Reims, February 2020
In the Champagne, the vins clairs tasting season stretches from December to April and is an essential stage in the production of a champagne wine. Isabelle Tellier, Head Wine-Maker of the House of Chanoine Frères, talked about the tasting of the vins clairs, an exercise with which she has nearly thirty years of experience and to which she brings an obsession with preciseness and quality. She gave us an initial opinion on the 2019 vins clairs season.
Vins Clairs, or champagne before the bubbles
The vins clairs are wines from the most recent harvest, just after which the initial alcoholic fermentation has turned the musts into wine. They are also called “still wines” because they are not effervescent — that is, not yet bottle fermented. The Chardonnay vins clairs are golden yellow in color, sometimes with green highlights; the Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier wines are more amber in color, and a few are red.
In the vat-room of the House of Chanoine Frères, vins clairs are kept in one hundred temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks at a temperature of between 14 and 15°C. They are stored separately, by variety and origin, and the premiers crus and grands crus are kept separate.
Isabelle Tellier points out: “A specificity of the House of Chanoine Frères is that the Pinots Noirs from Les Riceys are highly present; they are Pinots Noirs of high quality that play an important role in assembling our Chanoine and Tsarine cuvées.”
An exercise in concentration and anticipation
“We taste the vins clairs variety by variety, evaluating the visual aspect, the nose, the mouthfeel, rated from 0 to 20 on tasting sheets. We taste in Riedel tasting glasses (you spit out the wine and rinse your mouth with plain water; personally I don’t eat bread).
A tasting session requires a high level of concentration. We taste some thirty wines in an hour and a half. It’s demanding and you have to keep from saturating.
I taste in a certain order — first the Chardonnays, then the Pinots Noirs and Meuniers, with my own set of criteria. The nose must be free of faults, and you can detect primary and secondary flavors that are more or less intense (fruit, floral, vegetal, empyreumatic, spice, and mineral flavors). The mouthfeel can be described using the following terms: structured, ample, rich, thin, round, lively, long, and fine.
The vins clairs tasting determines the blend
“A vin clair is an unfinished wine, which means that we have to anticipate what it will become. It’s not “good,” but it gives an idea of its potential. I concentrate on the perception of the flavors beyond the acidity, which is quite marked in vins clairs. Being able to anticipate is a skill that’s built with time, practice, and experience.
The first series of tastings gives me an idea of what all the vins clairs in the vat-room are like; it’s an initial selection. From that point on I keep the hundred or so vins clairs that are in the vat-room in my head. That’s what will let me design the blends, with a specific blend for each cuvée.
The creation of each cuvée requires at least two, or even three tastings of the wines that make it up. The more time passes, the more precise the blending becomes.”
Vins clairs and a 2019 vintage: Isabelle Tellier’s opinion
“After a promising harvest, 2019 will be a good year. The Chardonnay tasting revealed a certain heterogeneity from one cru to another — the tension usually associated with the variety is sometimes not highly present —, but also some very nice surprises with wines that are delicate, with citrus notes, a fine minerality, and a lot of finesse.
The Pinots Noirs and Pinots Meuniers are at a high quality level. The Pinots Noirs are robust, aromatic, with very good length; the Pinots Meuniers are fruity and have excellent finesse.
2019, was a year of lower yield, but the quality is definitely there: 2019 will be a fine vintage year.”