Master of Wine, Anne Krebiehl discovers the effects of ageing Champagne Drappier under the sea versus the cellar; how longer lees-ageing affects top cuvée Grande Sendrée 2006; and tastes two very special wines – Réserve Oenotèque 1991 which was made for the wedding of Michel Drappier’s son and Côteaux Champenois Perpétuité NV which includes every good vintage of Pinot Noir from the past 20 years.
“It is on the finish that it is revealed as a total umami bomb referencing salted caramel and -almost perversely – sweetened miso. Wonderful and very gastronomic,” writes Krebiehl about the Champagne Drappier Grande Sendrée 2006.
Time always is the crucial element in Champagne. But in this region where everything is prescribed and regulated, every element of the lengthy winemaking process is explored and refined to the utmost degree. That is especially true for winemakers as curious and progressive as Michel Drappier of Champagne Drappier.
Located in Urville, a place Drappier only half in jest refers to as “le nombril du monde,” this family-owned house has pioneered both low dosage and low-sulphur Pinot Noir-dominated Champagnes from the Kimmeridgian soils of the Côte des Bar in Champagne’s south.
Drappier was in London to give a tasting themed around “the many facets of élévage and its impact on ageing.”
Years and years refreshed freshness
The first wine Drappier showed was a still wine. “This is more of a vin clair,” Drappier said, “a reserve wine that we just bottled as it is, as a Côteaux Champenois.” However, it was not just any bae wine but the family’s réserve perpetuelle, refreshed with more or less equal parts of new vintages of its best Pinot Noir wines. The reserve was started in 2002 when the family took delivery of five large 5,000-litre foudres made from Tronçais oak.
“You have everything from 2022 to 2019 in here,” Drappier said. “Apart from 2003, a really hot year and 2011 is also missing, so is 2017 which was a good year for Chardonnay but not Pinot Noir, so we have put everything good between 2002 and 2020 from the estate.”
It was a good starting point to illustrate ageing as the oldest wine in the reserve is now 20 years old. The wine in question was exquisitely fresh – but also beautifully complex, combining youthful esprit with vintage depth and the inherent briskness of high-acid vins clairs. “This is a history in the bottle,” Drappier said.
Tasting the effects of ageing in the sea
Drappier’s next examples compared ageing in cellar with ageing under the sea – the sea-aged bottle was charmingly encrusted with barnacles.
“We were not really thinking about the salt water, just the pressure,” Drappier said. “The temperature under the sea is identical to our cellars, at 11-13°C, depending on the season,” he explained.
The bottles are aged in a cage submerged in the sea off the northern part of Britanny.
“So you get the temperature, the darkness, but the most important thing is the pressure.”
Below the sea, there is a pressure of about 4 bars – vis-à-vis the pressure of 6 bars inside the bottle. The cellar-aged bottle has about a bar less pressure than the sea-aged bottle, because without any counter-pressure in the cellar, more carbon dioxide can escape.
The bottles contained exactly the same wine, based on the 2016 and 2017 vintages of oak-matured Pinot Noir, disgorged at the same time in September 2020 with the sea-aged bottles immersed in 2020 and retrieved in 2022. Drappier would have preferred to age the wines on their lees but undisgorged bottles are not allowed to leave Champagne.
It was on the nose that the wines differed most – and there was some discussion of what the constant movement of the sea did to the wine. Drappier himself likened it to being rolled in a “bain-marie.” My own guess is that chemically speaking, in so-called collision-theory at least, agitation can increase the rate of reaction. In plain English, this means that agitation, i.e. the movement of the wine in bottle caused by the sea’s ceaseless churning, could speed up the maturation process. But this is just a theory – most of the difference I detected between the wines was on the nose. This may have also been down to the actually measurable difference in pressure within the bottles.
Lees: the tonic of youth
Next up was a real treat: the top wine of the estate, Grande Sendrée 2006, from a prized parcel known as Les Sendrees, a name derived from the word ‘cinders’, because an 1836 fire covered the vineyard in a 20cm layer of ash. This was not known then, but today we know that this is good for the soil, a natural kind of bio-char, so to speak.
A side effect of the fire was also that the spores of fungal diseases were destroyed, granting the vineyard a number of very healthy, disease-free years. Drappier had brought his top wine, as he knew it would illustrate its ageing potential admirably. He brought two bottles from the warm and sunny 2006 vintage, both wines having been bottled in April 2007.
The first bottle was disgorged only one month ago – so it spent 16 years on its lees. The second bottle had been disgorged in 2014, so it had seven years on lees and almost nine years of post-disgorgement ageing. The difference was pronounced and shows what a tonic of youth the lees in bottle are. But I must also stress how relatively youthful the 2006 wines from Drappier came across – it is a vintage that can get tired quickly, but not here.
Cork versus crown cap
The last bottle was to illustrate long ageing under natural cork rather than crown cap. It is a wine close to the family’s heart: from the birth year of each of his three children, Michel Drappier bottled a Champagne that was destined to be drunk at their wedding. Hugo, Drappier’s eldest son, was born a month after harvest in 1991, not in an auspicious year for Champagne, but that did not deter Drappier who said “Let’s do some wine for my boy.” So he chose Pinot Noirs from the best plots and aged then under natural cork. Cork and crown cap have different oxygen transmission rates, and for very long-aged wines, cork actually comes out on top. Hugo’s Champagne was eventually disgorged in 2020 for his wedding which, due to Covid, could not take place until 2021. Some people in the room got a ‘dodgy’ bottle, but the bottle from which my glass was served was beautiful.
So how were the wines tasting?
Champagne Drappier Côteaux Champenois Perpétuité NV – 100% Pinot Noir
There is an ever so slight tinge of pink on this wine. The nose has a lovely initial note of crunchy red apple, followed by slight nuttiness (the 5,000-litre cases this vintage-mix is aged in were new in 2002 – still lending that lovely kiss of oak flavour). The palate is both smooth and brisk – gentle with the richness and texture of long-aged Pinot Noir, bright with the fine acidity. There is a lovely resonance, with chalky depth. Very palatable, very appetising.
Champagne Drappier Brut Nature NV Cellar Aged – 100% Pinot Noir
Gentlest pink tinge. A wonderful creaminess defines the nose, embracing mellow Red Delicious apple flesh, peppery sourdough crumb and cold butter. On the palate, the fine, smooth mousse only adds to the creaminess. Appetising saltiness informs the apple fruit and that peppery, creamy vibe. A class act. Rich, bold and oh so creamy, or should I say, oh so Pinot.
Champagne Drappier Brut Nature NV Immersion – 100% Pinot Noir
The same, slight pink tinge. A slightly lifted nose, almost a hit of candied lemon. The palate seems to have more crunch – perhaps because it also had a bar more pressure. The mid-palate and the finish, however, seemed to be the same.
Champagne Drappier Grande Sendrée 2006 disgorged in 2023 – 55% Pinot Noir, 45% Chardonnay
Lovely, bright fresh nose, still with the insinuation of Mirabelle fruit, some peppery rye bread, ripe lemon and gorgeous texture. The wine’s essential and lovely creaminess is offset by a perfect salty, central vein of bright-but-ripe freshnesss. Exquisitely youthful.
Champagne Drappier Grande Sendrée 2006 disgorged in 2014 – 55% Pinot Noir, 45% Chardonnay
The nose is clearly evolved with aromas of maple syrup, dried cep, grilled cashew with hints of parmesan rind and toasted barley The palate is much fresher, still creamy, wonderfully smooth and rich. It is on the finish that it is revealed as a total umami bomb referencing salted caramel and -almost perversely – sweetened miso. Wonderful and very gastronomic.
Champagne Drappier Réserve Oenotèque 1991 – aged under cork – 80% Pinot Noir, 15% Chardonnay, 5% Pinot Meunier
An evolved, mature nose with the ethereal lift of candied lime peel, followed by intense notes of golden raisin and baked Mirabelle plum framed by lime acidity. There still is gentle foam, with wonderful chalky depth, echoing notions of creamy plum compote. Seems much younger than it is.