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Jefford on Monday: A debate from Champagne’s sensual parliament

Andrew Jefford teases out one of the main elements in a Champagne’s ‘house style’...

A key decider of Champagne house style

Wood or steel? The fundamental choice of vessel in which to ferment and store base wine (vins clairs and reserves) prior to bottling is one of the great dichotomies of the Champagne world. It has something in common with the political classifications of ‘right’ and ‘left’. Neither has a monopoly on virtue. Both approaches work in skilled hands, yet both can be inefficient or worse — if adopted dogmatically, lazily or unintelligently. Where you chose to put the emphasis, in the end, is largely a question of personal conviction and taste.

The main practical difference is that wood permits exchanges between wine and air (controlled oxidation) whereas steel can be used to keep the air at bay (a reductive environment). Freshly coopered wood, of course, imparts its own flavour to wine – but wood in Champagne is almost always seasoned towards neutrality. A very old, very large cask will leave no flavour trace whatsoever.

Champagne (where I spent a chilly week in early March) is a wine region evolving much more swiftly than its monolithic image would suggest. The finest large houses are struggling to add texture and interest to their offer by increasingly presenting themselves under their grower credentials. (Domain-owning Burgundy négociants have long been on the same track.) Cuvées based on vineyard selections, the back-label disclosure of origins and disgorging dates, and un-dosed alternatives to long-established brands are all proliferating. What particularly caught my attention on this visit, though, was the subtlety of the interplay between wine, wood and steel in at different key Champagne addresses. Along with vineyard sourcing, it seems to me to be one of the two main elements in defining house style.

Let me illustrate what I mean. “We love Pinot Noir,” they say at Bollinger – not illogically for an Ay house, where much of Champagne’s greatest Pinot is grown. But Pol Roger, too, is also a Pinot-loving house: the 2008 Vintage Rosé’s 60 per cent Pinot includes 13% red wine; the 2006 Brut Vintage contains 60 per cent Pinot Noir; and the 2005 Cuvée Winston Churchill is also thought to be mainly Pinot (though the exact blend of this wine isn’t made public). A clear kinship between the two, then?

No way. The styles are as far apart as … well, insert the names of any political foes you wish. The style of Bollinger may be full of classical poise but it’s achieved in an open, reverberative manner, full of grain, texture and secondary resonance; where the appeal of the Pol Roger style is based on purity, precision and crisp, neatly inked draughtsmanship.

The cooper's workshop at Bollinger.

The cooper’s workshop at Bollinger. Credit: Andrew Jefford

A visit to the cellars of each makes it clear why. You can see all the ex-Chanson casks stacked up and waiting at Bollinger, together with a range of larger 400-litre Champagne barrels, some of them decades old; you can visit the maintenance cooperage, and see the adzes, the augurs and the planes.

Pol Roger’s cellars, by contrast, are like the cryogenics facility on board Starship Enterprise: a forest of chilly, gleaming steel on tiled floors so clean you could perform minor surgery on them. That’s not the only difference, of course; Bollinger’s storage of a percentage of its reserves in cork-stopped magnums is certainly a factor too; while Pol Roger claims its almost heroic persistence in continuing to riddle every one of its Champagnes by hand also achieves ‘a cleaner result’. Nonetheless I realised after these two visits that what I had been assuming was a varietal emphasis in many Champagnes may be more closely related to the choice of vessel.

I’ve always had a soft spot, I must admit, for Champagnes in which oak has played some role, since it seems to me to create a more meditative sipping effect – perfectly epitomised by Jacquesson’s Cuvée 734 DT (see below). You’ll often hear that steel privileges pristine fruit flavour whereas oak provides a more secondary and vinous result. Yes – in part. But I also think the fruit simply takes on a more autumnal, later-season allure in oak. And of course there is no reason why controlled oxidation should lead to any sort of premature decay: Jean-Hervé Chiquet of Jacquesson approvingly quotes Henri Krug to the effect that controlled oxidation is in fact a vaccine against oxidation.

The experienced Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon at Louis Roederer, by the way, distinguishes between the desirable sweetness of sessile oak (Quercus petraea) for Champagne, and the less desirable bitterness of pedunculate oak (Quercus robur). ‘French oak’ could mean either. The latter is typical of Limousin and the former of Tronçais, but in forests the two tend to hybridise and they are customarily mixed by coopers; he is experimenting with very lightly toasted, genetically pure petraea vats at present.

It’s also worth noting that this is not an all-or-nothing contrast. Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne is a beautifully soft and creamy wine from a Chardonnay-loving house which in principle is wedded to the reductive, stainless-steel ideal – and yet this Grand Cru blend has just five per cent oak maturation (often said to be all new oak, but I was told on this visit that it was one-third new). That oaked component strokes the rich softness up a little without ever suggesting anything firm, vinous or autumnal, which would be alien to the ermine-textured Comtes ideal.

Here, anyway, are notes on six outstanding Champagnes from every side of the great vessel debate. I’m glad we have them all in our sensual parliament.

Taittinger, Comtes de Champagne 2006

Pale summer-gold in colour, with sweet, cream-puff scents which seem to float like tissue paper carried on a breeze.  Foam-textured and fine-grained on the palate with rounded, soft acidity (more lemon cream than lemon juice) and a sappy, planty freshness too.  The graceful, fine-brushed finish almost suggests seeds and gentle spice.  Almost all steel-schooled, of course – yet that seasoning pinch of new oak perhaps accounts for some of the insinuating charm here. 94 points

Bollinger, Grande Année 2005

Pale old-gold in colour, and searching, winey scents with an amplitude which recalls mature burgundy (the apple orchard, sweet hay and soft hazels).  Structured, broad and full on the palate, with ripe acidity recalling many fruits, even red ones.  There have probably been Grande Années with more nerve and sinew than this, but its breadth, complexity and texture are hugely satisfying and that ‘winey’ appeal surely owes much to 100 per cent old-wood fermentation.  94

Cuvée 734 DT, Jacquesson

Part of the new ‘Dégorgement Tardif’ releases of the compelling 700 Cuvée series from Jacquesson, this was the release based on 2006 fruit but only disgorged in 2014.  It’s full gold in colour, with a frank, engaging and articulate aromas of malt, nuts and stone.  Ripe, perfumed, vivid, deep and textured on the palate: the fine raw materials take all the scrutiny you are prepared to give them, and the initial fermentation and storage in large wood lends it a classically resonant roundness despite the modest 3.5 g/l dosage.  Holds its own effortlessly, even in Prestige Cuvée company.  93

Dom Pérignon 2006

A genuinely outstanding effort with the sometimes over-rich 2006 vintage, the light-gold DP is classy, fresh, refined and floral, with an intense, vivacious, darting palate with a weave of green lime and sea-shore pungency through it.  Not many 06s can truly be said to be ‘chalky’ but this, weighed and filtered on the tongue, does indeed suggest the powdery dust which falls from the blackboard as you wipe it.  Perhaps pure-steel handling helps the drinker perceive this?  93

Roederer, Cristal 2002

The impressive energy and strike evident in all of Roederer’s young wines is beginning to soften and ease in this 15-year-old Cristal: now a limpid morning gold, with lifted, allusive scents in which the pretty (wild flowers) and the profound (leaf and mushroom) are mingled.  It’s complete and intense yet still lively and springy on the palate — a satin pillow stuffed with flavoury feathers.  There’s plenty of oak at Roederer, but most of it is used for reserves, so this is principally a steel wine — which in truth needs time for full articulacy.  Early days for this great vintage.  96

Pol Roger, Brut Vintage 2006

If Bollinger’s Grande Année 2006 has an autumnal grandeur, the Pol Roger Brut Vintage 2006 is pure springtime: green, sappy, leafy, with just a whisper of bread, powder and talc to sweeten it.  This is a Pinot-rich blend in which all overt ‘Pinotness’ has been transmuted into a light, chalky essence and a stony sappiness.  Long, searching, deliciously tense — yet ripe, not raw: another superb steel-schooled effort.  94

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