Oak use in Champagne: Just cask

Barrels-3Another 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

Wood-Egg-FermenterDrappier 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.

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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