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Didier Mariotti: ‘Champagne has to adapt quickly’

Didier Mariotti was in London last month to oversee the launch of Veuve Clicquot’s latest release of La Grande Dame from the 2015 vintage, but he also took time out to talk to db’s Champagne correspondent Giles Fallowfield about the changes taking place in Champagne.

Veuve Clicquot’s Didier Mariotti came to London on 2 March

Didier Mariotti very much has his own style of presentation, his is a very laid-back approach. He doesn’t regale the audience with the detailed facts as the four wines for the tasting are poured, but looking to engage, encourages questions from the outset.

Prompted, he quickly confirms that the new 2015 vintage follows the new approach laid down by Dominique Demarville with the 2008 release – Demarville’s first La Grande Dame vintage at the house – in being Pinot Noir dominant. “Since 2008, Dominique moved the blend from being 60% to 90% Pinot Noir and that is the case for both the 2012 and this 2015 wine that follows. In doing this, he changed the grape supply sources using different villages to those preferred in the past,” says Mariotti. “Here [with the 2015] the emphasis is on elegance and purity of expression with a lot of energy. Maturity yes, but it’s not about roundness and fruitiness.

“It’s more about the cooler, fresher grapes from the northern facing slopes of Verzy and Verzenay which are less expressive than the largely south facing crus of Bouzy and Ambonnay. Structure and texture are the two words we look for in La Grande Dame. Pinot Noir for the structure which gives the energy and precision, while the texture is more about the fruit.

“It was quite an easy vintage in 2015, there was no frost, no disease, just a lack of water in the vineyard. The chalky grand cru soils are better in such ‘dry’ years, Picking took place between 10th and 15th of September and with a warm and sunny growing season, potential alcohol was around the 10.5deg mark but acidity was OK too. It was a generous, solar vintage, not as fresh as the 2012.”

With the Chardonnay portion of the blend reduced from historical levels (pre-2008) is needs to be “very sharp, precise and energetic” says Mariotti. “It’s more based on Le Mesnil-sur-Oger and Avize, although we taste blind to find the type of Chardonnay we want, rather than the village; but the Chardonnay of le Mesnil brings that quality.” Tasting the wine he says, self depreciatingly: “Dominique did a good job with the blend and I did a good job with the dosage [6gm/l].”

In terms of yield 2015 was quite generous compared to 2012 which had quite a low yield and ’15 is more of a ‘Pinot Noir’ year with some similarities to 2002. By the time we harvested the 2015 we were at zero herbicides in the Clicquot vineyard, so it’s a vintage that expressed something very different partly because of this change. After stopping [herbicides] it takes two to four years for the vines to change, to get deeper roots and get more minerality expression,” says Mariotti.

Asked why Clicquot didn’t make 2013 as he did when still at GH Mumm, Mariotti says this was Demarville’s decision, made because his focus then was on the Clicquot reserve wines, depleted after the short 2012 harvest. As for 2014, “that was a disaster”, he says.

We turn to the 2012 La Grande Dame to alter our focus, prior to tasting the newly released 2012 Rosé La Grande Dame, which by way of explanation, Mariotti says “always needs two or three more years than the white before release”. To help this step change we first taste the Parcelle ‘Clos Colin’ 2012, Clicquot’s red Coteaux Champenois, used blend the La Grande Dame Rosé which comes from a small block of about one hectare in the centre of their Bouzy vineyard holdings, that’s farmed specifically to produce red wine, with lower yields.

They bottle some of the red they don’t use in blending rosé, just around 2,000-3,000 bottles, “to see how it is evolving”, serving it to guests of the house staying at the Hotel du Marc in Reims.

“There’s more generosity in the 2015 than the ’12, even though the yield in ’12 was lower. We macerate the red wine for about one week,” he says, “just to get the fruit, not the structure, it’s more like a Beaujolais.” Typically, they produce about 100-150Hl of red wine from Clos Collin of which they use about 40%, Mariotti says. They keep some of it in their reserves too. When we sit down to talk after the tasting, dealing with the very substantial Veuve Clicquot reserves, turns out to be his current pre-occupation at the house.

When I put it to Mariotti that in his short reign he has just had four of the most extraordinary harvests in Champagne, he agrees that in some ways it’s been a baptism of fire. Or at least three of the warmest, sunniest, driest harvests on record and one the most difficult to manage. But he reiterates that, thanks to the pandemic created lockdown at the outset of his reign, he benefitted from a long calm period of study getting to grips with all aspects of the house. “I spent a lot of the first few months at the winery, we were the only people allowed to work and could do so without interruption.”

He learned a lot about the very substantial Veuve Clicquot reserves during this quiet period. “Its one of the largest collections in all Champagne, and its all kept separately variety by variety, cru by cru and vintage by vintage. They are what makes Veuve Clicquot unique in Champagne. And we taste all of these reserve wines twice a year.”

Heading up a large tasting team of 12 one of the most important duties the chef de cave has is to train up everyone new to use the same tasting terminology and descriptors. It’s particularly important for the reserve wine stock at a time when they are trying to look further into the ageing potential of these wines, to see which are best to keep longer and what attributes they need for that. They are working on this in conjunction with Bordeaux University looking at many different aspects.

“What are the effects of ageing in vats versus large oak foudres and on different lees. We are learning a lot about some flavours that are markers of the wine’s evolution which help us decide which reserve wines we can keep longer. We want to know more about the different vins clairs’ ability to age. Can we keep them for 10 years, five years or only two or three. This will help us make good decisions about what we put into the reserve in future.”

The importance of the work on the reserve has been bought further into focus by the significant depletion of the large reserve stocks as a result of the very short 2021 harvest. There are going to be issues about producing the volume and quality of Yellow Label they want to make for quite a while as a result. “It’s going to be problem this year and next,” says Mariotti. “It’s our philosophy not to grow too fast with Yellow Label.” He continues Demarville’s work trying to bring more texture to this wine with some oak-aged reserve wines and the Bordeaux university studies on the reserve will he hopes, help further with this though the oak is only one small aspect of it.

With the gradual opening of the new cellars at the brand’s new Comète winery 47-hectare site on the edge of Reims he now has all the space needed to work on longer-term small-scale vinification experiments as well as a new red wine production centre that’s much needed as rosé production is increasing faster than white.

Outside Champagne the experiment ageing different cuvées of Veuve Clicquot on the Baltic seabed continues also and Mariotti hints that they are going to launch a new ‘aged under the sea’ wine in the near future.  And while the 2015 La Grande Dame may not be his own wine, early next year we will see his first Yellow Label creation based on the high quality 2019 base and blended in that first quiet 2020 lockdown quarter, released. It will be another year before he can start talking about the Clicquot wines he’s made himself.

Having harvests start in August rather than mid or late September remains a central problem. “Champagne has to adapt quickly, and we are still not organised for a harvest in August and the challenges that brings, with everything going much faster as grapes ripen quicker during longer, hotter days,” he says.

However he is now gradually putting in place the tools needed to deal with the issues that climate change brings and the reserve, and how it is handled, is one of the keys to this.

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