New Wave Champagne 1. - Letting Time Win

"Fighting For Freshness" with J-B. Lécaillon

On Tuesday I battled my way through the obfuscations of POTUS-related security in Pall Mall to attend a day of seminars and tastings run by Tim Hall of Scala Wine. The morning featured a presentation by Louis Roederer chef de cave J-B. Lécaillon entitled "Fighting For Freshness", before a group of us took a look at the top end of the Billecart-Salmon portfolio with John Atkinson MW. After such calm and focused environments, the elbow-politics of a busy walk-around tasting would ordinarily feel like a bit of a shunt down to cattle-class, but the Champagnes on offer were as enticing as you'd dare to imagine. In the spirit of non-linearity (more of that later), I let my thoughts settle for a few days before picking out a few threads to follow.

Letting Time Win

"The real winemaker is time. We are just playing around" J-B. Lécaillon 

We all laughed at this, but it stuck in my head all day. It is impossible to talk about a glass of Champagne without talking about time. You might say the same for any wine, but the Champagne timeline is more complex; there are so many discreet events in Champagne production, with timings of harvest, tirage, disgorgement and drinking throwing in their lot with those mysterious forces that grant longevity (and the slightly less-mysterious ones that curtail it). 

Then there is the enormity of the turning circle in the Champagne production timeline; what might take a still winemaker five years to learn will take a sparkling winemaker fifteen. Lécaillon has looked back until 1876 to identify continuity in the parcels that go into Cristal, whilst the soul of Roederer's vintage Champagne remains rooted in the very first vines the house purchased in Verzy and Verzenay. He views the recent move towards organics and biodynamics not as something new or revolutionary, but as a return to a previous, pre-agri-chemical age before the narrative of low ripeness, high yields and neutrality took hold. The past is not as distant as it appears. 

If, as a producer, you don't have a past to answer you, then there's still no escaping the future. Every bunch of grapes arriving in the winery may promise a moment (or perhaps moments) when it will sing to the best of its abilities, but oxidation, reductiveness, oak, dosage and closures will be just some of the players threatening to take a walk across the stage at an inopportune moment. It is about more than potential - you could argue that Jimi Hendrix never reached his potential - it is about ensuring there is a moment, no matter how soon or how late, when time wins.

For an excellent (and helpfully linear!) roundup of Lécaillon's session, have a look at Anne Krebiehl MW's piece for the Buyer, which I don't think I could add to.

1. Low and Zero Dosage Wines

There is always some debate as to whether these wines really work. Whether they will age. Whether they are just fads. I can understand the frustration of somebody tasting a Zero Dosage wine and thinking, "ah, but if only it had some sugar it would age so well!". It's a bit like listening to a live album and wondering whether the band should have had another go at a song because the singer missed the high notes. Wines with very low or no dosage can be electric, angular, difficult and bumpy, but, like a live album, they can show you another side to something you thought you knew. 

It's in this form that I like finding these wines; as part of a producer's portfolio that doesn't take a dogmatic approach to low dosage across the range, but uses it to shine a different light on their identity.

Lécaillon speaking about the genesis of Brut Nature 2009

Louis Roederer Brut Nature 2009 

"We wanted to make the opposite of Cristal"

From 10 Ha of 'deep and dark' clay in Cumières, planted as a field blend with approximately 1/3 Chardonnay and 2/3 Pinot Noir. Lécallion is planning to plant some Pinot Blanc for this wine. It is picked and pressed together in order to utilise "the reductive power of Chardonnay" during the fermentation and face oxidation without the shield of dosage in the future.

2009 was picked at 11.6% potential alcohol and fermented to 5 bar pressure, without malolactic, in order to marry freshness with a creamy mousse. Not 'too much' S02, but, crucially, some jetting at disgorgement. If there's ever an argument for jetting, it's this wine at three years on cork. 

Really clean and expressive. Fragrant red apple and lemon pith, developing some bramley apple, quince and almond with air. This is a sweet-natured Brut Nature. It hangs on to its fresh whitecurrant fruitiness, with the mousse giving way on the finish to allow the acidity to express itself more like a still wine. It's not grippy or harsh, it's not squeaky-clean, but my it is limpid and fresh. A wine in its moment. 

Billecart-Salmon Vintage 2008 Extra-Brut

This really grabbed me. 65% mostly Aÿ Pinot Noir together with 35% Grand Cru Chardonnay, cold fermented in steel. This is crystalline - salinity frames a delicate starfruit exoticism, with asian pear, apricot and those flashes of jackfruit that always make me think of the combination of ripeness and reductive control. This has the most gorgeous light-footed mousse, tapering off in a fine, soft-meringue line of sharp apricot pastry. I don't think I've ever had a Champagne with a texture quite like this - it's tricky to describe. Perhaps there are a few more chinks in the armour compared to the Nicolas-François Billecart 2002 that followed, but it would be difficult to resist drinking this now. Heresy, perhaps. 

From the walkaround tasting (quick, scribbled notes only really!)

Meunier's inherent joviality shines through even in quite serious expressions, such as this one from Chartogne-Taillet 

Eric Rodez Brut Zero. Rodez is a magician. This is always a favourite Brut Zero, with the 'closing in' effect on the palate managed so beautifully with lovely weight of fruit and creaminess. I had a completely different experience with Jacques Lassaigne Les Vignes De Montgueux again; this time, a November 2018 disgorgement filled the glass with flowers, asian herb-like notes and ripe yellow fruit. A totally different wine to the last two I've had and another strong argument for drinking this wine as young as possible. Natalie Falmet's Brut Nature is a mightily-successful example of clean Pinot vinosity overriding the starkness of the format. I don't know her wines well enough.

There were too many Extra-Brut wines to count in the room, but I enjoyed Jacquesson Cuvée 737 D.T. The touch of decadence that extended-lees ageing brought seemed to throw the natural terseness of the style into relief. Chartogne-Taillet Les Barres 2013 is just a lovely expression of Meunier. Unusually harmonious and fine, with some savoury and oxidative flecks speaking of oak in a considered way.

Of course the whole range of Agrapart was displaying amazing vibrancy - the 7 g/l of 7 Crus actually stuck out as a bit sweet in the room! I had to reluctantly (because of the price) doff my cap to top Avizoise 2012 for its compressed intensity. It just builds on the palate in a different way to the other wines.

When you are presented with a Zero or ultra-low dosage wine that does not seem to be in (or near) a good time window it is difficult to know quite what will happen, especially if there are flavours such as new oak that would tell you to retreat to the cellar in any other wine. Oak and low dosage can plainly work, but the dried-out or autumnal notes of oxidation don't provide the psychosomatic impression of sweetness that true freshness does. That can make them a bit hard going, for me at least.

"Freshness is not acidity. Freshness is more than acidity. It combines precision of fruit, salinity, sapidity and purity."

As the direction of travel in Champagne continues to shift towards more ripeness and lower and lower dosages, Roederer's message is that freshness is not only always possible, but necessary. The results speak for themselves; to my palate I don't think there is a range of wines from a single producer that capture what I love about Champagne so comprehensively.

2. Part II. (coming soon) Against The Grain - Oak 

3. Part III. (coming soon) Freshness in Three Guises