Jean-Pierre Vincent, the amiable chef de cave of Nicolas Feuillatte was in New York last week. He presented a blending seminar as a microcosm of his philosophy and approach to making the Brut Champagne NV. I had the opportunity to sit down with Vincent earlier that morning, prior to the seminar.
The success of a non-vintage cuvée is consistency from year to year, a goal achieved through blending. Feuillatte has been fortunate to have consistency at the helm of its winemaking team: Vincent has been working there for 33 years.
During that time there have been some important changes. In the Champagne region, at the end of the 1980s, Feuillatte replaced its coquard press with a pneumatic press and increased the amount of grapes from 150 kilograms to 160 kilos to press 100 liters of juice. This resulted in cleaner, higher quality juice with less phenolic compounds.
They also began cleaning the press between each load, again, to eliminate any residue from grape skins, stems or anything else that may introduce any bitterness or astringency.
According to Vincent, Feuillatte had selected its own yeasts since founder Nicolas Feuillatte acquired a vineyard in Champagne in 1972. During the 1980s, the Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) worked with labs to develop better yeasts for Champagne production.
Initially, Feuillatte made 30,000 bottles, with a goal of growing to 200,000. This was made possible when Feuillatte was purchased by the cooperative facility, the Centre Vinicole de la Champagne, in 1986. There wasn’t a lot of money to invest, but Vincent was able to take advantage of modern technology. “We always tried to have the top generation [of equipment] of the period,” he said.
More recently, Feuillatte focused on the vineyards. “For the last 10 years we worked a lot with growers to reduce the use of chemicals, to grow grass between rows, [use] less herbicides, and now we’re in a good way to improve the culture of the vine,” Vincent explained.
“Can we be completely organic, 100 percent? I think it’s impossible because we are in the north of France,” he added.
Vincent discussed three phases that are important to his philosophy of blending the Brut NV. The first is to understand all the possibilities of the vintage, by following the growing season from April.
The second phase is the quality of the harvest. To understand the harvest, Vincent talks to his growers just before, during and after the grapes are picked to determine the quality of his raw materials.
The third phase is the tasting and selection of the still wines. For the Brut NV cuvée, Vincent starts with 300 to 400 still wines. For about a month, he and his team taste 12 wines at a time, twice each day at 9:00 am and 11:00 am.
Eventually, this group is narrowed down to 150 wines. Vincent looks for broad categories in each still wine, such as mineral or fruit components, that he will then draw on to construct the final blend.
Since every vintage and year is different, Vincent relies on reserve wines from previous years to achieve consistency. The Brut NV is roughly 40 percent Pinot Noir, 40 percent Pinot Meunier and 20 percent Chardonnay. Anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of the final blend is composed of reserve wines. For example, with the small, ripe, concentrated crop from the hot 2003 vintage, Vincent used a little more than 40 percent of the high acid 2001 reserves for balance.
In the end, it’s experience, admitted Vincent. “The style is the wine I love, fresh, elegant, easy to drink,” he quipped. “I like to say, let’s open a second bottle. That shows it’s easy to drink.”
At the seminar, Vincent presented us with six still wines from the 2009 harvest and a blend of the six that he prepared. There were two Chardonnays: an apple, floral and citrus-flavored version with fine acidity from Chouilly and a richer, broader style from Cramant that evoked a mineral element.
Two Pinot Meuniers came from Rilly and Verneuil. The Rilly was tart, with apple and mineral notes; the Verneuil soft, with apple and whole grain bread flavors.
I found the two Pinot Noirs, from Verzy and Bouzy, to be less aromatic, but with more weight, power and structure than the Chardonnays or Meuniers. The Verzy also possessed fine length, while the Bouzy was rich, mouth filling and spicy.
Vincent’s blend was equal parts of each of the six. Its complexity was immediately apparent, despite there being only six still wines, demonstrating that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Nonetheless, it still requires a conceptual leap to envision the finished Champagne, once the second fermentation takes place and it has aged on the yeast for a few years.
John Brody — Montreal Canada — April 23, 2010 8:06am ET
Kevin Callahan — Montreal, QC — April 25, 2010 8:18am ET
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