A second snippet of thoughts on New Wave Champagne, run by Tim Hall of Scala Wine. 

Against The Grain (Or Not, Any More)

Old varieties, old barrels – Benoît Lahaye

Oak usage has become so widespread in Champagne that it was quite difficult to find producers that didn’t use any; it almost feels brave of ambitious smaller producers to stick to steel. Those that use oak will often tell you that those tables have turned back, though, to times when oak fermentation was simply…fermentation. The story is a bit more nuanced, in truth.

You could probably split oak usage into three main categories:

1. Wines that taste of newish oak
2. Wines that show that effects of oak (and possibly the taste of older oak)
3. Very subtle usage, i.e. small blending components or very large vessels for reserve wines

1. That Barrel Is Still in Warranty, Chef!

Whilst I don’t naturally gravitate towards oak-heavy wines, I did find wines to enjoy amongst some of the most ardent oak enthusiasts. Henri Giraud Blanc De Craie has a lovely refinement and was my favourite from this lineup of intense, perhaps even flashy Champagnes. Minière was one of two new producers (to me) from the Massif De Saint Thierry, the most Northern growing area in Champagne. Taking cues from Anselme Selosse, with whom Frederic Minière worked, fermentation is 100% in oak, with around 10% new each year. The wines are a bit fresher than Selosse, but would offer his fans a slightly more wallet-friendly hit of some of those flavours; the 2009 vintage Symbiose showed how time can mute some of the more obvious oak tones and produce a lovely, harmonious wine.

I didn’t taste from A.R. Lenoble this time, but do enjoy their wines – they often feature some discernible oakiness, but, as with the Miniére wines, fruit freshness that seems to mesh well with it. Selosse itself….it seems impossible not to ‘take sides’ with these wines. Neither side is right. High-quality viticulture from great vineyard sites is much easier to find in Champagne than it once was, so it is hard to attribute the singularity of these wines purely to the qualities of the grapes; there is an impermeable layer of influence from the cellar here that either adds to the thrill or clouds it, depending on your point of view. So…

2. A Middle Way (For the Lactone-Intolerant)

Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Brut Sous Bois NV

This is a blend of 2008, 2009 and 2010. 100% fermentation in old barrel, with 60% from a perpetual reserve system that will eventually form the whole cuvée. A third each of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, with 6 years on lees and 7 g/l dosage. John Atkinson MW explained that Billecart has made a big move towards oak usage during his time there, going from having a few barrels tucked away to being the third or fourth biggest user of oak in Champagne. “We are petrified of oxidation”, he says, which seems to be a sensible state of mind given the direction that some 100% oak wines veer towards.
Although it is positioned just above the other Non-Vintage wines in the portfolio, it feels as if it is humbly leading the peloton for the evolving Billecart approach with its winter-spiced red pear and subtle pepper and sandalwood. A bit of village-fête apple pie is very Meunier – a grape made for old oak and so totally at home here. Retaining its citrus freshness whilst weaving in this savour and spice, it is the sort of wine that could stand to gain further complexity from the fractional, multi-vintage blending that is in the pipeline. One to follow.

From the walkaround, there were plenty of examples of intensive oak oak usage that coloured the wines without masking them. Again Chartogne-Taillet show how game Meunier is to subject itself to old barrels and the odd scrape with oxygen, so long as the fruit is intense, characterful and fortified with a good line of acidity. Les Barres 2013, in other words. Krug and Eric Rodez will feature in the next roundup (for good reason). Benoit Lahaye produces a contender for Brut Nature of the day from old vines in Bouzy and Ambonnay – totally delicious and no gaps in the stitching. Almost everything is in old oak (so far as I can tell), and Lahaye’s wines just seem to breathe with life and generosity.

Yann Alexandre – new to these shores

Of producers I didn’t know, Yann Alexandre is making top-quality wines in Courmas with all three grape varieties (but especially Meunier and Chardonnay). A classy Blanc De Blancs and golden-fruited, sensitively-oaked Sous Les Rose Blanc De Noirs preceded my favourite wine, the elegant Blanches Terres Rosé. Effectively a Rosé De Blancs – entirely Chardonnay with 8% red wine from Pinot Noir – it was a beautifully subtle and refined rendition. I’ll be looking out for these wines in particular, though.

3. You won’t notice it (unless it isn’t there)

Louis Roederer Blanc De Blancs 2010
This is all from Avize – it sits alone with Cristal in being a wine that is 100% about chalk for J.B.-Lécaillon. The ripeness is always pushed to around 12-13%, with the juice being deliberately oxidised at harvest and fermented in around 20% large, neutral oak. Mirabelles, golden apple and some delicate white flowers welcome you in, but these bristling wet chalk and salty, fresh oatmeal notes take this beyond just a fruit ‘n flower Blanc de Blancs expression. Lovely silkiness on the palate  (4 bar pressure here), with intense crystallised citrus fruits and herbal touches. This is a bit of an outlier in the Roederer portfolio for me (even more so than the Brut Nature perhaps), but it’s hugely enjoyable and has some development ahead of it. It’s like a negative of the main vintage cuvée – worth looking out for in 2012 (if there is one!)

Part III (Coming Soon) – Freshness in Three Guises

1 thought on “New Wave Champagne II – Against The Grain

  1. Thanks very much; interesting comments. A couple of small corrections. The Miniere wine is Symbiose 2009 – spelling. And Yann Alexandre is not in the Massif de St Thierry, which is N of Reims, but on the Petite Montagne, W of Reims, in the village of Courmas.

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