Over one hundred samples of “vins clairs” await our two oenologists, Cédric JACOPIN and Valentine MONNIER, this morning in the CHAMPAGNE DE SAINT-GALL tasting room. Tasted, analysed and graded, these still wines will then be classified (or not), according to their ageing potential, as reserve wines. This tasting is carried out once a year, in preparation for the March-April blending work.
Cédric JACOPIN, UNION CHAMPAGNE’s cellar master, tells us more…
What is a reserve wine?
“A reserve wine is something typically found in the Champagne region. Each year, the winemaker will decide on how much of the harvest to put aside, as a reserve wine. This process traditionally enabled us to ensure a constant and consistent quality, with the reserve wine acting as a “doctor’s wine” with an ability to complement or add flavours. Today, it also provides economic security against the various risks involved in winegrowing. Not only does it offer security, but it also guarantees the perpetuation of a constant style specific to each Champagne House.”
Spotlight on CHAMPAGNE DE SAINT-GALL: In which champagne can you find reserve wines?
“By definition, you will find reserve wine in all non-vintage champagnes. These non-vintage champagnes are also known as Brut “Sans Année” (i.e. without a year) . However, contrary to what the name suggests, these champagnes are far from being “year-less”. They are, in fact, a “blend” of grapes from different years, and could therefore be considered as “multi-vintage” champagnes.
In a vintage champagne, which is only made from grapes of one harvest, no reserve wine will be found otherwise, it couldn’t be called a vintage champagne.”
Which champagne contains the most reserve wine?
“At CHAMPAGNE DE SAINT-GALL, there is no one preferred champagne in terms of the quantity of reserve wine that goes into its blend. There are no rules about this proportion, it depends on the year and the champagne in question and is determined by the results of the tasting. This proportion can vary from a low of 25% to a high of 60% with wines aged from 2 to over 15 years.”
Have you ever considered making a champagne with only reserve wines?
“Yes, we have already considered it and done it. However, it was only created as a trial and to date, no specific reserve wine champagne exists.”
What are the characteristics of a reserve wine?
“There are several types of reserve wines. The range is vast and offers us plenty of scope. There can be 1-year-old wines as well as 18-year-old wines. Their characteristics will be different, which is why the proportion of reserve wine means everything and nothing at the same time. Within this range, you will find what I call true reserve wines, the “doctor wines”. They will act like spices that will leave their mark on the wine due to their distinctive characteristics. The proportion of these wines added to the blend will generally be quite low, 5 to 10%. When we say that there is 40 to 50% of reserve wine, we are usually looking at 2-3 wines aged from 1 to 3 years.”
How do you go about blending this type of wine?
“There are two things we try to do with the reserve wines when blending. Firstly, we try to balance the wine and preserve a constant style. For example, if we have a year where the base wine lacks freshness, we will look for a little bit of liveliness and freshness in the reserve wines. Conversely, if we have a year that is a bit hard, a bit thin, we will look for something in the reserve wines that will give us a bit of body and potency!
The second objective of the reserve wines is to impart a certain maturity and complexity that can only be found in old wines.”
Does it make any difference whether the reserve wines are stored in oak foudres or stainless-steel vats?
“At CHAMPAGNE DE SAINT-GALL, the reserve wines are stored both in vats and in foudres. These two methods give us a broader palette to work from. The foudre will lend the wine a certain patina, a slightly waxed, oaky quality, but very light (the wine surface area to wood ratio is lower than in a standard barrel). Here we have all the benefits of micro-oxygenation as opposed to stainless steel vats, which result in a more reductive ageing process since there is less exchange with oxygen.
To answer the question, the same reserve wine in vats and in foudres will give us two very different things.”
Ultimately, all the various nuances obtained allow the cellar master to make use of all his senses and skills to craft an exceptional wine each year.
We often hear that not all champagnes have the same ageing potential.
What about the CHAMPAGNE DE SAINT-GALL reserve wines?
“Not all wines are suitable for ageing. The quality of the harvest, the grape variety and the terroir all play a part in the ageing potential. At CHAMPAGNE DE SAINT-GALL we are lucky to have terroirs that have good ageing abilities. This is why we have chosen to build an excellent collection of fine reserve wines, precisely because we have good ageing potential. We can thus afford to have a wide range of wines. Some are 2 or 3 years old, while others are much older and have specific qualities that will gain in complexity over time.”
Spotlight on Le Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Extra-Brut:
“To create this champagne, we have to bear in mind that we are trying to make a wine with a low sugar concentration (extra-brut: less than 6 g/L of sugar). When we are making a champagne with little dosage, we need a balance between its freshness and substance.
If this balance is not found in the base year, we will look for it in the reserve wines.
To create this Le Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Extra-Brut, the reserve wines chosen must provide both power and minerality. Thus, they will be rich on the palate, which will reflect a nice balance between acidity and substance.
Here, the contribution of the reserve wines stored in foudres can be interesting. They will provide a certain substance, smoothness and roundness that will help to keep the dosage down. The wine stored in vat will be tauter and more mineral, and they will have a more reductive character, which we will keep for wines that we want to be fresh.”