Oak use in Champagne: Just cask

While there is no consensus on the use of oak in Champagne production, Michael Edwards considers when it can have a beneficial effect

BarrellsNOT SO long ago, a sure-fire way of generating a heated argument between winemakers in Champagne (as in Chablis) was to talk about the virtues and pitfalls of making their best, purest wine in oak. There’s one fine grower in a grand cru village, a charming and highly educated man, who grows apoplectic at the thought of his precious Champagne being sullied by a single wooden stave. Certainly since the late 1960s, stainless steel has become the overwhelmingly preferred medium of fermentation in Champagne – because in tank, control of the grape’s journey into wine is complete and it’s easier to use. By the early 1990s, only a few perfectionists led by Krug, Bollinger and Selosse stayed true to their barrels and casks.


Industry perspectives

Claude Giraud, Henri Giraud

”The forest of the Argonne is composed of a terroir or climat in the full sense of the term that gives identity (by extension) to the wine. The main types of Argonne’s soils – silex and green clay – give different flavours to the oak. This is the fruit of 20 years work here and in other French forests. My friend Camille Gauthier’s priceless memory as an oak cutter has brought me the missing piece in the puzzle – the first real traceability of oak’s origins. Not something the great winemakers have ever been able to claim before now.”

Brad Baker, The Champagne Warrior

The big question I try to ask about oak is what is the goal – flavour or oxygenation. Oak was used originally because there wasn’t really any other choice. Today, there are plenty of choices, so again, why use oak? The producer needs to have a point and vision other than being trendy.”

Laurent Champs, Vilmart Champagne (early user of oak)
“I use different oak vessels, both large casks (300 litres and up) and barriques from Damy in Burgundy. I’m looking for a seamless silkiness and a touch of spice – especially for the Grand Cellier range and the Coeur de Cuvée.”

How things change. Twenty years on, it’s reckoned that about 100 Champagne producers use oak in one form or other: to ferment the wine, partially or fully, to age the reserve wines or, easily forgotten, when making the wine for the dosage – a crucial skill. The one man who has immersed himself in the most intellectually rigorous and thorough study of oak in Champagne-making hails from one of the oldest families in Aÿ, who have tilled its finest vineyards since 1627. Claude Giraud of Henri Giraud has the mind of a self-confident academic, the nous of a good businessman and the frame of a hospitable bon vivant who takes February off from the good life in a holiday from alcohol. In the early 1990s, Claude realised that to coax his silky, aristocratic Pinot Noir into bloom, the gentle oak of the Argonne forest south east of Chalons en Champagne might prove a natural nursery for such great wine. He became friends with Camille Gauthier, a meraindier (oak selector/ cutter) in the Argonne.
After revisiting Claude this January, it’s good to report that he now works with two fine coopers, often from oak cut by Gauthier – the local Tonnellerie Champenoise of Jérôme Viard and Tonnellerie Chassin in Rully, Burgundy, a perfectionist firm that supplies Domaine de la Romanée Conti. As Stéphane Chassin says, “Every vigneron will tell you that without beautiful raw material, there’s no great wine. That’s our view about barrels, too.” For him, contrary to popular prejudice, long gentle heating of the oak is crucial to eliminate excess tannins and wood aromas in order to focus on elegance. Heat penetration is the Chassin signature – one can see the change in colour down to a depth of about a third in each stave, which increases the micro-porosity of the timber and allows the wine to shine and show the barrel who’s boss.

One Response to “Oak use in Champagne: Just cask”

  1. John Robbins says:

    Very engaging read but I’m still left scouring the internet for a definition of “fin style.” I encountered the term in the following sentence; “Arnaud Margaine is the undoubted master here, daringly making his Champagnes in a non-malo way but in a graceful fin style that incorporates 20% oak fermentation.” Would someone please educate me? Cheers.

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