A grower Champagne house, who have been growers since day one and continue to be, are making profound wines that find the balance between terroir, grape variety, and winemaker influence. Christina Rasmussen recently met the brother-sister duo at London’s Café Comptoir and Wine to sit down with them and talk Chouilly and Bisseuil.
The story behind the foundation of AR Lenoble is a fascinating one as is the approach this grower Champagne house takes to the winemaking – adapting the vinification to each vintage in its own unique way.
The founder of AR Lenoble, Armand-Raphaël Graser, arrived in Champagne from his native Alsace in 1915. It was the middle of the First World War. His first vintage was 1920, just after the war, and he decided that a German-sounding name at that particular time in history would make for a sensitive situation. Therefore, he christened his domaine Lenoble, as he believed the wines of Champagne to be the most noble in France. His initials AR preceded Lenoble, and thus the name was born.
Before becoming a Champagne grower, Graser had been a wine merchant in Alsace, back when wine was always still transported in the barrel. He then made the move to Champagne, bought some vines near Epernay, and was one of the leaders in developing pressoirs until his sudden death in 1947 when he fell into a tank mid-harvest; a tragic yet fitting death for somebody whose entire life was dedicated to Champagne. His son, Joseph, took over but a few messy complications with regards to debt began to arise, and eventually Jean-Marie Malassagne, the couple’s other son, took over.
In the 1950s the winters were very cold. There was a lot of frost, barely any grapes, and, as they said, “d’ être vigneron n’est pas un metier;” or “to be a winemaker was not a job back then.” Jean-Marie and his wife also both trained as doctors. He became a very well known obstetrician-gynaecologist who founded the polyclinic of Courlancy in Reims, and delivered multiple babies of the Champagne region during his career. Jean-Marie officially took over the domaine in 1973. The two invested heavily together, particularly in the 90s, both in Chouilly and Bisseuil.
Finally, in 1993, Jean-Marie’s 28-year-old daughter Anne decided to leave her career as financial director at L’Oréal in Paris to take over the domaine due to an ultimatum from her father – if nobody was willing to come and help he would sell the domaine, as the situation in Champagne was highly complex at the time and he wasn’t getting any younger.
Her brother, Antoine, joined in 1996 after completing studies as a chemical engineer and is now the head winemaker and grower, whereas Anne takes care of the business side.
Sitting and speaking with this lovely brother-sister team depicts winemaking history. Here, there is a direct history of soil, struggle and family hardship, but things have always continued without compromising quality.
The two have done exceptionally well to get through more recent hardships; after the Gulf War, the financial crisis occurred. Expensive wine sat in cellars, and prices fell. Wines of other domaines were sold to supermarkets because of the crisis, in order to remain family-owned. Anne never wanted this to happen; she had another vision for the domaine, and she knew what they had to offer was of a higher quality. Other wineries and groups expanded to create demand for supermarkets, whereas Lenoble remained small. LVMH had the volume and the capacity to reach that route to market. This was never the goal for Lenoble.
The goal from the beginning was to create wines that were worthy of their terroir; “notre terroir mérit mieux.” Production was small and supermarkets were refused. These were small-batch wines of character that were not about to ‘lose their souls’ and, as Anne stated, “it is important that each wine shows something different in the glass.”
The duo worked extremely hard both with the soils and with the vines, as well as in vinification and with the vins de réserve. Harvests are not easy, the two mused. This year, a spell of 30 degrees before harvest meant that some vines became over productive and weren’t harvested.
The duo feels they see an improvement in their wines every year, and this is both due to improvements in viticulture as well as making sensible decisions with winemaking, with harvest dates for acidity and decisions for malolactic activity taking place according to the vintage.
Antoine noted, “I adapt the vinification to the harvest. I’ve never understood why some people do the same every year… Every year is different. That’s why it’s fun!”
Individual parcels are fermented in 225L and 5000L foudres. Some vins de réserve wines are kept in magnums for autolytic quality, with some in 225L and some in 5000L which reduces oxidation a little. Particularly for Chouilly, this is important – the vineyard doesn’t naturally have acidity and the terroir lends to a richer wine. It’s important to be attentive to the fact that nature indicates acidity will be lower. Thus, magnums and foudres are important for Chouilly, as the wine will give a “naturally toasted” character on its own, without needing too much barrel influence.
As Antoine pondered, “terroir is important, but we also need to acknowledge the importance of the vine. Let’s see what Chouilly can do with Chardonnay. Let’s see what Bisseuil can do with Pinot Noir. Let’s see the personalities of the grape and of the terroir. These wines are our interpretation.”
Jean-Marie worked hard in the vines, and Antoine and Anne continue this. As Antoine said, “a good wine is like a really good fish. It’s about the natural product, in this case, it’s all in the grape.” They reduced the yields greatly in the vineyard. Chardonnay can be pushed a little, but this is simply not possible with Pinot Noir, which is tricky and won’t ripen if yields are too high, whereas Pinot Meunier produces naturally high yields.
Work is done mostly organically, with no herbicides and no insecticides. The main issue is mildew, which is “a disaster. It rained every day in March, April and May, and I want to be pragmatic, not dogmatic. In Champagne, to be entirely organic, you’d need to use a lot of copper. Copper is also a chemical product. It kills the worms. It’s complicated. If I was in the Rhône, I’d be organic. We use cover crops, which reduce the yield, increase the quality, reduce the amount of rotten grapes and get the maturity right. You see a good farmer when it’s a hard year,” Antoine stated with a small smile.
It’s very clear to me that this man knows his vines and their relationship with the climate and soils very well.
NV Brut Intense
Pretty pink apple nose, subtle brioche on the nose, with lovely green apple flesh on the palate. Raspberry skin on the finish. Bright, zingy and energetic.
NV Brut Nature Dosage Zéro
Antoine stated here, “I don’t want to be aggressive or to make the wine too austere. Even here I want rich precision. The time on the lees is so important.”
The wine has a similar nose to the Intense, but is a little more lifted and with more of an umami character. It is bright and dense, with pithy apple skin on the palate and a distinct saline edge. Chalky, with an immense length with fresh dough and raspberry leaf on the finish.
A very pure sense of Chardonnay here, with very bright lemon peel and rich almond aromas. Delightfully textured with pear flesh notes and a stunning smooth, soft and creamy hazelnut mousse mouthfeel.
Again, it was highlighted by Antoine that Chouilly brings this richness, whereas Avize and Mesnil for example tend to lend a more austere style to the wine. “I don’t care if it’s deemed too creamy, it’s Chouilly! My job is like being a chef; I work with the raw materials. This is key. Then we have our own style, like using herbs, spices and a sauce.”
NV Rosé Terroirs Chouilly-Bisseuil (4g/L)
“We blind taste to assess the dosage. Year after year it decreases, while the time spent on the lees increases.”
“Here we have a rosé. Personally, I feel that rosé should be delicate, and here we use 90% Chardonnay.”
There is bright lime pith and peach skin on the nose, with a subtle hint of cranberry. It’s zingy yet also fleshy, with mineral sea shell notes.
NV Cuvée Riche Demi-Sec (32g/L)
The wine is aged for significantly longer with time to sit with the sugar. After one year, the liqueur begins to integrate well. “A riche style can be really interesting if the acidity is high,” stated Antoine, and here it is clear that he wants to explore what can happen with a different structure.
It is vinous and really delicious. There are peach and almost plummy characteristics here and I’d never guess it was a demi-sec. This would be a brilliant pairing with Asian foods, or even cheese.
It was a very insightful tasting, and the wines have distinct personalities. I admire the Malassagnes’ work in the vineyards and to create wines of character. I’ll be looking out for them.
UK agent for Lenoble is Flint Wines.