Sometimes it just has to be Champagne.
Hundreds of years have gone into creating the unique association that Champagne has with celebration and unsurprisingly the Champenoise wish to keep it that way. Under international and EU laws, only wines made using the so-called ‘traditional method’ and made from grapes grown in the Champagne region (about 160km east of Paris) may be labelled as Champagne.
I’ve always marvelled at the skill and effort that goes into making Champagne. It’s made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Chardonnay giving freshness and elegance, Pinot Noir adding weight, roundness and creaminess, and Pinot Meunier bringing fruitiness and bouquet to the front palate. The key point that distinguishes the traditional method from other sparkling wine production techniques is that the secondary fermentation (the process that creates the bubbles) occurs in the bottle.
A favourite Champagne house of mine is AR Lenoble, whose owner, Antoine Malassagne, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a few times. Lenoble is a family owned, independent Champagne producer of which there are a dwindling number. Most have been acquired by large corporates like LVMH and Pernod Ricard.
The house was established in 1915 when Armand-Raphael Graser arrived from Alsace to protect his family during WWI. A few years later, he moved into an 18th century building in the town of Damery and started to produce Champagne under the AR Lenoble name. The A.R. came from his initials and Lenoble was a rather grand nod to the nobility of Champagne. The domaine is still run from the same building, by Armand-Raphael’s great-grandchildren - brother and sister, Anne and Antoine Malassagne.
What I admire about this highly educated duo is that they both had successful careers elsewhere when they inherited the business and could easily have sold up to live handsomely off the proceeds. But their passion, uncompromising commitment to quality, long hours of hard work and expensive initiatives both in the vineyard and winery, have seen the house returned to it's former glory.
Meeting with Antoine not only gave me an insight into his wines, but an appreciation of the quality of Lenoble’s 18 hectares of vineyards. They own vineyards in the Grand Cru village of Chouilly (Chardonnay) and in the Premier Cru of Bisseuil (Pinot Noir). Pinot Meunier comes from growers in the village of Dameray. Owning such excellent vineyards and having such a high level of self-sufficiency ensures a continuity and quality of fruit that’s fundamental to the success of the house.
Before assuming his place in the Champagne world, Antoine was an engineer, the profession to which he attributes his meticulous and scientific approach in the vineyard. High rainfall in Champagne makes mildew a constant threat, but Lenoble’s vineyards are managed without the use of chemical sprays and the house was the second (after Bollinger) to receive the High Environmental Value Certification.
Out of 320 villages in Champagne, there are only 6 grand Cru Chardonnay villages, which can provide only a fraction of the Chardonnay required for the millions of bottles of Champagne produced each year. Top houses such as Louis Roederer (Cristal), Bollinger and Pol Roger are unable to use just Grand Cru Chardonnay in all of their blends. I was stunned to learn that Lenoble’s Chouilly holdings combined with their small production means they are the onlyhousein Champagne able to use Grand Cru Chardonnay in all of their wines, even the entry level Cuvée Intense NV. It makes you realise just how special this house is.
Back in 2013 AR Lenoble was ranked 14th of the 50 Best Champagne Houses by the highly acclaimed French wine magazine La Revue du Vin de France. “A must discover!” they exclaimed, putting Lenoble ahead of big names such as Veuve Clicquot and Taittinger. Considering there are over 300 Champagne houses, it was a huge gong for such a small house.
Here’s Robert Parker on A.R. Lenoble:
“The Domaine A. R. Lenoble proved to be an exciting discovery. As I have frequently written, one of the more positive developments in Champagne is the number of small domaines that are getting recognition for the high quality of their selections… particularly those offering wine with a quality/price rapport such as Domaine A. R. Lenoble.” Wine Advocate, #107
Lenoble Cuvée Intense NV
The latest release of this wine is a blend of 30% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir and 35% Pinot Meunier. Being non-vintage it includes wines from various vintages, but about 75% of it is from 2011, with the other 25% being reserve wine (ie. older stock), giving it that extra bit of complexity and power. About 18% of the wine saw time in barrel on lees (higher than the previous release) and the dosage is 5 g/l making it a dry style.
With non-vintage Champagne, the blending process known as assemblage requires great skill in order to create continuity of house style. I find the Lenoble NV style more at the Bollinger/Krug end of the spectrum for weight and complexity, rather than the lighter, fruitier (and dare I say industrial) style of Moët.
Tyson Stelzer is an authority of Champagne. He’s a contributor to the Oxford Companion to Wine as well as Wine Spectator and Decanter magazines. He was named International Wine & Spirit Communicator of the Year 2015, Wine Communicators of Australia Australian Wine Communicator of the Year 2015 & 2013, and International Champagne Writer of the Year 2011. He knows his stuff. Here’s what he says about this release of the LeNoble Cuvée Intense NV:
“An impeccably crafted wine from noble fruit sources, offering sensational value for money. A compelling harmony between fruit intensity of grapefruit, red cherry, golden delicious apple and white peach, the biscuit, honeyed appeal of bottle age and a touch of oak, and a well-focused malic acid line. Low dosage sits comfortably on the midst of impeccably ripe fruit. A cuvée of class that transcends its difficult base vintage and its refreshing affordable price, declaring integrity in accurate palate line and impressive persistence,”93 points (a score which puts it not only up with many of the big names, but ahead of many of them).
“Light yellow-gold. A highly perfumed bouquet evokes ripe tangerine, peach, honey and white flowers, with a slow-building vanilla nuance. Pliant and expansive, offering juicy, spice-accented citrus and pit fruit flavours and a touch of buttered toast. Finishes sappy and long, with lingering floral, spice and creme brulée notes,”91 points,Stephen Tanzer, International Wine Cellar.
Despite its low profile you'll find it at a roll call of several high profile joints in Sydney including; Bennelong, Catalina, Quay, Bentley, and in Melbourne at Dinner by Heston, A la Bouffe, The European and Rockpool Bar & Grill...
A terrific Champagne, from a producer who avoids the limelight. With reviews like this though they’ll have to get used to a little more attention.