CHAMPAGNE CLOS L’ABBÉ
The wines of Hubert SOREAU and Nathalie VIGNIER
Nathalie Vignier descends from a wine growers family cultivating their vineyards in Cramant since four generations. She bought her own first vineyard in 2004, and grows Chardonnay ever since in three different plots, all of them situated on the chalky slopes of the famous Côte des Blancs south of Épernay. Here she makes a real Champagne Grand Cru, not only because of the official classification of her terroir, but also due to the care she takes for her vines and wines: Fermentation in oak barrels, a minimum use of sulphites, at least for years of bottle ageing, only natural cork for bottle closure… It needs a lot of time and patience to create beautiful things.
Hubert Soreau is a Champagne wine grower with all his heart. After arriving in the region some 20 years ago, he first acquired skills in the vineyards of a famous Champagne company, an experience that allows him to work his own vines with mindfulness and deliberation. Among his vineyards situated in the hills of Épernay, he particularly treasures his Clos l’Abbé, a plot of only 0,35 acres that has already been mentioned in the records of the Saint Martin Abby Épernay in the 17th century and who’s wines were kept under lock and key…
You may contact Nathalie and Hubert by email (email@example.com) or through the website of the Clos l’Abbé
Concerning Hubert Soreau, I can confirm that he is as meticulous as a goldsmith for the production of his champagne Clos l’Abbé. His Chardonnay grapes grow in three small lots of the historic Clos l’Abbé near Épernay (once the oldest walled or enclosed vineyards of Champagne, as old documents confirm that it was already planted with grape vines in the ninth century). Personally, I love Chardonnay. It always comes up with surprises, presenting unexpected tastes and fragrances to my palate. It can be subtle and discreet, thick and lazy, powerful or delicate, have aromas of butter, lemon, blossoms and vanille, be mineral or juicy… So maybe I’d better write in plural and say that « I like ChardonnayS ». Obviously there are also perfectly boring Chardonnay wines on the marked, as it’s not a MAGIC grape variety that automatically makes great wines. You have to treat it with a certain respect, so it gives us a wine well worthy of its name.
In Hubert’s vineyards and cellar this is indeed the case: « Chablis style » pruning, no herbicides, hand picked grapes, whole bunch pressing in vertical press, fermenting in oak barrels, bottle fermentation (prise de mousse) the traditional way with natural cork… And at least three years of bottle ripening before Hubert starts to think about bringing the wines back up from the cellar.
The last « tirage » of the Clos l’Abbé (the still, non sparkling wines of the last vintage are bottles for the second fermentation) took place in April. An excellent occasion to get an older bottle from the cellar and give it a taste!
It looks great in the glass: pale, shiny and golden colored, small bubbles regularly rising to the surface. Its almost ruminant… By the way, I poured it into a wine glass and not into a champagne flute. The latter is perfectly adapted to sparkling wines that want to emphasize the splendor of their bubbles. But its far to small and tight for wines with a complexe bouquet. Those wines deserve better, they need space!
The Clos l’Abbé gratefully fills the entire space I’ve offered to him with the smell of ripe peaches and pears, as well as with aromas of hazelnut and butter. After a little while the wine has opened up a little, adding white pepper and dried apricots to its bouquet. Despite the fact that my nose would love to hang on a little longer, my palate insists to taste and drink at last. The straight minerality of the wine surprises at first, but it rapidly melts away amongst the mellow and smooth mouthfeel. The fine bubbles are perfectly integrated, and delicate fragrances of almonds and blossoms enrich the aromatic final.
Tasting this Champagne, its easy to understand the meaning of the French dictum that « a Champagne can accompany a whole banquet, from the amuse bouche to dessert ». Let’s think about it: I would serve the Clos l’Abbé without anything for an aperitif and prepare a rabbit terrine with coriander and pistachio for a starter. For the main course I could imagine fish filet with white pepper and vanilla, served with some creamy polenta, followed by some young parmesan cheese. Finish on a « Paris-Brest », a traditional French choux pastry with praline flavoured cream.
The liquor added to champagne wines just after disgorging, also called “liqueur d’expédition” (expedition liquor) doesn’t just serve to fill the wine level after expulsion of the yeast deposit. As the composition of this liquor, made from still wine and sugar determines the sweetness of the Champagne, it’s the ultimate step to fix the style of the cuvee: From Extra Brut and Brut, through Extra Dry, Sec, Demi-Sec all the way up to Doux, the sparkling wine is more and more sweet. Since a couple of years sparkling wines without any dosage, also called “Brut nature” have become popular. In this case, the added liquor contains no additional sugar at all and a Champagne “Brut nature” is as dry as a dry still wine: no residual sugars left!
“You already think about the final dosage when blending the base wines before bottle fermentation. You are even reasoning about it during the evaluation of grape ripeness and harvest”, admits Hubert Soreau, whose Chardonnay grapes grow in the historical Clos l’Abbé close to Epernay.
To guarantee the balance of the final cuvee, sugar concentration of the expedition liquor has to match with the character of the wine. A rich, full-bodied wine might become heavy if the dosage is to high; A straight, acidity-based wine will taste thin or even hard, if the dosage is not used to cover this acidity. Even aromas and perception of our beloved bubbles may change according to the dosage.
I re-experienced this particularity just recently, lecturing at the Université du Vin Suze-la-Rousse in the Rhône Valley. At our request, Nathalie Vignier from Champagne Paul Lebrun, prepared the same cuvee with different levels of dosage: One Brut (10 g/l) and one Extra Dry (20 g/l). The result of the tasting was intriguing as always.
Already in the glass both wines behaved differently. The Extra Dry showed bubbles and foam of top of the wine which seemed to be bigger and grosser. And while the bouquet of the Brut was pleasant, flowery and of intense fruit, the flowery character was almost completely missing in the wine with higher sugar content. On the palate the difference between the two wines was even more accentuated. Here too, the bubbles felt bigger, even giving some severity to the Extra Brut’s final, and the Brut’s complexity outstood with additional aromas of dried fruit and brioche.
The result of this tasting didn’t surprise Nathalie at all: When we want to make a Champagne Extra Dry or an Demi-Sec, we choose completely different base wines. In the case of higher residual sugar to obtain a flawless balance, the base wine should show more acidity and present perfectly integrated bubbles after bottle fermentation.”
A trip through the vineyards in Champagne around Cramant, Avize and Épernay and tasting of the 2013 wines with Nathalie Vignier at Champagne Paul Lebrun.
It’s always a little thrilling to discover a new wine, a new cuvée. Nathalie Vignier presented her Champagne Pur Cramant in a very uncomplicated manner: comfortably sitting in her kitchen. A prerelease, disgorged just minutes before, while the remaining bottles will continue their ageing for another couple of weeks. A beautiful champagne, delicately chiseled out of chalk and Chardonnay, with a powerful and enthusiastic nose: white peach, some hazelnuts, zesty lemon and the smell of blossoms that made me think of lily of the valley and mayflowers.
Straight and mineral on the palate, with powerful and impressive acidity. The bubbles are lively but tender, melting down slowly into the wine, giving a creamy mouthfeel on the final. There is something tactile in this wine, something your tongue and cheeks can feel, a chalky impression that makes you think of its terroir, giving length and persistence. A beautiful wine for tasting and for food, that one would spontaneously associate to Sushi orfish carpaccio.
To be released...
After the second fermentation in bottles, which confers the famous bubbles to the wine, the bottles are left to rest for several months: At least 12 for “common” champagne, not less than 36 months for vintage champagne, in accordance with the rules of the Appellation d’Origine. Actually, it is more a period of calm and devout work, where the taste and particularly the odour of the wine are mould by time.
Depending on the composition and the wanted aromatic ripeness of the wine, many cuvees often ripen much longer in bottles. Many “common” Champagnes age 2 or 3 years on fine lees, vintage Champagne or “Grand Cuvées” often stay cellared for 4 to 10 years before being disgorged.
There is no doubt for Nathalie Vignier: ”Aromatic complexity and ripeness increase. The wines love to spend time on the lees!”
Even if the bouquet of every Champagne depends on its original character, a general tendency of aromatic evolution has been observed:
“First you’ll get flowery and citrus aromas. Later it gets to riper fruit, peaches or pear for example, before the rise of tertiary aromas like butter, toasted bread, pastry or dried fruits…”
According to the potential of the wine, which mainly depends on grape varieties, terroir and ripeness, you may literally sculpt the bouquet of the wine by using time: Crispy and fresh fruit for shorter aging, spicy and rich after years of patience.
I know Burgundy isn’t a benchmark for everything, but it’s a benchmark for Chardonnay. At least, as much as the “Côte des Blancs” in Champagne…
Being more used to straight and fruit wines from the latter region, I am surprised by the aromatic diversity and character of the Clos l’Abbé (The clos of the Abbot) . It’s the first “finished” bottle that Hubert opens for me for a tasting. The wine has gained a lot of fullness and complexity during the last months of bottle ripening. And I am sure, this is not due to the final “dosage”, as this wine is an “extra brut” with only 5 grams per litre of residual sugars.
In the glass, the Abbot shows elegancy and style through its bright silvery shining colour and subtle small bubbles. In the nose I first smell dried fruits, fresh apricots and almond paste, with hints of toasty and smoky aromas coming up after a couple of minutes. It’s a bouquet with both young and ripe characters.
Rich and smooth, the Abbot is rather full-bodied, showing a slight tannin structure on the final, which adds tightness to the mouth. The finish is rather long, with crispy acidity, delicate bubbles and slightly oaky aromas. All together, the wine has a very pleasant, juicy mouth feel, from the beginning to the end. A complete wine, a good companion of your taste buds, to be appreciated your eyes closed. It perfectly matches to creamy and delicate cheese, like Brillat-Savarin or Brie de Meaux, as well as lobster and crayfish. I would even dare to serve it on a pheasant or partridge with fresh boletus.
A wine that leaves its fingerprints on your palate, like a great Meursault…
Like for every wine, the character of great Champagne is born in the vineyards. But its quality highly depends on the pressing of the grapes. Traditionally, vertical basket presses containing 4000 kg of grapes (or a multiple of 4000 kg) are used in Champagne. Press, cellar and tanks are standardized and their conformity is checked by the CIVC (Comité interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne) and the INAO (Institut national des appellations d’origine). Grapes are pressed as whole bunches without destemming. The advantage of whole bunch pressing is that the juice flows out of the pomace more easily. Additionally, the pomace filters the juice, that runs out of the press particularly clean and clear.
According to its quality, the must is split into different parts, called “cuvee” for the first part, “taille” for the last part. During pressing, pomace is restacked by hand several times to facilitate liberation of the juice.
After several hours of loading, pressing, restacking and unloading the basket, the wine maker obtains some 2050 litres of “cuvee” and 500 litres of “taille” must. That’s the maximum press yield allowed by the production rules of the Champagne region.