Saturday, March 26, 2011

Debate a Bubble - Still Wines - The Building Blocks of Champagne

Debate a Bubble - Still Wines - The Building Blocks of Champagne

Link to Debate a Bubble - Champagne News and Reviews

Still Wines - The Building Blocks of Champagne

Posted: 25 Mar 2011 01:11 PM PDT

Alexandre siphoning  base wine Not a very flattering title for this post I guess, but it's diffficult to think of a more appropriate way of describing the still wines that go into the blending of champagne.

After the first fermentation which turns the grape juice into still wine (sometimes called base wine) the next stage of the champagne making process is to blend together all the many different still wines ( from different plots, different regions and different grapes varieties)  before the blend is then put through the second fermentation to produce the bubbles and become champagne.

When you taste a finished champagne it's nigh on impossible to distinguish the different still wines that have gone into the blend and that's what makes it all the more fascinating to have the chance to taste the still wines before they are blended.

I was at Champagne Penet-Chardonnet earlier this week with a guest from Sweden and Alexandre Penet kindly let us taste some still wine from last year's harvest.

Alexandre is currently conducting trials with still wine fermented and  aged in oak barrels, as opposed to stainless steel vats, in order to assess how this might affect the resulting champagne. In the picture you can see Alexandre siphoning out wine from the barrels so that we could taste it

We tried three different still wines, all from last year's harvest , so they've been ageing for about 7 months now and a fascinating experience it was too.

The first was a pure Chardonnay wine, the second a pure Pinot Noir and the third another pure Chardonnay - the crucial difference between the first and third being that the first one has been ageing in old oak barrels and the third in new oak barrels - more of this in a second.

My Swedish friend and I were expecting these young wines to be sharp and agressive but what a surprise when we tasted the first Chardonnay - it was smooth and rounded and was already showing a complex array of aromas and flavours. In a sense it reminded me of New World wines: easy to drink with plenty of frutiness. Contrary to what we had expected, there was hardly a hint of oak in this wine.

Alexandre describing his champagnes Next we tasted the Pinot Noir - same age, same old oak barrels, and it was really revealing to note the great difference between the Chardonnay and the Pinot Noir wines. All these nuances are lost in a finished champagne, so if you're ever offered the chance to taste base wines make sure you accept.

The most surprising thing though was the huge difference we noticed in the third base wine. The new oak, even in just seven months, had imparted much more oaky, smokey flavours to the wine -overpoweringly so in my view and as Alexandre mentioned, this wine will need to be blended with others to tone down this oaky character and achieve the perfect result.

The reason for this difference is that new oak still has lots of tannin in it which is inevitably transferred to the wine in the barrel. On the other hand, old oak that has already been used to make two or three vintages of wine - often in Burgundy - has lost much of the oakiness and imparts just a hint of vanilla and other woody notes.

It was an intriguing insight into the skill required to blend champagne using just the right proportions of just the right wines to get exactly the result you're looking for. All that is left to do now is to wait a few years to taste the bubbly result

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