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Oak in Champagne

by Tom Stevenson

At Decanter's World Wine Award tastings this year, Tom Stevenson found himself arguing Devil's advocate against one of his judges, Tony Jordan, who wanted to reject each and every oaky Champagne. This has raised questions as to the role of oak in Champagne today, 50 years after its widespread demise throughout the region.

Champagne's Latest Splinter Group

The presence of oaky aromas in a number of Champagnes was not only proving to be a controversial point with some of my judges, but it also presented me with a personal dilemma. On the one hand, as anyone who has read me on the subject knows, I harboured more than a sneaking respect for Tony's position. For example, under 'Oaky' in the glossary of my Christie's World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine, I wrote "Sparkling wines seldom benefit from new oak characteristics, which are too overpowering for the subtle effects of autolysis, and deny the wines most of the finesse they might otherwise have had."

On the other hand, as chairman of the panel, I felt I had to demonstrate a stylistic impartiality. It was not our duty to dictate the legitimacy of a style. My contention was that if a trend exists for the use of new and relatively new oak in Champagne, then we should recognise that, and reward its very best examples.

However, I had fought long and hard to get Tony Jordan on the Champagne panel, and I was not about to dismiss his objections out of hand. The Aussies wanted him to judge on their panel, but this is the man who achieved an international standard at Domaine Chandon Australia in 1989, after only three vintages, when the quality of the original Domaine Chandon in California was still struggling, despite having a 13 year start. Furthermore, being part of LVMH he is no stranger to Champagne, and when it comes to discussing the pros and cons of the technical process of producing and appreciating a sparkling wine, he is one of four people in this world I have got the most sense out of over the years. The very least I could do was to call in the competition chairman, Steven Spurrier, for a final decision. Steven sided with me, and I believe it was the fairest decision. It was certainly the most objective.

Nevertheless, oak is an increasingly fashionable practice in Champagne, and as such it is likely to become a growing cause for dissent at future tastings. Although the role of new and relatively new oak in Champagne is a hot topic for debate amongst the latest generation of champenois winemakers, it is little known and even less understood outside the region. Hopefully the following detailed survey and analysis will be of interest to all involved.
 

Survey: use of oak by Champagne houses

Only those who responded to most of my questions are included in the table below Others known to use oak include: Agrapart (reserve wines are stored in mostly large or largish oak); Baron Albert (1987 was the first vintage I came across of its oak vinified cuvée Jean de la Fontaine); Boizel (experiments date back to the 1990 Cuvée Sous Bois); Bollinger (all vintaged Champagnes fermented in 100% very old 205 litre pièces, but non-vintage mostly vinified in stainless-steel); Guy Charlemagne (a portion of the wines are fermented in barriques without malolactic); Jackie Charlier (fermented in 100% oak foudres); Cuperly (some barriques, no malolactic); Vve. Devaux (oak foudres for reserve wines); Duval-Leroy (has experimented with oak for many years, the most successful of the most recent offerings include the oaky but excellent Authentis Cumières 2000 and Authentis Petit Meslier 1998); Ellner (reserve wines kept in oak); Fleury (the 1996 was a classic barrique-fermented Champagne); Veuve Fourny (a proportion of the reserve wine is stored in used barriques); Henri Giraud (a great 1993 Fût de Chêne, but this exceptional quality has not been maintained in other theoretically superior vintages); A.R. Lenoble (increasing use of oak); Robert Jacob (Cuvée Prestige stored in 20% 1-2 year old oak for 4 months); Krug (entire production fermented in 100% very old 205 litre pièces); Mandois (barriques used for Cuvée Victor Mandois); José Michel (fermentation in 100% oak without malolactic); Jean Milan (100% oak-aged Cuvée Jean Charles Milan); Mumm (currently being used for the dosage of a yet to be released prestige cuvée); Pierre Paillard (the Millésime Brut is fermented in 100% new barriques); Joseph Perrier (reserve wines kept in oak demi-muids); Ployez-Jacquemart (brilliant 100% barrique-fermented cuvée L. d’Harbonville since 1989); Alain Robert (fermentation in 100% oak); Louis Roederer (reserve wines stored in oak foudres); Camille Savès (reserve wine are stored in barriques without malolactic); Jacques Selosse (entire range fermented in 100% oak, both 228 litres barriques and 900 litre tonneaux, with 10% new oak); De Sousa (the Vieilles Vignes and Cuvée des Caudalies are fermented in barriques, part of which are new); Tarlant (Cuvée Louis is fermented in 100% barriques); De Venoge (dabbling with oak as a secondary complexing component since the late 1980s); Vilmart (started with new oak foudres, then new oak barriques, the wines became too oaky in the early 1990s, although the quality remained stunning, and the Champagnes became truly harmonious as from the 1996 vintage).

Some houses do not use oak, and do not experiment, such as Veuve Clicquot and Pol Roger, while others who also do not use oak, and probably never will, have indeed experimented, like Pommery, where Thierry Gasco has made trials with some fifteen 205 litre pièces from Seguin Moreau since 1990. Others still do not use oak for elaborating their cuvées, but use it for storing the liqueur de dosage, as Mumm has been doing for a future prestige cuvée.

click here for the table of survey results

How widespread is the use of oak?

Fermentation in oak was once the norm in Champagne, but that was when the wood averaged 25 years or more, and the larger the oak vessel the older the average age was. Wood was widely phased out in the 1950s and 1960s, but as can be seen from the table, Bollinger and Krug are not the only ones to have held onto oak for part or all of their production. The trend today is for new or relatively new oak in small barrels, often from Burgundy, and although it is very much a minority practice, the number of barrique-fermented Champagnes has doubled over the last two or three years.

The following analysis is drawn not only from the survey above, but also from my discussions with Tony Jordan, and 25 years of visiting, tasting and researching Champagne intensively.

What was it that so concerned Tony Jordan

"What worried me was that some of the wines we were looking at showed overt new oak. This did not seem to me to be harmonious with the characters developed during yeast age in Champagne." Jordan later told me. "The impact of the wood reminded me of the oak you see in some less well made Chardonnay still wines, in which the oak is new, and obvious, and sits apart from the fruit and other characters introduced during the winemaking process. When oak is overt it is clumsy and not really part of harmonious aromatics and flavours.

Tony Jordan gave me his trademark smile, and stated firmly, "No, no way. We would be sending back the wrong message if we give any of these Champagnes a medal."

"I am certainly not against evolution of wine styles. I can accept that very subtle new oak may be a successful complexing character behind traditional Champagne aromatics and flavours. However, when the oak is 'obvious' and even 'raw' as we saw in some of the Champagnes I don't find it appealing. I don't believe we should applaud a change in style simply because it is different."
 

My view

The problem with oak in Champagne is perhaps even more fundamental than Tony suggests. The effect of Champagne and new oak is like Sinatra singing rap: too ridiculous to imagine. The mellowing aromatic properties of new or relatively new oak conflict with effervescence and flavour profile of a fully sparkling wine like Champagne, especially when youthful. Successful anomalies may happen, but on a repeatable basis, it is impossible to produce Champagne with 'very subtle new oak' unless very subtle proportions of oak are actually employed. Where relatively new oak really does have a positive role to play in the Champagne process is in blending just 5-15% into a cuvée. Compare two Champagnes that are exactly the same except that one has 5-15% oak, and the oak should not be identifiable if skilfully blended, yet there should be a certain je ne sais quoi of complexity that makes it distinctly superior. When used like this, new and relatively new oak can become part of the complexing building blocks that Tony Jordan refers to.

Size matters

I am not convinced that the once traditional champenois 205 litre pièce or (because there are no commercial tonneliers left in Champagne) the 225/228 litre burgundian barriques currently favoured are best suited to Champagne. There is no denying the great quality of Krug and vintage Bollinger vinified exclusively in pièces, but at 25-40 years in age their barrels are not new by any stretch of the imagination. Moreover, while they ferment their wines in oak, they do not age them in oak - Krug ages its wines in stainless-steel, while Bollinger ages its reserve wines in magnums under a very light pressure.

When it comes to new or relatively new oak, the larger the vessel the better as far as I am concerned, although even the largest foudres are small enough to vinify on a parcel by parcel basis, which is essential for ultimate blending flexibility. And the older the foudre gets, the greater the percentage of its wine that may be used in any cuvée without attracting attention. Roederer switched back to large oak foudres in the early seventies, and the replication of this at Roederer Estate in the eighties helped carve out is reputation as the greatest sparkling wine outside of Champagne. The success of the foudre has also been demonstrated by Jacquesson, Vilmart and more recently by Taittinger and Drappier.

Ageism

It might be stating the obvious to say that the age of the barrels and how long the wines have been aged in them have a marked effect on the amount of oakiness detected in Champagne, but some producers merely give lip service to such basics. They either do not try objectively to assess the full extent of oak influence in their own Champagnes or they do, yet have developed such a 'cellar palate' that they cannot see the wood for the trees. The delicacy of style in even the biggest of Champagnes is such that even 40 year old oak barrels stick out like a sore thumb in a blind tasting. Knowing this, the champenois who use new or relatively new oak should be excruciatingly careful in the production of such wines, but almost without exception the first cuvées they commercialise literally reek of oak. Tell them so, and they feign otherwise!

One of the very best of the distinctly oaky Champagnes from small casks that I have tasted recently is Voirin-Jumel Cuvée 555 (although I am less enamoured with their basic NV Brut and Rosé). The first aromatics to assault the nose are indeed all oak, but they are sympathetic to the high-acid character of Champagne. This results in a lovely richness of fruit on the palate, where the oak can at least be forgotten, even if it does not actually vanish. Consequently Cuvée 555 has a long path of fine ageing potential ahead it, whereas so many other oak-aged Champagnes are stuck in a cul-de-sac where they will never attain any finesse. So what makes this decidedly oaky Champagne better than most? Well, when the casks were purchased 10 years ago from Burgundy they were 'old' rather than merely 'used'. So Cuvée 555 was aged just 4-6 months in 15-20 year-old fûts de chêne, which has not overwhelmed the Champagne, yet the result is still very oaky. This indicates just how careful the champenois should be when playing with fired barrels.

Older oak and/or less time in wood does not guarantee quality, but if the quality is there, it does make a Champagne in which oak can be barely perceptible. Who thinks of oak when drinking Gosset Grande Réserve, for example, or any of the fabulous cuvées from Alfred Gratien? When oak starts to dominate, it banalises Champagne, robbing it of any house style or expression of terroir, rendering it predictably the same as every other oaky Champagne. Not that you would think that from the declarations of some of the most recent oak devotees. Jean-Pierre Vincent, the chef de cave at Nicolas Feuillatte, recently stated that he began using barriques because "I wanted something different from what everyone else is doing." If I had a penny for each time I have heard this I could afford to drink Cristal for breakfast, but he is wrong and Pierre Cheval of Champagne Gatinois was closer to the truth when he told me "Oak is an artifice that everyone uses today to make something different, yet they all end up making something very similar!"

"I do not like vanilla with my Champagne" comments Pierre Cheval of Champagne Gatinois (right), "I think that fine Champagne, which utilises carbon dioxide to express its natural fine quality does not deserve to be masked by timbered flavours!"
  

Fermentation in oak

Of those who have recently started to use new or relatively new oak, too many use it for ageing, rather than fermentation. While ageing a small percentage of reserves in relatively new foudres works very well, a Champagne produced largely or wholly in oak should be fermented in the wood, whether its large foudres or small barriques. Simply ageing the majority of a Champagne results in a very facile effect, that is overtly oaky, with little if any integration with the fruit, whereas fermentation ensures much subtler, more truly complex aromas.


   Much of the most recent trend in the use of oak is superficial, for ageing only, whereas these barriques at Veuve Fourny & Fils are used for fermentation in the traditional manner

Malolactic
The decision whether to put a Champagne through malolactic can be affected by stylistic considerations that are above and beyond the use of oak, but if malolactic is intended, the result is more harmonious and less overtly oaky if conducted in the oak. Yet I have found some of the younger generation of champenois deliberately avoiding malolactic in wood because they do not want "foreign tastes". Their grandfathers would have a heart attack! When I first visited the region, the older growers all made a point of completing the malolactic in cask because, they claimed, it "married" the wood to the wine. I have seen no scientific explanation for so-called foreign tastes, but science has confirmed the trial and error wisdom of the older generations. In 1995 Vivas et al demonstrated that when malolactic is carried out inside an oak cask, it reduces astringency, generates a smoother, richer wine, and ensures that the oak and fruit flavours are more harmoniously balanced. The young should have more respect for the older generations whose only experience was to work with wood.

Bâtonnage
Roughly one-third of those using oak today carry out bâtonnage or lees-stirring. Some of the two-thirds who do not perform bâtonnage point out that Champagne should have contact with the lees inside the bottle, not cask. While this at first might sound a smart thing to say, it actually means very little when examined. At the very least I would recommend those who do not stir the lees should experiment with this practice. Not to add blowsy leesy character, as happens all too often in New World Chardonnay, but to maintain high protein levels, which will help autolysis in the bottle. Of those who do perform bâtonnage, few do this systematically, and only one utilises Système Oxoline, a modular system that increases efficiency, speed and safety first demonstrated at 'Vinitech 2000'.

The Future

A lot of mistakes are being made, but it is very early days for many producers, and any lessons learned as they experiment will take a minimum of three to five years to work their way out of the cellar and onto the shelf. So, even if no others take to the stave, and the current lot prove to be quick learners, it is going to take until at least 2010 or 2012 before we see the demise of overtly oaky Champagnes. However, since this is a growing trend, and a lot of 'cellar palates' are going to take some convincing, I imagine that Tony Jordan and I will still be discussing this in the 2020s …

Tom Stevenson is a regular columnist for wine-pages, but this article is reprinted with the permission of Off Licence News, in which it first appeared.