Production of vintages by Maison Taittinger isn’t actually planned and this is even more the case with Comtes de Champagne. The decision to produce a new vintage is based on a demanding philosophy, a guarantee of the Maison Taittinger signature. Damien le Sueur, General Manager, explains how a new Comtes de Champagne cuvée comes about.
Maison Taittinger is releasing the Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2011.What is the story behind this particular year?
2011 was a hot year with an early harvest. April was exceptionally hot, with temperatures 4°C higher than seasonal norms. The vegetative cycle was very quick and by the beginning of May, the vines’ phenological stages were almost 15 days ahead of the ten-year average! In addition, 2011 was a very calm year in terms of plant health.
Harvesting started on Monday the 22 of August in scorching temperatures of over 33°C. This searing heat continued into Tuesday and interrupted the ripening of the grapes, which was on an extremely high trend of almost 2% volume per week for the Chardonnays and 1.5% volume for the black grape varieties. Luckily, the rain came and we had significant amounts of water on theThursday and Friday. This brought a lot of freshness with it and meant that ripening could resume its cycle calmly the week of the 29th of August, following a blocking and dilution phase. Finally, on Friday and Saturday, the 2nd and the 3rd of September, temperatures shot up again, reaching a sweltering 34°C. So, harvesting had started on Monday the 22 of August and ended on Wednesday the 7 of September… the earliest harvests in living memory.
A quite extraordinary harvest! There were almost two harvests to manage, starting with the black grape varieties first and the Chardonnays in the second week, with several days off in between. Moreover, this was the first time in Champagne that we had seen so many operators stopping their presses for a few days, even going as far as laying off teams of pickers to adapt to this unprecedented situation.
Let’s not forget that Chardonnays need time to ripen properly and develop their aromatic potential. Nature took us a bit by surprise and we had to adapt how we managed things. Those who worked without adapting their ways probably missed out on a vintage year.
How did this situation evolve, so that the decision to produce the Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2011 became inevitable?
At harvest time, we weren’t necessarily planning to make a vintage because we were worried about the impact of this extreme heat on our wines. If we characterise the year, our tastings revealed three types of situation:
1/ Black grape varieties, with already aromas noticeable, expressed strength and lacked a little delicacy. Interesting wines but not enough structure to contemplate a Brut Millésimé. A few gems in the Pinots Noirs from Grands Crus on chalky soils made production of a Comtes Rosé a possibility…
2/ Chardonnays from the start of harvesting, picked too early, prevented their full potential from being revealed. The dominant, plant-like aroma and lack of structure excluded them from any plans for a vintage.
3/ Chardonnays from the second half of the harvest on superb terroirs. Like chalk and cheese! A few days that made all the difference and, above all, ripening reached its full potential!
We have to make a distinction between the years. It is always easy to work with very good, straightforward, clear-cut years. With more difficult years, the work is more delicate, as in 2011. It’s hugely satisfying to bring out a wonderful vintage when the year has been a bit more complex.That shows just how crucial everyone’s work is, from vine to wine, focused firmly on a precise vision of what is expected and strict timing. For all that, the decision isn’t taken at harvest time.
What criteria do you use when deciding to start production of a Comtes de Champagne?
In short, the decision is always based on tasting the still wines. Whether production is a foregone conclusion or whether it is subject to careful consideration, what prevails is the wine’s potential to evolve. What will this wine reveal in 10, 15, 20 years? Comtes champagnes have great ageing potential. Of course, the wine is no longer the same after being laid down for 40 years; it will develop new aromas of brioche bread, buttered bread, but it will never seem overwhelmed, never heavy, never ‘stewed’.
When it comes to blending, finesse, tension and depth are criteria we never compromise on when creating a new Comtes de Champagne vintage. It’s the potential we are judging. With these criteria, even in hot years like the ones we’ve been seeing more of recently, it is quite possible to get the product we want. The freshness of the wines isn’t related solely to the temperatures of the year. Thankfully! Good har vest management and the process of vinification help to bring out aromatic potential.
Maison Taittinger doesn’t automatically produce a vintage, even less so its Comtes de Champagne cuvée which is even rarer. Why is that?
One year follows the next, but no two are ever the same! We have to re-write the book on the profession every year. With the Comtes de Champagne, the exercise is one of infinite precision, the outcome of a long process. Blanc or Rosé, we made the decision only to use the five Grands Crus from the Côte des Blancs for Chardonnays and a few Grands Crus from the Montagne de Reims for Pinots Noirs. Each of these terroirs express their own typical characteristics. Each cru must meet the exacting standards that we’re after in order to produce a Comtes vintage. Add to that the fact that we work with years that are themselves very different from one another. All Comtes de Champagne vintages are unique; however, they all belong to the same family with shared DNA, a common thread when it comes to tension, finesse and precision.
What do you like about this wine?
I like what it tells us. After more than ten years of work where every stage involves deep reflection and meticulous work, tasting is a meeting which gives rise to emotions of incredible intensity.