David 24 October 2014
Around this time every year I find my thoughts drifting to champagne. Maybe it’s the hint of warm weather or the buzz of excitement as November’s first Tuesday approaches. Hundreds of years have gone into creating the unique association that champagne has with celebration and not surprisingly the Champenoise guard this heritage closely. Under international and EU laws, only grapes grown, harvested and made into wine in the Champagne region (about 160km east of Paris) may be labelled as champagne.
When you understand how much extra work goes into making the famed bubble, you appreciate why it costs a little more than standard table wine. The abridged version of the traditional méthode champenoise goes like this:
Only three grape varieties may be used - Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The grapes are pressed gently and the juice fermented, some seeing oak and some stainless steel. Parcels from different vineyards, varieties, oaked or unoaked are kept separate. The next, and most important step is the assemblage, where different parcels are blended to make a cuvée. This may include wines from previous vintages, referred to as reserve wines. Great skill is required to combine variousquantities of each parcel to create the desired mix of characteristics. Generally speaking, Chardonnay gives freshness and elegance, Pinot Noir contributes weight, roundness and creaminess and Pinot Meunier contributes to the front palate, giving fruitiness and bouquet.
Once the cuvée is made, it’s bottled under crown seal with the addition of the tirage liqueur, a sugar and yeast mixture which initiates a secondary fermentation and creates the famous bubbles. The bottles are then laid on their side and aged on the lees (dead yeast cells) to give the wine complexity. Next, the bottles are riddled - gradually tipped on end and rotated - over about 2 months, to loosen and move the yeast solids into the neck of the bottle. The neck is then plunged into a freezing brine solution, solidifying the yeast, after which the bottles are disgorged ( dégorgement) - where the seal is removed and the pressure from the bubbles blows the frozen plug of yeast out of the bottle. A tiny amount of liquid ( liqueur d’expedition) is added to the bottle in a process known as dosage, to top it up. The dosage will have varying levels of sugar, depending on the desired sweetness of the finished champagne. The bottles are then corked, wired, washed and dressed.
A Champagne house that’s piqued my interest in the last few years is Thiénot. In a region where it’s not uncommon to measure age in centuries, Thiénot was founded in 1985, making it the most recently established house in Champagne. Not only that, in a market dominated by large multinationals, where new brands are created to fill a niche by marketing departments, Thiénot is a genuine family maison. Founder Alain Thiénot works alongside his son Stanislas (managing director) and daughter Garance (marketing manager) in this truly boutique house.
There are very few who could start, let alone successfully run a house in a market as established and competitive as Champagne. To understand the success of Thiénot, you need to know about the founder Alain Thiénot.
Prior to the establishment of his own house, Alain was the major grape broker in Champagne from 1968-1985. Grape broking is big business in Champagne with houses vying for the best grapes from independent growers. Alain’s position gave him a deep understanding of Champagne and importantly, it gave him knowledge of the best sites, the best growers and an unrivalled network of connections, all of which put him in a unique position to start his own house.
No doubt Alain’s experience explains Thiénot’s unusually high 60% of grapes sourced from their own vineyards, ensuring a secure supply. The contracts to supply the remaining 40% of grapes have been in place with the same growers for more than 20 years. While Thiénot is based in the small village of Taissy, just east of Reims, their 27 hectares of vineyards are spread across various sites in the Champagne region. 24% are Grand Cru ranking (villages of Ay, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger and Avize) and 26% are Premier Cru ranking (villages of Dizy, Cumières, Pierry and Tauxières). Having 50% of your fruit coming from Grand Cru or Premier Cru vineyards is a very high proportion and highlights the quality of Thiénot’s grape supply.
Thiénot had been quietly sneaking up on the bigger players but finally grabbed the limelight last year when it was selected as the champagne poured at the prestigious 85th Oscars ceremony. This was the first time the Academy had elected to feature a little known and relatively rare Champagne. Traditionally it has been the domain of the mega brands, with Moët holding bragging rights at the event for the previous 4 years.
Being a cynic I presumed this ‘selection’ was simply a sponsorship deal. But it turns out I was wrong - you actually do have to be selected.
“We are thrilled that the Academy has selected our family-owned house for this prestigious event. As a very small and young prestige Champagne house, being selected by the Academy is like receiving an Oscar for Best Champagne!” François Peltereau-Villeneuve, Head of Thiénot USA.
It must have gone well because Thiénot was selected as the Champagne for the 86th Oscars ceremony held earlier this year. A sign of good things to come!
The small scale of this house means their wines will remain relatively exclusive but Thiénot is a new and exciting house that makes several champagnes, with their prestige cuvées receiving top scores from international critics like Wine Spectator. The dynamic, innovative and contemporary buzz of the house is reflected in their wines which combine freshness, fruit and finesse. Already making an appearance at a couple of groovy joints like Movida Sydney and Cafe Paci, it’s just a matter of time before word gets out.
1. Thiénot Brut Non-Vintage
The term non-vintage or NV indicates that the cuvée is made up of wine from both the current vintage and from previous vintages which have been held to age. The aim of NV is to create a consistent house style and in Champagne it’s said that if you make a good NV, you’re a good house. I agree with this - even though NV is always priced cheaper than vintage, it requires great skill to create a blend that is, year after year, quintessentially the house style.
The Thiénot NV is a blend of 45% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir and 20% Pinot Meunier. Of this, 20% is reserve (ie. older wines). The wine has a minimum of 3 years ageing before release. The dosage (measure of sugar) of around 10g/L makes it Brut (dry), the most common style.
This has exactly what you're looking for in an apéritif style champagne. With a fine bead (line of bubbles from the base of the glass) I found it cleansing and zesty, offering notes of citrus and lemon blossom. I love the creaminess of the mousse (foaminess in the mouth) and the slight toasty, brioche notes on the finish.
“An exotic sparkler, displaying rich, caramelized smoke and brioche notes, balanced with citrussy acidity and flavours of ripe apple, candied pineapple, lemon meringue and crystallized honey. Mouth watering finish.” 91 Points, Wine Spectator.
“Cool steely lemon nose. Quite sharp and brisk and lemony. No-nonsense champagne. An appetite-whetter rather than a food wine.” 15.5/20 Jancis Robinson.
“Pale yellow. Lemon curd, quince, white flowers, honey and vanilla on the fragrant nose. Taut, refreshingly bitter citrus pith and toasty lees flavors give way to richer melon and peach with air, with honeysuckle and ginger notes adding complexity. A pungent, waxy note carries through the smoky expansive finish.” Josh Raynolds, Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar.
Served at the pre-show reception of the Oscars, this champagne will be just as sure to get your night started!
I can offer it for $65 a bottle. Order this wine
2. Thiénot Brut Vintage 2005
In a vintage champagne, all the fruit comes from the one year. Houses only declare a vintage in good years but not all houses declare a vintage in the same years. Obviously, whether or not a vintage is declared, the fruit is still picked for use in the NV.
2005 was considered a good vintage in Champagne, with Decanter Magazine giving it 4 stars (out of 5). “The 2005 harvest will provide the opportunity of making some superlative blends... ”
This wine is a blend of 50% Pinot Noir and 50% Chardonnay, and it is aged for at least 6 years prior to release. The dosage (measure of sugar) is around 9g/L, once again making it Brut (dry).
As you’d expect it’s a more golden colour than the NV, due to the extra age. Rich honey and yeast flavours become bready and melted butter notes and with its more delicate mousse, delivers a lovely long finish. It’s not been released for very long so there are few write-ups as yet.
“Bright yellow. Fresh orange and pear aromas are complicated by chamomile, honey, herbs and fresh porcini. Sappy and expansive on the palate, offering intense orchard fruit flavors braced by gentle acidity. A smoky, leesy nuance lingers on the long, supple finish.” Josh Raynolds, Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar.
“Developing an intense bouquet, smoked, fruity, brioche hints. A lively mouthfeel with a long finish.” Le Guide Hachette des Vins 2014.
This was served (along with the Thiénot Rosé) at the decadent Governor’s Ball following the Oscars and enjoyed with the food of celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck. What a night.
I can offer it for $89 a bottle. SOLD OUT - Check availability.