Ahead of the 2008 vintage’s release, Taittinger’s Chef de Cave Alexandre Ponnavoy talks us through what defines the house’s much-loved prestige Blanc de Blancs, Comtes de Champagne
“First of all, you have to resonate 100% Chardonnay,” declares Alexandre Ponnavoy, Taittinger’s Chef de Cave. “Chardonnay that produces precise, mineral, chiseled, complex wines with a lace-like finish and an ability to age is what I’m looking for when selecting the grapes that will become part of the Comtes de Champagne blend.” Chardonnay has always been prominent in the house of Taittinger, typically 40% of their Brut Réserve. But when making a pure Chardonnay Champagne (the most delicate of the Champagne varieties), as a vigneron you have to change your mindset, “You must orient your tasting and see the vintage only through this grape variety,” Alexandre explains.
All the grapes for Comtes are sourced from Champagne’s Côte des Blancs, a ridge running 30km north to south with east-facing vineyards, predominantly planted to Chardonnay (95%) and responsible for Champagne’s finest Blanc de Blancs Champagnes. Comtes de Champagne is sourced from all five Grand Cru villages situated on the Côte des Blancs – Avize, Chouilly, Cramant, Mesnil-sur-Oger and Oger, with the main base of the cuvée coming from Taittinger’s house vineyard surrounding the Château de la Marquetterie just south of Epernay.
Taittinger's Château de la Marquetterie
According to Ponnavoy, each of these Grand Cru villages has distinct features that when blended can create something truly special. He identifies how Avize produces very pure, precise, chiseled, crystalline wines – “no exuberance but a lot of precision and freshness”. Chouilly is quite different: “I often say Chouilly is the most Pinot of Chardonnays! This Cru produces Chardonnays used by us for their structure and aromatic power. These are wines with a beautiful backbone. Cramant gives Chardonnays of great minerality with a slightly iodized, saline hint. Mesnil-sur-Oger offers wines of extreme depth, of beautiful aromatic generosity, with exceptional volume on the palate, with a precise and mineral finish. Oger gives us expressive, structured, fruity, gourmet wines with notes of pear, lemon and slightly honeyed.”
After each harvest, each wine from these villages is tasted several times, analysed organoleptically in order for Ponnavoy and his team to predict their ageing and aromatic potential before making the decision on whether they will be selected for Comtes. “Some villages can express themselves better depending on the vintage,” states Ponnavoy. “The distribution of the percentage of these five villages lies in the alchemy to design a timeless wine faithful to its style year after year. What I can say is that the vintages of Avize, (precision), Chouilly (structure) and Mesnil-sur-Oger (depth) are nicely represented in the 2008 vintage.”
While Alexandre Ponnavoy has a clear idea of what the Comtes de Champagne identity is, something he believes shines through despite the vintage conditions, the style of Comtes de Champagne has changed over the years, in line with trends across the region and the change in climate. The dosage of Comtes up until the 1980s was much higher – typically 15 to 16 g/l, now it is closer to 9g/l. “Of course, the growing maturity of the Champagne grapes has played a role in reducing the dosage,” explains Ponnavoy. But global warming does not explain everything: “Champagne consumption patterns have changed. Champagne tasters accept and seek out more restrained, fresher, less dosed Champagne.” And so Taittinger adapted Comtes’s style in line with those needs. Another change came in the late 1980s when Ponnavoy’s predecessor Loic Dupont re-introduced partial oak-ageing for the Comtes de Champagne. This woody part is today an integral part of the Comtes de Champagne profile. Only a tiny proportion of the wine sees oak (between 5 to 8%) depending on the vintage, but – for Ponnavoy – it is the oak that provides a touch of spice and more importantly helps frame the “aromatic concentration and precision required for ageing”.
The 2008 vintage is one of the most celebrated in Champagne. It is in fact one of the few vintages in the last 20 years in which the harvest took place in October. Despite this "late" harvest (even if it was the norm in the 1980s and ’90s), Ponnavoy notes that the grapes retained a lot of acidity as well as concentration from what was an extended growing season. The acid-sugar balance is so important Ponnavoy and his team could see the quality of the grapes at harvest was very promising. “2008 is the perfect expression of our continental climate in Champagne, which is both hot and cool. The Comtes 2008 carries this very contrasting climatology within it, between sun and freshness, as well as the distinct identity of the chalky terroir and the allure and precision you can get from the Côte des Blancs.”
Taittinger's Chef de Cave - Alexandre Ponnavoy
Much has been said and written about the similarity of 2008 to other vintages but Ponnavoy is reticent to compare it directly. For him, this vintage stands on its own and has its own personality. At a push in terms of concentration he compares it to 1996 and for elegance to the 2004. When it comes to the 2008’s drinking window, he believes it all depends on what you want from your Champagne. “The 2008 is ready to be discovered now, appreciated on its thin, elegant, chiselled, dynamic side. However, Comtes de Champagne is certainly produced with the purpose for ageing. I like to taste Champagnes with as much ageing time on the lees as disgorging time. I think it will be interesting to discover or rediscover this 2008 vintage in 10 years or so, at the dawn of 2030!” With fantastic lineage behind it, the 2008 Comtes de Champagne will no doubt be in high demand on release and provide fantastic drinking pleasure for decades to come.
Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2008 is due to be released on Thursday 1st October