Séverine Frerson has worked in Champagne for 20 years, but this is her first year as chef de cave at Perrier-Jouët without the guidance of Hervé Deschamps, her predecessor. She joined in October 2018, and spent two years working alongside Deschamps, preparing to take the reins on his retirement. Her appointment was one of a series of announcements in the region that ‘put female talent in the spotlight, to an extent never seen before,’ as Anne Krebiehl MW observed last year.
The eighth cellarmaster at Perrier-Jouët since it was founded more than 200 years ago, Frerson is at home here and undaunted. Born in the Champagne region, she graduated from Reims University, and then worked her way up the ladder at Maisons Piper-Heidsieck and Charles Heidsieck, becoming cellarmaster there in 2016.
The move to ‘Perrier-Jouët thrilled her. ‘The house has always been close to my heart,’ she says, ‘and it’s a good fit with my personality. It has a long and distinguished history, of course, but it also has a lot of soul.’
At this time of year, it’s Champagne blending that is keeping her and her team busy. Séverine explains where this vital step falls in the winemaking process: ‘After the harvest, we carry out the first alcoholic fermentation, and taste all the wines after this (last September for the 2020 harvest). We taste them all again after the malolactic fermentation (in October), then again in December, to see how they’re opening up.
‘In January we start to decide the orientation of each wine – that is, where each vat will end up. Then in February, we taste through every wine and group them together for each blend. You’re talking about 300 or so wines this year – 100 different Chardonnays – some floral in character, others more fruity – around the same number of Pinot Noirs, and 50 or so lots of Pinot Meunier. Plus we’re tasting around 100 reserve wines that will be included in the blends, so about 400 wines in total.’
The skill of tasting
The wine samples – which have not yet undergone the secondary fermentation in bottle and so are still wines at this stage, known as vins clairs – are tasted and blended in the laboratory using a large test tube. ‘First we look at the colour, including the brightness, before moving on to describe the aromas and flavours,’ Séverine explains. ‘But it’s not all about whether individual wines are floral or fruity or spicy. We’re also looking at the structure, and the texture. Texture is very important in all the components.’
Séverine and her team taste in 90-minute sessions, always in the morning. ‘I eat a little beforehand, as it helps protect the stomach – usually just bread, which is neutral.’ It’s a very intense process, she says, and ‘it requires a great deal of concentration and precision.’ To be successful, a blender must have passion, intuition – and a phenomenal memory: of vintages, of plots, of the characteristics of the reserve wines. ‘I have a library in my head!’
The goal is consistency. And the preservation of the house style. ‘We’re looking for complexity, finesse and texture in the final cuvées,’ says Séverine, who describes the house style of Perrier-Jouët as ‘intricate and floral, with Chardonnay the pillar.’
The decision around picking dates is as important as blending here, she adds: ‘We monitor the maturity of the grapes very closely, so that when we pick, we achieve the florality we’re looking for – we need the right balance of fruitiness, florality and structure in the raw materials.’
2020 is a beautiful year, and excellent quality, especially for Chardonnay, according to Séverine – Perrier-Jouët had brought in all its Chardonnay by the end of August. ‘The wines have a great precision, and marked florality of aroma: peony and honeysuckle, and especially rose in 2020.’
Séverine talked through three of the house’s main cuvées:
Grand Brut is the DNA of Perrier-Jouët. A blend of around 35% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir and 25% Meunier, the style majors on florality of aroma. The Pinots Noir and Meunier are built around the Chardonnay to best express the white grape, adding structure. No Meunier reserve wines are used, because the Meunier component is all about adding richness of fruit aroma.
Perrier-Jouët’s Blanc de Blancs is the most recent addition to the range, introduced in 2017. Look out for the typical floral aromas of the house, says Séverine – honeysuckle, peony – with some apricot and mirabelle plum, then spice later on (cumin, white pepper). Perfect as an aperitif or with white fish carpaccio.
Belle Epoque: the vintage wine should be very precise, complex and refined. The current release (2012) is a blend of 50% Chardonnay and 45% Pinot Noir, with a dash (5%) of Meunier. In this cuvée, look for florality, spice, minerality and salinity. You should find richness, delicacy and precision. Séverine suggests pairing with langoustine or lobster – or a hard cheese with some salinity (old Comté, or Parmesan, for instance). The 2012 vintage is still adolescent, she says, and could be cellared for another 10 years.