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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

NOT 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.

Other new factors in perfecting Champagne

Since 2006, Raphael Bérèche, the little magician from Craon de Ludes on the Montagne, has been using larger 350- litre casks, which mark the wine less than the conventional 228-litre Champenois pièce. And now he is about to use 600-litre Austrian casks from Franz Stockingen, an undoubted traditional maestro of cooperage: watch this space.

As interesting was a tasting of Raphael’s 2008 Vallée de la Marne under capsule and clamped cork. The Champagne aged under cork was greatly superior both for its extra creamy texture and refined bubbles. When it comes to Champagne, synthetic closures are not the answer, it seems; and Stelvin has little future even for still wines here: too inert.

With a group of top Parisian wine and food boutique managers, Claude led a tasting of a number of vins clairs in different barrels from the exceptional 2012 vintage. Favourites were a sumptuous Chardonnay, ripe, a touch of liquorice reined by a lovely mineral saltiness; and a magnificent Pinot Noir (Aÿ), with a scent of acacia honey and the uplift of great acidity. Both wines were from oak cut by Gauthier and coopered by Chassin. The Pinot in particular showed a spectacular metamorphosis, the oak civilizing the young strapping wine. To show what wood, sensitively used, can achieve in finished Champagne, the Giraud Cuvée Argonne 2002 was all burnished gold, with fine bubbles and every component in superb balance. It should be added, though, that fermenting Champagne in stainless steel brings crispness, energy, mineral flavours (and one might add, long life). Yet oak can open another door to the wine’s secrets, but it is demanding and it’s essential to restrict the volume of fermented wine to about 11,000kg per hectare.


Of course, non-oxidative Champagnes which haven’t seen wood can be wonderful. Favourites for many observers must include Pol Roger, Charles Heidsieck and Dom Pérignon. The long life of Pol vintage is in part due to the 30- metre depth of its Epernay cellars, though that longevity maybe owes as much to the family’s choice of northern grands crus on the Côte des Blancs and the Montagne. Another crucial factor is Pol’s modern procedure of “cold settling” the coarser lees, this elimination acting as an anti- oxidant. And it’s interesting to note that the woodland and vanilla aromas which often distinguish Charles Heidsieck have nothing to do with oak but are the scents of aged reserve wines kept in tanks. As for Dom Pérignon, the supreme example of a non-oxidative style, it’s always risky to judge a vintage until it’s about 10-12 years old. As Richard Geoffroy, DP’s chef de caves explains, “We are looking for surging intensity, rather than explosiveness, as it ages – less dramatic than an oxidative style but with a surer chance of being fresher at 20 years-plus.” The debate about oak versus no oak has often gone nowhere. More sensible minds accept that this is less a qualitative issue, more about the style the house wants and, as important, what the consumer prefers.


Emmanuel Fourny, of the top Vertus domaine of Veuve Fourny, talks more sense about the strengths and limitations of oak in Champagne-making than anyone I know. A graduate of the oenology faculty of Reims University, “Manu” is so much more than a clinical technician. He’s a wine lover who has done stages in Burgundy’s Côte de Nuits so is at ease with oak, but he’s no fanatic. The best solution, he says, “is to blend the two together, steel and oak acting in tandem, but with a differing proportion depending on the character and strength of each wine and vintage”. I was particularly impressed by his “Justice” parcel of 2012 vin clair Vertus Chardonnay, a wine of tremendous drive and energy, almost too much, and so a prime candidate for the caressing stroke of oak. For sure we’ll see some of it in the 2012 vintage bottling in a few years at the new buzzing Paris brasserie Bistronomique, between the Place Opéra and the Place Royale. As Manu’s elder brother Charles observes, “Through experience, we have come to realise that the increasing age of old vines in a fine vintage accentuates the minerality of the soil, but oak’s role is to be the servant of its master – the Champagne – unlocking the subtleties of the wine and dressing it with a silky coat and suave mouthfeel.”

Another brilliantly judicious return to a touch of oak in its cuvées is Veuve Clicquot – a great house which combines the surest marketing touch with an enduring ethos that what really counts is the wine behind the label. The soon-to-be released Yellow Label in magnum on the base of 2008 (a great year) is quite exceptional. In that year, the house made a major investment in large oak casks or tonneaux, these to add between five and 10% fermentation in oak – not to change the house style but to define it more precisely and enhance its complex expression. That ambition will probably be even better realised in the Pinot Noir grands crus of 2012 – I don’t think I’ve ever tasted wines in their infancy which excited me more. And it was fascinating to taste the same wines of Pinot and Chardonnay from both tanks and foudres – notably an Aÿ already of beautiful depth and class from tank, then even greater and more multi-flavoured in cask. Yet more revealing was a Cramant from the Côte, which frankly was a bit “butch” in tank but was transformed into something special by the aerating oak.

Shaping up nicely at Drappier

Drappier is the first and only Champagne house to mature its wines in an egg- shaped oak container, writes Patrick Schmitt. Called the Ovum, the vessel, inspired by Nomblot’s concrete egg, is made by Taransaud and costs around €30,000 (£25,900). According to Michel Drappier, winemaker at the family-owned house, the container is being used to age a “Premium Grand Sendrée”, referring to the brand’s prestige cuvée, and the more upmarket version based on the 2010 vintage will be released in 2017. Commenting on the purchase, Michel said: “The ‘egg’ proportions represent the golden ratio and it is considered to be the ultimate vessel to keep and mature wine.” He explained that the vessel currently contains 2,400 litres split between Pinot Noir (55%) and Chardonnay (45%), and is made using oak from the Aube – “so we are using wood from Jurassic Kimmeridgian soil, which is the same soil we grow our grapes on”. Also, due to the cool northern location of the oak trees used to source the material for the container, the wood has a very fine grain, ensuring very little oak flavour extraction.

As for the egg shape, he says it is “amazing”. Made from two wooden spheres placed on top of each other, Drappier explains that the vessel “creates a movement of the fine lees so we don’t need to do anything – no battonage, just wait”.

Further pursuing the middle path, a second visit in 12 months to Armand Margaine at Villers-Marmery was memorable. This premier cru village on the northern Montagne just down from Verzy is rightly known for its Chardonnay of bouncy acidity that is particularly successful in a hot August and September like 2012. 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. It’s worth noting that the Chardonnays of Margaine were much more abundant in 2012, a normal sized crop, than on the Côte des Blancs. And the same goes for Laurent Champs of Vilmart at Rilly la Montagne.

Oddly Le Mesnil, the star commune of the Côte des Blancs, seems a little out of sorts in 2012; maybe the autumnal heat took the edge off its linear mineral character. Salon will not be declaring a vintage. But the cheering news is that a group of leading Mesnil growers, most not known for their love of oak, got together recently and took another look at wood for new cuvées. Redolphe Péters of Pierre Péters, an immaculate domaine that makes the supreme example of an apéritif-style non-oaked Mesnil, was very impressed by the masterly subtle use of oak from his arch rival, Christophe Constant of Domaine Vergnon.

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