The challenge of working with Pinot Noir in champagne

Richard Woodard

10 March 2020

Pinot Noir in Champagne is a misunderstood grape variety that, in the right hands, is capable of producing wines of great elegance and finesse, according to one of the region’s leading winemakers.

Didier Mariotti, who took over from Dominique Demarville at the start of the year as chef de cave at Veuve Clicquot – a house noted for its Pinot-dominant blends – believes people sometimes have the wrong idea about the variety.

‘When we talk about Pinot Noir from Champagne, people think about [the crus of] Aÿ, Bouzy – heavy, rich, full-bodied,’ he says. ‘It’s not a real representation of Pinot Noir in Champagne – and even in Bouzy they are changing the way they do things because it was becoming too much.’

For Mariotti, the keys to finding freshness and balance in Pinot Noir are: sourcing from the right places and picking at the perfect moment. While much attention is given to the grands crus of the southern Montagne de Reims and south-facing Vallée de la Marne (Ambonnay, Bouzy, Aÿ), he is a big fan of the grands crus of the northern Montagne (Verzy, Verzenay) – where he says less maturity brings more acidity, bitterness and a long finish to the wine.

‘You make fewer good vintages with a Pinot Noir-based blend than Chardonnay,’ he adds. ‘With Chardonnay you get freshness and crispness. With Pinot Noir you’re looking for freshness, but also for balance. It’s not so easy.’

Mariotti started at Clicquot at the end of August, working alongside Demarville – a friend and former colleague, with whom he worked for three years at Mumm until the end of 2019. His first task was to think about the 2019 harvest.

‘I was in the vineyard, tasting berries for the first time, and I was lost, totally lost,’ he recalls. ‘But you have to do that to get the right harvest date for Pinot Noir. You need to find the right balance, rather than just looking at the numbers, or you will miss the right date to harvest. That’s not true with Chardonnay.

Tasting the berries starts about 10 days before harvest date, he explains. ‘Analysis of the berries (sugar and acidity) gives you one indication, but tasting the berries helps you a lot: the structure and the hardness of the skin, the juice itself and the grape seeds when you bite them. With all this information, we can decide more precisely when it’s the right date to harvest parcel by parcel.

‘Pinot Noir is a very complicated cépage to work with [but] it’s lovely... when you harvest at the right time. If you pick the grapes at the right moment, you can reach perfection.’

Demarville’s 13-year tenure as Clicquot chef de cave included a radical revamp of the house’s prestige cuvée, La Grande Dame, with the 2018 release being a combination of 92% Pinot Noir and only 8% Chardonnay (previous blends included one-third or more Chardonnay).

Demarville raised the prospect of making a 100% Pinot Noir La Grande Dame in the future, and – despite voicing some reservations about the idea – Mariotti says he is ‘very curious’ about the prospect. Demarville’s vision was to showcase the elegance of Pinot Noir in Champagne, and it’s a vision that Mariotti is determined to continue.

‘It’s about being different,’ he says. ‘We love Pinot Noir, we want to express Pinot Noir, and we can be a Pinot Noir house without being too powerful... Chardonnay is great, but we are more a Pinot Noir house than a Chardonnay house. If you want to enjoy blanc de blancs, you have so many houses to enjoy, but not so many with Pinot Noir.’

Mariotti contrasts the precision of La Grande Dame 2008 with the structure and volume of La Grande Dame 2004 – a 65%-35% Pinot/Chardonnay blend created by Jacques Peters, Demarville’s predecessor, from a ‘much more mature’ vintage and with more Pinot Noir from the south.

He also believes there is less need for a winemaker to compromise when making a prestige cuvée Champagne. ‘I think identity, character is very important,’ he says. ‘It’s the essence of what you want to express, it’s the essence of your house.

‘If people don’t like my wine, I’m fine with that. I can’t please everybody. If you start to compromise on your prestige cuvée, where are you going to [do] with your non-vintage?’

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