend: Gosset.
Gosset, founded in 1584, is the oldest still-wine producer in Champagne (They switched to sparkling winemaking in the late 18th century). It is located in Aÿ, the Grand Cru village growing some of the most coveted Pinot Noirs. To sum up the quality of Aÿ Pinots, in the 16th century, the two red wines that fought for a place on the king’s table were from Aÿ and Beaune respectively. Due to Gosset’s prime location and their rich and toasty champagne style, I had always thought their wines were mainly composed of Pinot Noir. This trip corrected my assumptions. In fact, most of their blends have at least an equal part of Chardonnay, from the entry-level Brut Excellence (42% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir, 13% Pinot Meunier) to their top-of-the-line 1996 Celebris (65% Chardonnay and 35% Pinot Noir). According to Philippe Manfredini, the International Export Director, the style of the house didn’t always carry as much Chardonnay. “It was in the late 1980s when cellar master Jean-Pierre Mareigner started to purchase a large quantity of Chardonnay and increased this trend over the 1990s. The main goals were to freshen and enhance the elegance of the cuvées without dramatically changing Gosset’s style.”
The style of the house is based on the rich and voluptuous character of the Aÿ Pinot Noir with crispness from the large percentage of top village Chardonnay as well as no malolactic fermentation. The high proportion of Chardonnay also guarantees longer ageing potential for the wines. I learned that Gosset will be releasing their first 100% Chardonnay wine, Celebris Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut, later this year. An unexpected new wine for this venerable house. I am bubbling with excitement, especially since it will be another addition to the brut zero family.
One Step Further: Brut Zero Rosé
Since brut zero was the main theme of my trip, I lined up visits at both Ayala and Tarlant. I included Ayala as I knew that they are producing several brut zero wines that are still hard to find in New York, so I was dying to taste the wines. I was equally curious to learn about this old house’s new direction after two years under new management of the Bollinger group. I also made sure to see the Tarlants in Oeuilly, since they produce one of my staple brut zeros and have a collection of terroir wines that I caught my attention.
At Ayala, Managing Director Hervé Augustin walked me through a tasting of their entire line-up: Zéro Dosage, Brut Majeur, Rosé Majeur, Cuvée Rosé Nature, Rich Majeur, 1999 Millésimé, 1999 Blanc de Blancs, and 1999 Perle d’Ayala. The Brut Majeur (67% Pinot Noir, 26% Chardonnay, and 7% Pinot Meunier) is Ayala’s signature wine. The Zéro Dosage is the Brut Majeur without dosage, so with the same base wine minus sugar. The Rich Majeur is also made from the Brut Majeur base wine but with a forty-five gram per liter dosage making it a demi-sec wine (a dessert-pairing wine I would prefer with the cheese course). Again, I was pleasantly surprised that a house which prides itself for being located in the Grand Cru village of Aÿ produces a blanc de blancs. Here the Chardonnays are mostly from the Grand Cru village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, with just as impressive proportions of the blend coming from two other Grand Cru villages: Cramant and Chouilly (my favorite village in the Côte des Blancs).
The highlight was Ayala’s rosé nature (brut zero) wine. The blend is 53% Chardonnay and 39% Pinot Noir with 8% still red Pinot from Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. Here we take brut nature one step further: pure and clean but with more structure and fruit from the addition of still red wine. All of a sudden, we’re seeing new styles of wine emerging from Champagne.
Unlike Ayala, a sleepy winery that is just starting to revamp itself, the grower-producer Tarlant has been perfecting the brut nature style ever since fifth generation Benoit took over the winemaking. According to their US importer Jon-David Headrick, “Benoit believed in the quality of the raw material he had in his hands, and knew it was good enough to pull this style off.” In fact, half of their entire production is of this “no sugar” style. After tasting through their wines, I saw the common theme that held the wines together and understood why their brut zero is so well made. Even their basic brut style wine, Tradition Brut, contained less sugar than the norm at 6.2 grams per liter. It was easy to see that this house sticks to what it knows best and in turn is known for: exceptional base wines that don’t rely on a high dosage (sugar addition) to hide any flaws. In fact, it showed off the transparent terroir of the wines.
Several of their other wines jumped out at me: a 100% Pinot Meunier wine from vines over fifty-years-old _, a 100% Chardonnay from pre-phylloroxa vines _(La Vigne d’Antan), and a Rosé Zéro made from the same base as the Rosé Brut (85% Chardonnay and 15% Pinot Noir) but with no dosage. Just imagine a medium-bodied rosé undistracted by any hint of sweetness. A brilliant palate teaser.
When it comes to Burgundy, terroir is the key to everything. We are told, the nuances of the soil, microclimate, weather, geography, and winemaking should be easily detected in the glass. By contrast, in Champagne, by tradition, it has always been about blending. The cellar master blends hundreds of still wines from different vintages, grapes, and villages to achieve desired styles of wine. The exception has been the extremely exclusive single-vineyard wines. Some high-profiled examples include: Krug’s Clos du Mesnil, Salon, and Philipponnat’s Clos des Goisses. In a region where blending is the norm, the “pure” terroir wine becomes a highly sought after item.
During my trip, I noticed that more producers were turning to their own vineyards and producing “terroir” champagnes to showcase the particularities of their land. One top example was Moutardier in Le Breuil whose main vines are Pinot Meunier, the second black-skinned champagne grape that has always been considered the working horse next to the noble Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
This is what makes Moutardier a real find. President, Jonathan Saxby, an Englishman rooted in Champagne by his marriage to Elisabeth Moutardier, is turning out a range of wines with a predominate blend of Pinot Meunier (80% of Moutardier’s grapes are Meunier) that shows off the potential of the Meunier grape, and also demonstrates the unique characteristics of the Vallée du Surmelin south of the Vallée de la Marne.
Again, my preconceived notions were challenged. I started off tasting some Meunier vin clair (still wine) from the 2006 vintage. I was surprised that the wine, at this young stage, already showed good balance and contained more acidity than I was expecting. My biggest fear was a tutti-frutti wine from the fruit-driven Meunier grape, yet the still wine had a natural balance which made it almost drinkable as a white wine.
The house style, Carte d’Or (85% Meunier and 15% Chardonnay) revealed extreme elegance and nuance rather than one-dimensional fruity notes. Thinking in terroir terms, the Chardonnay all comes from la Vallée du Surmelin, a region rich in the Meunier grape. These Chardonnay are completely different than the ones from the Côte des Blancs. Saxby describes his Chardonnay as being “meuniotté.” “Meuniotter” is a term invented to help explain how the local Chardonnays take on the characteristics of the Meunier grape!
Then, there is the reverse blend of the Carte d’Or in the Cuvée Etoile, Chardonnay accounts for 85% while Meunier is at 15%. Here, the characteristics of the local Chardonnay are even more transparent. Its sherry-like, oxidized taste reminds me of the white wines from Jura. It has weight and contains a natural coat of butter and caramel. This wine is like nothing I’ve tasted before. A prime example of a terroir wine: one-of-a-kind. Moutardier will soon be launching a 100% Meunier wine in 2008 to celebrate its distinct location. Bravo!
I can hardly contain my excitement as this trip has pushed my understanding of champagne a few notches up. I like being able to think of my favorite wine in new ways. I am seeing that everyone I visited is experimenting with fresh ideas.
Jacquesson combines several styles into one; instead of just brut zero, or brut zero rosé, they take things even further. I tasted a new brut zero rosé they will be releasing later this fall that exemplifies the terroir of a single village: Dizy.
I have to say, how serendipitous that this was the last wine I tasted on this trip. This rosé just summed up all the things I have seen and tasted on this trip. Jacquesson’s house style is low in dosage. The new rosé, 2002 Dizy Terres Rouges, made by adding still Pinot Noir into the blend results in a bright cranberry tone. The color immediately gives away the intensity and body of the wine. Stripped of sugar, this wine drinks like a red wine with no tannins but lots of red berries (wild strawberries and cranberries come into mind). It’s bold and refreshing at the same time. The fine bubbles just add to the “hard-to-pin-down” aspect of this wine.
I’ve already decided this is going to be my bubbly for the holiday season. Its vinous quality makes it a good a food-pairing wine. I like that it is not a simple sipping rosé. This wine makes you think, and re-think. Who said champagne is just a celebratory drink? Every single wine I wrote about here made me think of the vast possibilities of champagne styles. I left Champagne feeling buzzed by the endless possibilities; all the new directions, new experiments, and new wines….