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Champagne's cellar masters have one of the most challenging jobs in wine

The extraordinary thing about the Champenois is that they all seem to have perfectly good teeth. My teeth feel as though they’ve lost a layer of enamel after just one morning of tasting vins clairs – the base wines used as the blending options for Champagne. Yet tasting vins clairs is what winemakers here do for most of the winter.

From November until February, or even later, it will be part of their routine. They have several hundred still wines to get to know – all of which are fast evolving from infancy to toddlerhood – and they have to get to know them well enough to put them together in a non-vintage blend that will taste the same as last year’s blend, but which will be made from very different components.

It’s a task requiring not only an exceptional palate but also intuition and a deep understanding of how wines are likely to develop, both in a blend and alone.

All Champagne winemakers regard blending non-vintage (NV) wines as the most challenging and intriguing part of their job. Vintage wines pretty well make themselves, but making non-vintage is akin to opening the fridge and finding that you have coriander instead of parsley and perhaps beef instead of lamb, yet the dish must taste identical.

The 2010 vintage (the one which ran away with some of my tooth enamel in March) was not a great one. The summer was enviably hot and dry, until 15 August when the heavens opened. It continued warm and wet until harvest.

Rot was a problem, and since flowering had been long drawn out (short and snappy is ideal) the grapes ripened unevenly.

According to Laurent-Perrier, the largest family- owned Champagne house, founded in 1812, the early-flowering vines were more susceptible to the rain because they had thinner skins by mid- August and were more prone to rot.

Chardonnay, mostly later flowering, still had slightly thicker skins and was better able to absorb the water.

It was a Chardonnay year rather than a Pinot (Noir or Meunier) year. So what better comparison than to see how two very different houses – Laurent- Perrier and Bollinger (a family-owned house in Aÿ founded in 1829) handle it?

Laurent-Perrier NV is 50% Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs; Bollinger NV (alias Special Cuvée) is 60% Pinot Noir, and about 25% of Special Cuvée is fermented in old oak barrels.

Laurent-Perrier is light, elegant and creamy, with notes of white flowers and confit fruit about a firm core; Bollinger is rich, round and toasty, with firmness and weight.

Bollinger, one might think, would have the greater problems with 2010 because of its need for Pinot Noir, but Laurent-Perrier also needs it – the other half of the blend, which is only 11% Pinot Meunier, has to come from somewhere.

Bollinger had already made its blend when I visited in early March. Michel Fauconnet, chef de cave of Laurent-Perrier, hadn’t yet, but knew what he was going to do.

‘I start thinking of the blend before the harvest,’ he says. ‘Then I follow all the wines through the alcoholic fermentation, the malolactic and in cuve (vat). By February, I need to know the blend. I had to take longer this year to consider, but lately the wines haven’t changed much, and now I have a clear vision. Within three weeks all will be finished.’

Mathieu Kauffmann, chef de cave at Bollinger, says the same sort of thing: ‘At vintage, when I see the grapes, I get the first idea of what the blend will be. Then I do the first tasting, of 3,000 barrels, from 5 November. Then I get a feeling of what’s good and what’s not; which grapes, which villages. I see the concentration of the wines, how they live in the barrels, and it’s easy to see if it’s a good year. I know then if it’s a vintage year or not. In December I taste each sample with three or four tasters.’

Both houses have things in common. 2010 is unlikely to be a vintage year for either, and the non-vintage blends of both will rely heavily on reserve wines: Laurent-Perrier slightly more than usual, Bollinger about the same – but then Bollinger NV is always comprised of about 55% older wines.

Laurent-Perrier isn’t worried about being able to get enough good Pinot this year: a bigger disaster for the house would be a catastrophe in one of its key Côte de Blancs villages that produces its Chardonnay, such as Avize, Cramant or Le Mesnil.

‘The chalk and exposure of Le Mesnil, for example, does not exist anywhere else,’ says Fauconnet. ‘If that were wiped out, you would see the difference [in the wine]. The style would suffer.’ But he does point out that ‘the Pinot Noir does not have its usual character this year’, and it’s easy to see what he means.

Pinot Noir vins clairs usually have the faintest possible tinge of pink; not in 2010. ‘The red grapes were not phenolically completely ripe,’ he confirms. The sugar was the same as usual – 10% or 10.5% potential alcohol – but too little rain, followed then by too much, took its toll.

I the Pinot Noirs are unaromatic and chunky, though, the Pinot Meuniers are positively frivolous: upfront and straightforwardly pretty. ‘With Pinot Meunier this year, what you see is what you get. It’s interesting for wines for early drinking, and for aroma. You get structure elsewhere,’ Fauconnet shrugs. ‘Pinot Meunier doesn’t have to do much.’

The Chardonnays, which are so important for Laurent-Perrier, are expressive and well differentiated in 2010. Avize is lacy and elegant, Cramant structured, Le Mesnil mineral and Cuis powerful and rather square.

Fauconnet confirms that the differences between them are especially marked this year, partly because of the uneven ripening of the grapes.

And what will he be looking for in making his blend? ‘A vertebral column – a spine,’ he says. ‘It’s a quest: I’m looking for what will taste good tomorrow. I keep in my head the entire growing year, and I remember the diluting effect or the concentrating effect of certain lots. That backbone is the style of the house.’

Some wines are noticeably more open than others now, and that’s a factor too. There has to be a balance here, because the blend must be able to mature for four years and be à point – at optimum drinking – when it’s released.

Putting together a blend that tastes delicious today is no good if it will be over the hill by the time it hits the shops. So while older wines are crucial to any NV blend, most of them will be no more than a couple of years old, with a seasoning of older parcels.

‘The 2009 wines are aromatic, the 2008s powerful, acidic and fresh, the 2007s vivacious, the 2006s still fresh and round, and the 2004 Chardonnay structured.’ Fauconnet expects to use more ’08 and ’07 than ’09 and ’06 in the new blend.

Over at Bollinger, Mathieu Kauffmann agrees that the Pinot Noirs are not at all homogeneous. ‘Aÿ is fruity and spicy,’ he says, ‘but Verzenay is closed. Verzenay always has zero expression in the year after the vintage.’ All Bollinger’s Pinot comes from the Marne Valley, and crucial villages include Aÿ, Mareuil, Verzenay, Tauxières and Bouzy; the 2008 and 2009 wines will be used to balance the 2010s.

These, however, do not count as reserve wines at Bollinger. Here it is not just the balance of new and older wines that must be decided; the wood influence must be consistent as well. All Bollinger’s vintage wines (and about 25% of Special Cuvée) are fermented in old oak barrels; in addition, all the reserve wines are fermented in oak.

These last are bottled in magnums with six grams per litre of sugar, and left to ferment in a quiet sort of way until they have one atmosphere of pressure – far less than finished Champagne, but enough to give them some lees contact and help them to stay the course until they’re summoned to join Special Cuvée.

The ’08s and ’09s, which will form about half the new blend, don’t count as reserve wines. Instead they inhabit a sort of unwooded limbo, and are used up within a couple of years.

Reserve wines proper, which form up to 10% of the blend, are all kept in magnum.

The complications of this at vintage time are enough to make the head spin. Ask Kauffmann how he decides to ferment what in what, and this is what he says, with hardly a pause for breath: ‘For vintage I need 1,000 to 2,000 good barrels, and I will know after November. If I use, say, 5,000 barrels for fermentation, then 2,000 will be for vintage, 2,000 for reserve wines and 1,000 for Special Cuvée. If it’s not going to be a vintage, I’ll make more reserve wines, maybe 3,000 barrels, and then 1,000 for non-vintage, and the other 1,000 I can hold for a year longer, so I can keep the wood effect consistent whether I make a vintage or not. When I know it’s not a vintage year I can make 3,000 to 4,000 barrels – but that’s more dangerous, because I have to decide early, in September, if I want to ferment fewer barrels, and use 2,000 or 3,000 for reserve wines and 1,000 for Special Cuvée.’

Got that? If you want a bit of a lie-down, I’m happy to wait. But when you taste the final Bollinger blend after trying some of the components it all seems so much simpler: those complications are resolved and the wine is complete and harmonious. It contains about 250 different wines.

‘You can’t make a big mistake if you have a lot of things to blend,’ says Kauffmann. ‘It’s a security, an insurance.’

Part of that insurance, for both houses, consists of what Fauconnet terms ‘thinking for tomorrow’. As well as putting together a non-vintage blend, they have to stash away some of the 2010 wines as reserves.

And not any old wines, either: stockholding is the most expensive thing in Champagne, and they have to be certain that the reserve wines will be useful enough to earn their keep.

Twelve months on and the Verzenay Pinot Noir will be coming out of its shell, the complexity of the Bouzy Pinot Noir will be more to the fore, and the Vertus Chardonnay will be a little less tight.

They will help to balance the 2011 wines – to fill in the gaps, round out the corners. And provide both cellarmasters with yet more samples to follow through the year.

Written by Margaret Rand

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