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A Few Notes on Champagne

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jul 25, 2008 2:58pm ET

Prior to my trip to Burgundy in June, I had the opportunity to taste some new Champagnes.

Benoit Gouez, the Moët & Chandon chef de cave, presented the 2003 vintage of its Brut Grand Vintage and Brut Rosé Grand Vintage. Moët will release the Brut 2003 in October of this year and the Rosé in November. The 2002s will follow at a later date. “It [2002] has such a great potential, it would be a shame to release the wines too soon,” said Gouez.

“The ’03 has more intensity, fruitiness, is more developed and will give more pleasure immediately to the consumer,” he continued.

The 2002 vintage was pretty much universally declared successful for Champagne, while 2003 was more of a challenge. Most houses did not make a vintage 2003 Champagne, because the hot year resulted in wines that were heavy and low in acidity.

Furthermore, frost in April severely reduced the Chardonnay crop. This changed the balance of grape varieties a house could use for blending.

But you may recall that Gouez also changed the concept of Moët’s vintage program with the 2000 harvest. He is looking for the greatest expression of the vintage character, rather than a “house” style. “With such an exceptional year in Champagne, such as 2003, you must try to express it,” he stated.

While most houses work reductively, protecting the juice from oxygen, in 2003, Gouez and the Moët team allowed the juice to oxidize. No sulfur dioxide was added at the press to allow the most unstable phenolic elements to settle out. Once the wines fermented, more SO2 was added than usual to protect the wines due to the higher phenolic maturity in 2003.

“The phenolics were so ripe, we had to work them,” said Gouez. “Normally, the Champenois don’t have to worry about that.”

The Brut Grand Vintage 2003 was less aromatically intense, with ripe orchard and tropical fruit flavors, yet very mouthfilling. It showed less yeasty notes for a young Champagne and more apricot, orange and toast flavors. The tannins give it structure, and it had a freshness, boosted by a pleasant astringency on the finish.

The Brut Rosé Grand Vintage 2003 had a deep color, with an immediate burst of cherry aroma. It was a rich, meaty Champagne, full of spice and concentrated cherry notes, yet balanced, firm and long. You really felt the concentration.

Between the 2000 and 2003 vintages, Moët has focused on identifying the best plots of grapes and controlling yield. A new facility for the vinification was also built. “I made the decision to go for a more powerful, vinous style,” declared Gouez.

Jean-Hervé Chiquet, co-owner of Champagne Jacquesson, was also in New York recently to talk about the latest cuvées from the house. Almost four years ago to the day, I sat down with Jean-Hervé to discuss the new direction at Jacquesson. In a region that is fairly orderly in its grape growing and wine production, Jacquesson marches to a different beat.

It relies on 104 acres of vines for the approximately 30,000 cases it produces annually. It owns 76.5 acres and manages the farming of the rest, pressing all the harvest itself. In that sense, Jacquesson is more like a grower, albeit a large one.

After being given the green light from their father in 1988, Jean-Hervé and his brother Laurent began changing things. Beginning in the vineyards, they plowed and worked the soil, planted grass between rows, pruned short and used the Cordon de Royat system for training and pruning the black grapes to reduce vigor. Today, they are close to organic and improve ventilation in the leaf canopy by shoot positioning and leaf removal.

Only the first pressing of the grapes goes into the vats. The Chiquets began fermenting in large, neutral oak vats by 2004 and today only use wood. The malolactic conversion is blocked, and the wines age on the lees, with stirring once a week for the first three to four months. The wines aren’t racked until blending and bottling, and there is no cold stabilization or filtration. All the wines have been treated this way since 2000.

“Our goal is to make great white wine. After that, we add the bubbles,” said Chiquet. “Each year, we try to make the best possible blend.”

Chiquet was referring to Jacquesson’s non-vintage cuvée, which has been numbered since the evolution in style. The first release, in 2004 was n° 728. This year, the house will release n° 732 ($68), a rich, elegant Champagne whose depth spans citrus, ginger, malt and whole grain toast notes.

Despite the emphasis on the blended cuvée, Jacquesson also has several single vineyard Champagnes aging in its cellar. “By improving the farming, we have rediscovered our terroir,” explained Chiquet.

“There are two criteria in the decision to make a vineyard-designated Champagne at Jacquesson,” explained Chiquet. “First, do we need it in the blend? Second, is it good enough on its own?”

Based on the samples Chiquet poured in New York, Jacquesson’s vision offers a different expression of Champagne. The single-vineyard wines he showed were: Chardonnay Corne Bautray Dizy Non-Dosé 2000 and 2002; Chardonnay Champ Cain Avize Non-Dosé 2002; Pinot Noir Vauzelle Terme Aÿ Non-Dosé; and two rosés, the Terres Rouges Dizy Extra Brut Rosé 2002 and 2003. The 2002 is 100 percent Pinot Meunier, and the 2003 is a half Meunier, half Pinot Noir.

The 2002s were excellent, but will not be released until 2010. The Corne Bautray 2000 ($NA) wasn’t released commercially in the United States, and the Terres Rouge 2003 ($145) is scheduled for release this September.

Scott Oneil
UT —  July 28, 2008 7:54pm ET
Wow, lots of great information - thanks! A few posts in the forums begun by wine+art have re-engaged me (and I assume others as well) to reconsider my opinions/preferences in Champagne. I've been one keen on following the developments around 'grower' Champagnes, so you piqued my interest when you wrote above that, in its harvesting practices, "Jacquesson is more like a grower, albeit a large one." I'm curious to know: from your perspective, has the rise in grower Champagnes had any effect on the mid-size houses and big brands? Some of what Chiquet says sounds like the growers' mantras: making a great still wine before 'adding the bubbles,' improving farming, understanding and highlighting terroir, and focus on single vineyards. I'm excited to see the possible changes in Champagne, and I'd love to hear where you think the region might be headed. Thanks again.
Bruce Sanderson
New York —  July 30, 2008 11:38am ET
Scott, My understanding is that there aren't more new grower Champagnes in the region, however, more have been exported because the U.S. market for Champagne had been growing in volume until late last year. At the same time, the French market was stable and other EC countries up slightly. Remember also that small growers, whether they produce Champagne or not, control more than 85 percent of the vineyards. Despite this, the houses account for about 95 percent of the exports. As to where the region is headed, in a recent lunch with Stanislas Henriot, he cited the increasing parcelization of the vineyards, inheritance taxes and the financial power of the large companies as 3 factors that could change the balance of ownership in Champagne. With the redrawing of the appellation boundaries, it's difficult to say exactly what will happen. Nonetheless, we could see a different Champagne region in 20-30 years.
John Freeborn
CA Huntington Beach —  August 22, 2008 8:09pm ET
Bruce, Did you taste any of the Selosse Champagnes. I was curious why his wines aren't inported into U.S. the last few years.
Bruce Sanderson
New York —  August 25, 2008 9:26am ET
John, I haven't tasted any Selosse for a few years, other than a bottle enjoyed in Beaune last January. Availability has been spotty, but my understanding is that Rare Wine Co. in Sonoma is now importing it.
John Freeborn
CA Huntington Beach —  August 26, 2008 1:19am ET
Thanks a ton Bruce!
Bruce Sanderson
New York —  August 28, 2008 10:44am ET
I received an email from Beno¿Gouez, the chef de cave at Mo¿& Chandon clarifyibng a point about the Grand Vintage 2003 Champagnes.I wrote that no SO2 was added at pressing. Normally, Gouez and his team add SO2 continuously during the pressing, but in 2003 they waited until the very end of the pressing before making any additions.Once the wines fermented, the usual SO2 additions were made, but Gouez was more careful about exposing the wines to oxygen by using nitrogen for any racking or transfers.

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