I have previously written about Champagne production and oak's contribution to wine quality. This post covers the intersection of the two issues -- then and now.
Prior to the 1950s, Champagne producers vinified their wines in 228-liter oak vats (Tom Stevenson, Oak in Champagne, wine-pages.com; World of Fine Wine (WoFW), Issue 36, 2012; SFGate, Oak and Champagne, 12/13/09). These vats were neutral (in terms of oak influence) and were used for 25 or more years. They were expensive, however, so, beginning in the 1950s, Champagne Houses began substituting vats made from other materials for these oaken incumbents. An example of this is the story of Veuve Clicquot as told by Stevenson. In 1946 Veuve Clicquot began a 12-year program to switch from oak vats to glass-lined concrete tanks. Shortly after the conclusion of that program, the company was on the march once again, this time moving from concrete to stainless steel vinification tanks.
According to SFGate, stainless steel tanks afforded a number of benefits to Champagne producers: precise temperature control; an anaerobic environment; and a streamlined, high tech look in the cellar. Another benefit associated with the stainless steel tank, according to Stevenson, was Champagne-producer access to a malolactic-like creaminess. Stevenson holds that the most noticeable loss that occurs when a producer moves away from oak is "a certain ampleness of mouthfeel." Micro-oxygenation produces a textural enhancement that is akin to malolactic and, with the introduction of temperature-controlled stainless-steel vats, producers could now employ that technique to close the "ampleness" gap created by the move away from oak.
By the 1990s then, only three top Houses (Krug, Bollinger, and Alfred Gratien) and two top growers (René Collard and Anselme Selosse) were still fermenting entirely in oak.
But the winds of change are in the air. According to SFGate, there is a "marked increase in the number of Champagne producers experimenting with wood for fermentation as well as aging." Michael Edwards (The Finest Wines of Champagne) notes that over 100 Houses and growers are using wood in one or more of the following applications: fermenting in differing barrel/cask sizes; maturing the wines in tonneau; or creating the vin de dosage.
While the Independent (Champagne, 10/22/09) sees this return to oak as a move to further penetrate the British market (the largest Champagne market) by taking advantage of consumers' desire for the delicate hints of vanilla and coconut that accompany the judicious use of wood, both Edwards and SFGate see this move to wood as a pursuit of the benefits of barrel-driven micro-oxygenation. These benefits, as they see them, are: flavor complexity, added strength, suppleness, depth, and oxidation resistance. A cautionary note, however; the target wine has to have the character and structure to cope with the oak or it will end up being dominated and the resulting Champagne will be "heavy and clumsy."
Edwards sees three schools of oak in Champagne: old school; traditionalists; and innovators.
The "old schoolers" have always used oak and own barrels that are between 5 and 30 years old. Bollinger, Krug, Alfred Gratien, and Selosse fall within this camp. Bollinger vinifies in oak, a practice, it says, which "aids harmonious development of the wine" and guarantees stability in its later life. Bollinger decides whether to use oak or steel tanks depending on "the character of each year, the grape variety, and the different crus." The Reserve magnums and La Grande Année are always vinified in oak. Krug uses small Aragon oak barrels that are 10-15% new and that are covered by a layer of wax to prevent oxidation (Juhlin). The wine is matured for three months after fermentation and is then transferred between up to 10 barrels in order to gain different "taste shades." After the desired complexity is obtained, the wine is poured into metal containers to await assemblage. Alfred Gratien has 800 5-year-old, 228-liter barrels in which the wines are fermented and then matured for 6 months. According to Juhlin, Nicolas Jaeger, the winemaker, feels that this method results in wines with richer taste, longer-lasting aftertaste, and more interesting properties. Jaeger in the SFgate article: "The idea is not to make the wines taste oaky, but to give them more structure and finesse and greater length." Selosse buys 228-, 400-, and 600-liter tanks from Burgundy for its vinification activities.
The traditionalists have "returned to oak for its subtleties of aroma and flavors" and utilize new oak combined with stainless steel or enamel vats. An example of this type of producer is the aforementioned Veuve Clicquot. In 2011 the company announced the it was purchasing 30 oak Foudres to add to its vinification repertoire. The intent with this oak is not to impart oak character to the wine but instead to "broaden the choices of blending components for the vintage cuvée" (Stevenson, WoFW). Stevenson points out that while this is the stated goal, to the extent that only three vintages will be declared each decade, the yellow label will be the beneficiary of this oak-enriched infusion in the remaining seven years of the decade. Taitinger also falls into this camp using, as it does, < 5% of oak-aged wine to add complexity (toast and vanilla notes) to its Comtes de Champagne label.
Innovators see oak as an essential element of their winemaking and it is in this camp that Edwards sees some "overtly woody Champagne."
This "phoenix-like" experience for oak is not welcomed in all corners. According to Stevenson (wine-pages.com) and Juhlin (champagne club.com) Tony Stevenson, the Australian Champagne expert, wanted to reject all Champagnes in a Decanter tasting that had even a hint of oak. Juhlin sees the elegance of Champagne as being the key to its appeal the world over and worries that the weight introduced by wood might harm its "tenderness and subtlety." According to Stevenson, "The mellowing aromatic properties of new or relatively new oak conflict with the effervescence and flavor profile of a fully sparkling wine like Champagne, especially when youthful." He advocates the blending of between 5% and 15% of wooded wine into a cuvée to add complexity without evidence of oak.
It is clear that this trend to use oak in Champagne will only increase with time. The traditionalists will stay the course (they always have ) but the innovators are the ones to watch. The challenge for them will be to improve their craft such that the marriage of oak and champagne looks less like the marriage of oak and American Chardonnay and more like the marriage of oak and white Burgundy.
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