THE CELLAR MASTERS OF CHAMPAGNE
The Cellar Masters of Champagne are the custodians and innovators of the House style - they are the masters of sourcing, blending and communicating. Many have family ties or long-term loyalty to family houses or co-operatives made up of generations of family members. Indeed there is great respect for predecessors. Some play musical chairs between the Houses, while others haves spent their entire careers in the same one.
By Amanda Regan
Established in 1808 by Veuve Henriot, the House is still in family hands and managed by the eighth generation of the same family.
Laurent Fresnet studied in Avize for three years from 1991, then five years in bio chemistry and oenology in Reims. To experience new world sparkling winemaking, he worked for one year in New Zealand, two years in South Africa, then two years in the South of France. In 1994 Fresnier joined Champagne Claude Cazals in Le Mesnil sur Oger where he spent seven years, followed by a further five at La Vigneronne in Vertus as director of the co-operative.
Fresnet comes from several generations of a Champagne family, his mother is from Mailly and his father from Verzy. His parents make their own Grand Cru wine and Laurent does the blending and the dosage. His aim was therefore to work in a family House.
Fresnet’s role is winegrower and winemaker, adding “my job is to perpetuate, not change the House style.” Henriot owns 35 hectares and buys 100 hectares from long-term growers, wanting to maintain the same volumes and quality. Because Mr. Henriot and Fresnet are from a vineyard background, they discuss treatments together with the growers, even which blends their grapes should go into. “The Henriot style is about simplicity, not fashion,” but it relies on Grand Crus for the prevailing Chardonnay style of discretion, delicacy and finesse. The quality focus is found in the vineyards and winery where Laurent “likes to see both facets - the richness of the terroir and vintage effect in the blend.”
The range consists of Brut Souverain (70%), Blanc de Blancs (15%), Rosé (8%), and smaller volumes of vintages, all made in stainless steel - never wood - to eliminate oxidation, with 100% malolactic fementation. Fresnet is not a great fan of non-dosage, preferring smooth, silky and lace-like wine from 8 g/l.
Fresnet will never declare a vintage during harvest, only after the wines evolve, and only those made in exceptional years; he tastes verticals of brut several times a year with his team to observe evolution. Laurent always blends rosé with a dark glass so as not to be influenced by colour: “I am not a painter I just want the nose”.
Representing the true DNA of the only House to release its reserve wine, a limited edition of 1,000 magnums of “Cuvée 38 La Reserve Perpetuelle” will be released by the end of 2014. Four Chardonnay Grands Crus have been topped up over 23 years, and dosage is less than 5 g/l, as the wines are already rich with age.
Dating back to 1584, the oldest producer in Champagne has doubled production since it was purchased by the Cointreau family in 1994.
Cellar master for Gosset since 1983, Jean-Pierre Mareigner expresses the spirit of the House in three words “quality, time and patience”. Mareigner arrived independently to start work in the vineyards in 1977, already familiar with the House traditions. His father managed the vineyards for fifteen years when Jean-Pierre was young.
Gosset only owns half a hectare, so virtually 100% of its grape needs are purchased through long-standing connections with 200 growers, many third-generation, from 70 villages within a 30 km radius between Aÿ and Epernay. Mareinger looks for the finest ingredients, not large plots, and diversifies quality by selecting grapes from different places. “Champagne is first and foremost a wine, the bubbles come later. It is also a delicate wine so the bubbles must be fine, have structure and above all elegance.”
Since Jean-Pierre arrived the range has been extended from Brut Excellence, Grande Reserve and Grand Rosé to include Celebris and Blanc de Blancs. Blending depends on the different cuvees. Jean-Pierre believes malolactic fermentation compromises freshness, but without ever making MLF his wines need more time. Dosages range from 5 to 9 g/l. “When I make a vintage, I have to consider the growth, the vines, and the villages first to see how the vintage ages. The final, decisive factor is the tasting.”
To complement the Pinot Noir Aÿ Grand Cru, Mareigner has made a Blanc de Blancs from Aÿ in a ‘noirs’ style. It took ten years to create and is designed to reflect the Gosset signature style with 80% Côte des Blancs finesse and elegance plus 15-20% Montagne de Reims structure.
The Grande Reserve is the House’s flagship. Gosset could make and sell three times the amount but that is not the purpose; they insist on three years minimum ageing on the lees. Even when demand rises they will not increase allocation or decrease cellaring duration.
The Rosé was created by Madame Gosset in the 1950s and contained the highest proportion of Chardonnay before the Blanc de Blancs was introduced. Celebris 2007 Rosé and Grand Rosé were best sellers before rosé became fashionable. “The vintage is like a photograph of the year”: Grand Millesime with nine years on lees, is essentially Grand Cru and embodies Gosset’s signature taste profile; it needs a serious amount of time to be fully enjoyed. Celebris 2002 is from ten villages.
CHAMPAGNE LOUIS ROEDERER
An independent family-owned Champagne house run by Frédéric Rouzaud, direct descendent of Louis Roederer who purchased the business in 1833.
Cellar master since 1999 and vice-president since 2006, Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon graduated in agronomy from the Ecole Nationale Superieure d’Agronomie in Montpellier in 1989 and in oenology from the Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Vigne et du Vin in 1990. He then spent one year establishing Roederer Estate in California, and three years at their Australian venture in Tasmania.
"People think Champagne is a blend, but to make a good blend you first have to be terroir-driven in the vineyard.” Since 1996, every cuvee has come from a specific site within the 240 hectare-estate comprised exclusively of Grand and Premier Crus, providing 70% of the company’s grape needs: 120 hectares are managed to make Cristal and two 10-hectare sites for vintage and blanc de blancs.
Lecaillon monitors the dry, continental climate influences on Pinot Noir and wet oceanic influences on Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. His vineyard managers are also winemakers. They conduct massal selection, vine spacing and pruning trials as well as research with scientific institutes in Geisenheim and Burgundy for their 65 hectares of biodynamically-farmed vines. Cristal Rosé is 100% biodynamic.
To achieve maximum terroir potential, 410 parcels are separated into 450 tanks. Bought-in and estate grapes are never mixed, and oxidative and reductive characters are isolated in stainless steel tanks or 6,000-litre oak casks. Lecaillon has created a “massal selection of yeasts” from biodynamic grapes in the vineyard. Grapes arrive at 17°C and reach a maximum 24°C. If made at all, a slow, cool malolactic fermentation (or MLF) over six months is “a non Champenois way of looking at MLF”.
"When Pinot Noir is King, Cristal pushes for Pinot”, usually 60% of the blend plus 40% Chardonnay from low yields for concentration. Lecaillon believes “Champagne is about sapidity but Cristal needs more depth, something extra. Freshness comes from something else. For example, the low acid, high alcohol 1947 is great now without high acidity. The longer you wait, the acidity stays but you come down to dry extraction, the essence of the wine.” After blending and bottling, four casks are filled with reserve Cristal wine to age. “Brut Premier is Cristal’s second wine, topped up with Cristal.”
Roederer has just released a late disgorged Cristal 1995 Vinotèque and the first new cuvee since 1974 - Brut Nature by Philippe Starck.