Champagne: a pivotal year

Heavy rain at the beginning of 2018 did not bode well, but it turned out to be an exceptional vintage – especially for chardonnay, as two blanc de blancs from Ayala and Delamotte demonstrate...

Food and Drink 22 May 2024

Champagne Ayala vineyard

Champagne Ayala vineyard

Every so often, the climate-change death knell is sounded for the Champagne region, especially as English sparkling wine improves year on year. However, putting aside the fact that most of the credit for the quality of English sparkling wines should go to the winemakers, not the weather, rumours of champagne’s decline have been exaggerated. Not least because of the grape that has often been regarded as the junior partner in the region’s vineyards but is now coming into its own: chardonnay.

Whether taking a greater role in blends or standing alone in a blanc de blancs, chardonnay is having its time in the excessive sun. There are whole maisons dedicated to its dominance. The Laurent-Perrier group has Salon (which produces only vintage blanc de blancs from a single cru) and its sister house Delamotte, where the white grape leads the way in blends as well as standing alone in blanc de blancs. Meanwhile Bollinger acquired the venerable Ayala & Co, with the intention of achieving ‘the purest expression of chardonnay’.

A Champagne Ayala cave
Champagne Ayala caves (photo: Liza Miri)

According to Laurence Alamanos, export sales director at Champagne Ayala, ‘For many years now, the team has been exploring chardonnay’s potential in the light of global warming. The chardonnay grape is more capable of adapting to climate variation and warmer temperatures. The last few years have all provided ideal growing conditions for chardonnay, naturally preserving acidity and freshness until harvest while also proving less vulnerable to disease, ensuring pure, elegant champagnes after cellar ageing.’

A bottle of Champagne AYALA Le Blanc de Blancs A/18
Champagne Ayala Le Blanc de Blancs A/18

Ayala’s latest release is the vintage blanc de blancs, A/18, distributed in the UK (like its parent champagne, Bollinger), by Mentzendorff. A/18 is blended from wines from grand and premier crus in two areas – the classic chardonnay slopes of the Côte des Blancs, south of Épernay, and from Vallée de la Marne parcels around its base in Aÿ. There’s no secret to what chief winemaker Julian Gout has blended – literally, as the technical specifications are listed to a minute degree on the label. We know exactly which six crus are represented: Chouilly, Cramant, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Oger, Cuis, Bisseuil.

‘At Champagne Ayala,’ says Alamanos, ‘we vinify in stainless-steel vats and we separate one cru, one year, one grape. So, Julian has more than 120 different vats at his disposal when he blends. For the Le Blanc de Blancs A/18 he reckoned that those six crus were the perfect ones to use, with each playing a role. For example, Chouilly for floral notes, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger for the austerity and the longevity of the wines, and so on.’

The reason Ayala has released a vintage chardonnay from 2018 was precisely because it was, as Alamanos calls it, ‘a peculiar year’. A cold and dry winter deterred disease and, although there was a worryingly wet spring, clay soils were able to cope with that moisture and a hot summer enabled an early harvest, particularly of chardonnay grapes.

A bottle of Champagne Delamotte Blanc de Blancs Brut 2018
Champagne Delamotte Blanc de Blancs Brut 2018

Margaux Carpentier, champagne buyer at Corney & Barrow, the UK agent for Champagne Delamotte, says, ‘It was not a given, this vintage. It was not easy from the get-go. The early rainfall was impressive – almost 600 litres per square metre. Then the blossoms came out in late May and it was a long, hot summer. In some places there were droughts, but that early rainfall, retained in the clay, kept the vines alive. And, although some terroirs suffered, it ended up being a luminous vintage overall for chardonnay in the Côte des Blancs.’

Six years later, we are discovering just how luminous it was…

Tasting notes

Ayala A/18, £373.15 (in bond, ex-VAT) for a case of 6 bottles from Petersham Cellars;

There are elegant aromas of pear, grapefruit and jasmine, with a rich floral honey overtone as well. There is a distinct pastry richness on the palate, with deep, rounded citrus flavours – closer to blood orange than anything else. This is balanced by bitter and chalky notes that give an extra layer of interest.

Delamotte Blanc de Blancs 2018, £330 (in bond, ex-VAT) for a case of 6 bottles from Corney & Barrow. Enquiries at 0207 265 2430.

Freshness abounds but with floral sweetness too. On the nose, it is pears rather than apple; a sweet lemon citrus note with green hazelnuts and white almondy hawthorn blossom, and a hint of spice. It bursts on the tongue with summer fruits, juicy peaches and more hazelnut, this time roasted. It has an extremely long finish.