After IPNC’s casual Saturday lunch with endless Pinot poured under Linfield College’s ancient oaks, I toddle across campus for a class. Yes, about Pinot Noir.
My highlight at last year’s IPNC was trying Claud Giraud’s barrel-fermented Champagnes. By chance he came back to do: University of Pinot: Environmental Studies 370, painfully titled “The Man Who Whispers to the Oaks of the Forest”
So, this oak-whisperer, what’s the fuss? Well, most Champagne has forgone oak barrels for the clean modernity of stainless tanks and temperature control. Not Giraud.
Since the 1970s, they have turned back to primary, alcoholic fermentation in barrels. He likes them for the additional flavors they impart and the continuous fermenting vortex the barrel shape provides (think lees contact).
Today, Claud takes us deep into the Argonne Forest (with the help of a translator). The Argonne is Champagne’s go to forest. Protected by a rain-shield, Argonne has poor soil, which slows tree growth, creating tightly-grained barrels. Every major wine region in France has a forest. The state controls all of them.
Claud has set up a tree-tracking system to follow the growth, soil pH, weather…basically the terroir of each tree before he requests a barrel be made of it. He works with three tonnelliers and three coopers (one stolen from Romanée-Conte, he gloats).
Before us sit two still wines. Each come from the same 2015 blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The rub lays in how they were fermented. Barrel v Barrel:
First, from the hot, dry, sedimentary South of Argonne, Chatrices’ barrel-fermented wine.
APPEARANCE: a clear pale hay with raspberry highlights. AROMAS: medium intense strawberry, nutmeg, lime, vanilla icing, graphite. PALATE: Dry, tart, light in body with FLAVORS that etch enamel with green, saline citric acidity.
Ok. Chatrices is zingy. How about La Controlerie?
La Controlerie sits mid-forest and gets more rain. AROMAS and FLAVORS flow with marzipan, toast, caramel, white pear, even plum. Controlerie is as dry as Chatrices but seems softer, readier.
Claude has us blend them, which, well, increases complexity and is a better sum of its parts (great job me). Just imagine how they would meld after secondary, bottle fermentation.
Here’s Claude Giraud extemporizing…
To prove his point, Claude has us try his best bubbles: Argonne 2002 Champagne:
This Argonne comes from his fruit in Ay. He views that Ay makes wines chalky, pointed, citric, pear and violets, briney, earthy, meaty, tailing with acidity.
75% Pinot Noir. 25% Chardonnay. 2002 was a good vintage but warm. It was fermented in barrels like today’s, but secondary in-bottle fermentation lasts 10 years. Dosage caps it with a low 8 grams per liter of sugar (beet sugar, since Champagne can’t grow cane sugar and colonialism is a no go these days).
The APPEARANCE looks a medium gold with vigorous but fine fizz. AROMAS smell of pronounced golden delicious apple, baked pear, marzipan, and lime rind. The PALATE is dry, with high acidity, medium alcohol and body, and a whiff of woody tannin. FLAVORS are bold with anise, pear, apple skin, a mild, pleasant pithy bitterness pervades. 2002 Arbonne is outstanding (5 of 5) Champagne. It demands your attention and probably a bit of food to tame tannins and the complex flavors.
Questions go another hour into finite details. My French is terrible but Claude manages them well. What a fantastic, narrow, but important part of winemaking lost to Champagne. Hell, most still winemakers do not think twice about each individual tree. Henri Giraud is brilliant stuff.