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Devaux: Masters in the art of blending

17 June 2015

Devaux: Masters in the art of blending

Devaux: Masters in the art of blending

Gerry Gunnigan writes:

Sometimes when it comes to wine, we get caught up in the notion that single source is better. Single grape variety, single vineyard, single cuvée, single vintage, etc. Often I have come across people with the opinion that a blended wine is necessarily inferior, as it‘s masking the shortcomings of its constituent components.

This ignores the fact that some of the world‘s greatest, most classic styles of wine are blends. Red Bordeaux for example is a blend of two or more varieties. Sherry is a blend of wines from various sites and is also famously blended across vintages in the solera system. Port is a blend of many grape varieties from a patchwork of vineyard sites.

Among these classic wine styles we also find Champagne. This is probably the most blended of all, as it encompasses up to three grape varieties, a huge number of vineyard sites from across several sub-regions, and wines from several vintages all coming together to create one wine.

Champagne is expensive, and therefore requires two virtues - quality and consistency. If a Champagne producer simply made a vintage product from the same site year after year, neither quality nor consistency could be guaranteed. He couldn‘t just shrug his shoulders and say "tant pis!", blaming the vagaries of the marginal Champenois climate if his customers didn‘t think any particular year lived up to its price tag.

The job of Chef de Caves in a Champagne house is possibly one of the most demanding jobs in winemaking. It requires an intimate knowledge of the qualities and characteristics of the grapes from each plot of land used. It requires knowing exactly how much of a particular wine, made from a certain variety and vinified in a certain way can be used in a blend. It requires knowing how to blend several individual wines (most of which when tasted on their own are quite charmless) and getting more than the sum of the individual parts as a result.

Such a man was in Dublin today. Michel Parisot, Chef de Caves at Champagne Devaux presented a masterclass in the art of blending Champagne for a small group of trade and press attendees. He brought with him a number of individual components of what will be this year‘s blend of the multi-vintage Cuvée D, and showed us how he puts his blend together.

In all we tasted ten different elements of the blend. They are of course wines, but they would not be suitable for drinking on their own, so I prefer to refer to them as elements. They encompassed several variables, such as variety, site, with malolactic fermentation and without, vinified in stainless steel or in wood and in various ages of wood. Finally we tasted some reserve vines, which make up to 40% of the final blend, and last of all, we tasted the finished blend as a still wine. We won‘t be able to taste the absolutely finished article until 2020 at the earliest, as the final thing added to all of these variables is time. Every bottle ages for at least five years in the cellars at Champagne Devaux, undergoing the second fermentation that gives it the sparkle and then resting on the lees of that fermentation. This results in more complexity and the characteristic toasted brioche notes we get from fine Champagne such as Cuvée D.

Devaux is based in the southern sub-region of the Côte des Bar, which is predominantly a Pinot Noir growing area. Unsurprisingly, Pinot Noir accounts for the majority of the Cuvée D, usually about 60% of the blend. The rest is Chardonnay; there is no Pinot Meunier in the blend.

The non-reserve base wines (vins clairs) we tasted today are from the 2014 vintage. This was a good vintage for Champagne. Good weather in June saw the flowering go well, then there was quite a bit of rain in July and August. This was followed by a period of warm sunshine in the weeks leading up to harvest, so there was almost perfect ripeness in the grapes and they kept a good level of the all-important acidity. That acidity was marked in the young wines, which as I mentioned above, are not for drinking for pleasure. As I swirled them around my palate, they were locating any weak points in my dental enamel. But that is exactly what a Champagne producer needs - good firm acidity, freshness and elegance to give the structure to the wine that will become Champagne.

Listening to Michel today was to be in the presence of a master craftsman. He made it sound so simple, but to arrive at the various components of what will be the blend of Cuvée D, he will have tasted hundreds more and tuned and tweaked his selection countless times. In this case "Good enough" actually isn‘t good enough. It has to be perfect, or else it doesn‘t deserve to carry the name Devaux Cuvée D.

After the masterclass, we had lunch and tasted through the current releases of the Collection D. These are: Cuvée D, Ultra D (similar to Cuvée D, but with lower "dosage" and therefore drier), D Rosé and D Millésime 2006.

It was a most interesting masterclass and thanks to Michel Parisot for sharing his expertise. Thanks also to Jean-Noel Girard, who has been the public face of Champagne Devaux on export markets for many years, and was here today to add his contributions to proceedings; also Bethan Wallace who is Brand Manager for Devaux in UK and Ireland and was the chief organiser of the event. Morgan and the team at Stanley‘s Restaurant in St Andrew‘s Street were our gracious hosts and served us a magnificent lunch to match the Collection D Champagnes.