Encrusted sea-aged Grande Sendrée 2008 and a pristine bottle conventionally
matured in Drappier's Champagne cellars in the Aube
Why age Champagne in the sea? It became clear when Michel Drappier held the first tasting to compare three of his Champagnes aged off the coast of Brittany with the same three cuvées aged in Drappier's cellars in Champagne.
Looking over Champagne Drappier’s record of innovation since it re-introduced Pinot Noir to the Aube in the 1930s and in particular the record of the current head, seventh-generation Michel Drappier, it seems almost surprising that the latter didn’t embark on ageing Champagne in the sea earlier. I mean, how did he let Louis Roederer get there first?
The answer is doubtless that he was occupied on other pioneering paths: among them, creating one of the early single-vineyard Champagnes, Grande Sendrée, in his first year in the cellars in the mid-1970s; converting to organic viticulture (some of it now certified); planting the four historic grape varieties of Champagne and launching Quattuor, a Blanc de Blancs using three of them and Chardonnay in 2004, reducing sulphur to exceptionally low levels across the range and producing Brut Nature Sans Soufre in 2008; making Drappier the first carbon neutral Champagne house; switching all bottles, including for rosé, to brown glass which cuts out more than 99% of ultra-violet light, compared to 66% in the previous green glass, and changing to narrower necks to reduce oxidation by 17 percent, an important consideration when using low sulphur levels.
Not that Michel Drappier is actually late to the sea-ageing game. Although several wine producers are experimenting around the world, there is only a tiny handful of Champagne houses and even fewer doing it commercially, as Drappier is with its limited-edition Immersion range. There are three pairs of different cuvées, Carte d’Or Brut, Brut Nature Zéro Dosage and Grande Sendrée Brut 2008, the Champagnes in each pair disgorged on the same day, but in each case one bottle-aged in the sea off Brittany for three years and the other aged in parallel in Drappier’s cellars.
"Strong tides meant the loss of quite a few of the first batch of bottles"
The obvious question is why age Champagne in the sea? “The idea was to see how we could keep Champagne in ideal conditions without using any artificial energy,” says Michel Drappier. Years ago he tried mountain ageing, but it didn’t work because the lower pressure meant the loss of more bubbles. With sea ageing, once you get to a certain depth, depending on the salt content, you counter balance the pressure inside the bottle, so there is less loss of pressure than in the average Champagne cellar. He likens it to ageing in a bain-marie.
The first Champagnes were aged in the Bay of Saint Malo, but strong tides meant the loss of quite a few bottles, so the currently maturing bottles are immersed at a depth of 30m in a quieter spot near Brest. From about 10–15m, the water is dark and cloudy and the temperature is 10ºC, directly comparable to the average Champagne cellar. (It would be different, of course, in the waters off a tropical island.)
Sea ageing was also, Drappier says, going back to their region’s origins, because the soil of the Côte des Bar, where the house is based and has 55ha planted and further vineyards under contract, is “Jurassique supérieur like Chablis, very, very hard limestone full of fossil sea shells.”
"The immersed bottles have more carbon dioxide but the bubbles are finer"
The first tasting for the trade and press of all three pairs of Champagnes was hosted by Michel Drappier in London in November 2018. It was a revelation – I think as much to other tasters as to me. The differences were most pronounced in the Carte d’Or and least pronounced in the Grande Sendrée 2008. In an impromptu vote for preferred Champagne in each pair, a large majority voted for the immersion Carte d’Or, a smaller majority for the immersion Brut Nature and a negligible majority for the Grande Sendrée 2008 immersion.
Essentially, the immersed bottles have more carbon dioxide but the bubbles are finer and better integrated, so there is more freshness and at the same time more finesse. Ageing in the cellar, says Michel Drappier, “you get a quicker expression of the gas but less gas.” It’s early days to discuss immersion as part of the Champagne process, but at this stage the conclusion would appear to be that the greater the wine the less marked the difference between the two kinds of cellaring.
All Drappier wines undergo natural malolactic and are unfiltered. Sulphur levels are very low. The liqueurs de dosage are aged for at least 15 years and used only in small doses “to accentuate the length in the mouth without overburdening the palate [resulting in] more complex and also purer” Champagnes.
Drappier Carte D’Or Brut NV
80% Pinot Noir, 15% Chardonnay, 5% Meunier; mostly 2012 with 2010 and 2011. Disgorged May 2014; liqueur de dosage 6.5g/l, aged in Limousin oak cuves then in demijohns for more than 15 years
Carte D’Or Brut Immersion
Lively, persistent, fine mousse. More energetic and resolute than the cellar-aged bottle, with more pronounced sweet-citrus fruit and zestiness and more salty oystershell flavour and freshness. Greater depth, creaminess and chalkiness. Sustained quince and mineral flavours and textural richness. 93
Carte D’Or Brut Cellar Aged
Fractionally darker than the immersion bottle. Floral, fruity and spicy pain d’épices aromas. Sweet apple, peach, citrus and honey on the palate, together with yeasty, chalky notes. Fleshy, fresh and harmonious, but softer and less arrestingly insistent than the immersion bottle. 90
Drappier Brut Nature Zéro Dosage
100% Pinot Noir; 2012 (70%) with 2010 and 2011. Disgorged May 2014
Brut Nature Zéro Dosage Immersion
The differences between immersion and cellar-aged versions were less distinct than for the Carte d’Or, but the immersion still seemed to have more intensity, tension and youthful acidity and deeper, more incisive flavours. Notably wheaty, toasty notes, lightly framed by honey and carried along by confident sweet, fresh fruit, citrus oil and mineral purity. 94
Brut Nature Zéro Dosage Cellar Aged
The merest suggestion of pink in the colour. Fine mousse. Creamy, spicy aromas – open and inviting – leading into ripe green-apple and a tantalizing hint of juniper. Creamy rich texture and citrus fruit on the palate. Long and positive finish. 93
Drappier Grande Sendrée Brut 2008
55% Pinot Noir, 45% Chardonnay. From a 4.8ha massale selection, organic vineyard that was covered in ash after fire raged through Urville in 1838 (cendrée was mispelt sendrée in the land registry); about 70% of the fruit from the vineyard was used in this 2008 Grande Sendrée. Disgorged May 2015; liqueur de dosage 4–4.5g/l, aged in Limousin oak cuves for 15–18 years. Michel Drappier comments: “This is “terroir Champagne: terroir overtakes the year, which doesn’t happen with the Millésime Exception, which is a true blend.”
Grande Sendrée Brut 2008 Immersion
Strikingly small, persistent bubbles. A commanding mineral start, moving into a honeyed middle with perfumed quince and citrus fruit, marzipan and smoked almond, and lingering, salty-fresh oystershell flavours. Chalk-dust fine texture, great concentration, length and balance. There is complexity here already and everything in place for it to become compellingly complex over the next few years. 96
Grande Sendrée Brut 2008 Cellar Aged
Similarly fine, lasting bubbles. Less of a mineral punch, but precise, pure and crystalline with intensely honeyed, citrus and quince flavours, almond nuttiness, a polished, creamy texture and laser-cut acidity. Long and confident. In the glass it evolves more quickly than its immersion counterpart, but not in any way too fast. 95
Photographs by Joanna Simon
This article first appeared in issue 23 of The World of Fine Wine