“This was one of the best years region wide,” Moët & Chandon winemaker Amine Ghanem told us during our vins clairs tasting at the impressive winery in Épernay earlier this year. “It is on par with 2012… but still a challenging year.”
Ghanem was quick to highlight how unusual the growing season was from an environmental perspective. “It was a scary year in terms of climate change. We had a very tough start from January to June… lots of rain, hail, pressure of mildew and no nitrogen. Then at the end we have something special.”
Moët & Chandon were one of the first houses to pick grapes from Grand Cru villages, beginning with the Pinot Noirs on 23rd August. “The challenge [during harvest] was making sure you pick the right plot at the right time to ensure freshness,” Ghanem said.
With big yields recorded throughout Champagne, averaging around 15,000 kg/ha, the most immediate benefit was the ability to refresh the wines in the cellar, many of which were sub-par as a result of the difficult 2017 harvest. “We don’t have much reserve wine from 2017 left as we have already used most of it. This was a very successful year for winery management… as the 2017 wines are no longer there to spoil the blends!”
That said, there were some challenges. The lack of nitrogen in the wines was an issue and is something Moët are monitoring during fermentation. Ghanem explained that the nitrogen in the soil cannot be taken up by the vines if it is not mineralised, and the catalyst, water, was in short supply due to the drought which lasted from June to late September. Additionally, to improve their impact on the environment, Moët have been planting grass in their vineyards (grass roots act as a natural environmental filter), which have the side effect of pulling nitrogen away from the vines.
Another challenge was the acidity levels. The grapes had good maturity, averaging around 10 degrees potential alcohol, but the total acidity was quite low at 5.7, similar to the 2003 vintage. This is a common theme with hotter vintages and is something to watch out for in the future as the climate continues to warm. “This year we monitored each vineyard by acidity, rather than botrytis or rot, because there were no problems with disease.”
Despite the challenges, the resulting wines are outstanding. The ten strong winemaking team at Moët & Chandon use an ABC scale to rate all of the 800+ base wines (relative to the vintage) on factors such as acidity and whether they can discern defects such as mould or dust. The C’s are discarded, whilst the A’s and B’s go forward for re-tasting (there is also the option for A+ and A++ ratings). In 2018, 95% of the wines were rated A or above.
2018 Vins Clairs
Of the three grape varieties, Pinot Meunier was the lowest yielding, with higher acidity levels than the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. However, Ghanem was particularly pleased with the Pinot Meunier this year, as the weakness of Meunier is its susceptibility to disease, which, in the absence of this year, the Pinot Meunier flourished: producing linear, precise and fresh wines.
According to Ghanem, the white grapes proved the most difficult. The winemaking team were at first disappointed with the Chardonnay base wines, which were a little oxidised – potentially a result of the lack of nitrogen. “The Chardonnays are a little mature already. Our challenge was to keep the freshness, as the acidity was much lower,” Ghanem told us.
Fortunately, ultra-modern producers that they are, Moët & Chandon have the tools to compensate. Each tank has a CO2 sensor that allows them to monitor the levels of oxygen and nitrogen within the tank. By adding correcting pulses of either, the winemaking team can ensure the yeast finishes fermentation at the optimum time, thereby preventing any further oxidation.
Regarding potential alcohol levels, Ghanem explained that Moët prefer to pick at a lower sugar level (this year around 10 degrees potential alcohol) and rely on chaptalisation (the addition of sugar to the grape must) in order to increase the potential alcohol level. “This way we have more structure and maintain the freshness in the wines.” Typically, the process of chaptalisation raises the Grand Cru wines to 11.2-11.5 degrees and the Petit Cru to 11 degrees.
We tasted five base wines from around the region, all blends of the different classifications of vineyard. Rather than fermenting separately, village by village, Moët ferment sector by sector, blending Grand and Premier Crus together to make ‘Grand Blancs’ or ‘Grand Noirs’, and blending Autre Crus together to make ‘Petits Cru de Blancs’ or ‘Petits Cru de Noirs’.
|CHARDONNAY | Petits Cru de Blancs
Lots of brightness to the lemon character, lots of apple and hints of spice with nice precision, tension and a hint of salinity. Could be Sézanne and Montagne de Reims.
|CHARDONNAY | Grands Blancs
More complexity, some peaches and tropical notes like pineapple and ripe mango. Good density. Shows very well, lots of ripe fruits, rich and with good freshness. Clean and pure.
|PINOT MEUNEIR | Petits Cru de Noirs
Much more chalky. Peaches, strawberry and dark fruits like black cherry. This is very expressive and quite vinous, lots of stone fruits like yellow plums, ripe green apples, hints of grass and ripe lemons. Very clean, precise and a hint smoky.
|PINOT NOIR | Côte des Bar
Quite fruity and in your face with a big chalk character that has some of that apple candy, rhubarb and redcurrant. A richness to the fruit and freshness from good acidity.
|PINOT NOIR | Grands Noirs
Quite subdued nose and then the fruit comes out more on the palate. Really good texture and acidity, rich ripe pears and tropical notes like pineapple, redcurrant and some hints of rhubarb and spiciness that helps lift the freshness. Just a hint of phenolics, very impressive overall.
We also tasted a Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir première taille (the 500 litres of juice pressed after the cuvée, the first 2,050 litres), which typically has less sugars and acidity and more tannin content than the cuvée. Owing to the overall strength of the vintage, the première taille was of an impressive standard this year, bringing more minerals to the blends, and lending herbal and reductive hints. Some of the finished blends can contain up to 10-20% of première taille wine.
Showcasing a reserve wine from 2016, Ghanem explained that the house have been increasing the reserve wine content in the Impérial NV blend for some years. “The reserve wine content is different from other houses, it is subtle at Moët, very fruity with citrus freshness and toasty, smoky hints. It is less dark than other houses.” Moët keep between 10 and 15 blended reserve wines in huge 100-600hl tanks, storing enough for one year of future production in both tanks and on the lees.
We tasted the completed Impérial NV 2018 assemblage, which is an equal parts blend of the three grape varieties this year – a testament to the region wide strength of the wines. The first assemblage has 40% reserve wines, which will be reduced in each successive blend (due to the sheer volume of Impérial NV sold, Moët create 3 blends throughout the year, in March, June and September). Ghanem informed us that they have been lowering the dosage in recent years, as they have “more expressive wines now” and “don’t need the sugar”.
|PINOT MEUNIER AND PINOT NOIR | Première Taille
Lots of herbal notes, some strawberry and redcurrant. This has a great texture with some tannins and fleshy fruits.
|Reserve Wine 2016
Smoky notes, pineapple, cashew nuts and that creamy character from the lees. This has great texture, freshness and power. Will be used next year.
|Moët & Chandon Imperial NV Assemblage | Base Vintage: 2018
34% PM, 33% PN, 33% CH | Reserve Wine: 40%
Plenty of pretty strawberry fruit, lots of peaches, great texture and power. Lovely freshness and lightness. Has some tropical notes on the palate with good weight of fruit. Has yeasty and toasty notes and is a blend of the three grape varieties, all one third each.
Our final 2018 still wines were two reds, produced using totally different winemaking techniques: thermovinification and maceration. Moët had exceptional raw materials for the red wine program this year: 98% of the Pinot Noir wines were A rated. The majority originated from Hautvillers and were picked at 11.5-12 degrees of ripeness.
The thermovinifed red wine, produced by heating grapes and musts to near-boiling temperatures prior to fermentation to promote the rapid extraction of colour and tannins, contributed 9-10% to the Impérial Rosé NV blend. The macerated red wine, which was macerated at a controlled temperature never exceeding 25 degrees and underwent low temperature fermentation, will undergo 7 years of ageing.
|Vin Rouge | Thermovinified Red Wine
Lots of ripe fruit, red fruits and black cherry. Menthol edge and spicy finish.
|Vin Rouge | Macerated Red Wine
Much more blackcurrant and tobacco. Subtle and yet structured and wow so much fruit – has really attractive tannins, soft and juicy.
To conclude our visit, we sampled the newly released vintages: Grand Vintage 2012 and Grand Vintage Rosé 2012. Ghanem described 2012 as “a miraculous year”, with hail and spring frosts destroying around 40% of the vineyards early on, yet the eventual low yield of grapes were in almost perfect condition: 10.6 potential alcohol and 7.5 acidity.
The black grapes, and the Pinot Meunier especially, were particularly outstanding in 2012. Unsurprisingly, the blend therefore has a higher percentage of Pinot Meunier than any previous Moët vintage, at 26%. Grand Vintage 2012 was released a little earlier than expected, after just 5 years on the lees as, according to Ghanem, “it was just showing so well”. He clearly holds the vintage in exceptionally high regard, comparing 2012 to vintages of incredible calibre, such as 1966, 1989 and 2002.
|Moët & Chandon Impérial NV | 17/20
40% PM, 30% PN, 30% CH | Base Vintage: 2014 | Reserve Wine: 30% | Lees Ageing: 3 Years | Disgorged: 2018 | Dosage: 9 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 1 Year
Lots of bright yellow fruits, so apple, lemon and plum. Has a nice floral element, some dried fruits and the reserve wines come through on the mid-palate. This is the first time I have tasted these dried fruits and nutty character in Impérial NV. Very attractive: fresh and fruity with some extra layers from 2013 and 2012 reserve wines.
|Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage 2012 | 17.5+/20
41% CH, 33% PN, 26% PM | Lees Ageing: 5 Years | Disgorged: 2018 | Dosage: 5 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 1 Year
Lots of big juicy fruit and some hints of greenness from the menthol character. On the palate: peaches, apples and pineapple. The delicacy of the dosage seems just right. Lovely fresh acidity and the end of the mouthfeel gives a hint of iodine and sea-like character. The special dosage liqueur brings some components out of the wine and the iodine-like finish has some mocha hints.
|Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage Rosé 2012 | 17/20
42% PN, 35% CH, 23% PM | Red Wine: 13% | Lees Ageing: 5 Years | Disgorged: 2018 | Dosage: 5 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 1 Year
Lots of ripe black fruits, black cherry, ripe apples and strawberry. This is like a candy shop, it so many aromatics! This also has some of that menthol character and loads of peaches, ripe apples, hints of pineapple and great texture from the lees. This has some tannins and has a real freshness.