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  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.