Oak use in Champagne: Just cask

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.”

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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