Thursday, April 3, 2008

Champagne Ayala, Aÿ

At the Bollinger vin clair tasting a couple of days ago, I ran into Hervé Augustin, general manager of Champagne Ayala, and he invited me over for a visit. I’ll admit to not having tasted Ayala’s wines for quite some time—I last visited the house in 1998. As the brand has recently been re-launched with a new aesthetic following its purchase by Bollinger, it seemed like a perfect time to make a reacquaintance.

As the house is located in the village of Aÿ, many people believe that the name Ayala is somehow derived from that, but in fact it was the name of its founder, Edmond de Ayala, a Spanish aristocrat who married the niece of the Vicomte de Mareuil in 1860. As a wedding dowry, he received the Château d’Aÿ and its vineyards in Aÿ and Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. (Why can’t these things happen to me?) The house changed hands several times over the years, and in 2005 it was acquired by Bollinger, who has sought to reinvigorate the brand. “The idea is to create something different with Ayala, something that is of high quality but that isn’t in competition with Bollinger,” says Augustin. “At the same time, Ayala is not a second wine of Bollinger. We share some grape sources, but we have separate chefs de caves, separate cellars, separate operations.”

A key element of the new Ayala style is a reduced dosage, or even no dosage whatsoever. The entry-level brut, currently based on the 2004 harvest, is offered in two versions: the Brut Majeur, which is dosed at 8.5 grams per liter, and a Zéro Dosage Brut Nature. I like the balance of the Brut Nature, as it feels full and plush, with plenty of apple and apricot fruitiness, while retaining a zesty, salty vivacity. The Brut Majeur is less complex and less racy, but still feels harmonious and shapely. (Interesingly, Augustin says that a higher percentage of men tend to prefer the Brut Majeur, while women often favor the Brut Nature.) The 2000 Blanc de Blancs, made from Le Mesnil, Cramant and Chouilly, seems to exemplify the Ayala style—these aren’t wines that attack you with overt power, but rather they build slowly and quietly, increasing in depth and intensity of aroma as they move back on the palate. Ayala’s vintage-dated prestige cuvée is called Perle d’Ayala, and as of the 2002 vintage it’s offered in both dosé and non-dosé versions, which is rather unusual marketing strategy. It’s great for wine dorks like us, however, to be able to compare the two. While the brut nature is very sleek and fragrant, I prefer the classic version, dosed at seven grams per liter, as I find that the dosage here amplifies the complexity and depth of aroma, and provides a better overall balance. It will undoubtedly age better as well, and I would love to see it in another decade or so.

I was very impressed with both of Ayala’s rosés—unsurprisingly, one is dosed and one isn’t, but here they aren’t at all the same wines. Composed of half chardonnay, the Rosé Majeur has a wonderful elegance and finesse on the palate, showing floral, airy aromas of red cherry and cranberry and finishing with surprising length and depth of flavor. The Rosé Nature is 53 percent chardonnay and 47 percent pinot noir (the Majeur has a little meunier), and is held back longer in the cellar—the current release is 2002, though it’s not vintage-dated. It’s a grander wine than the Rosé Majeur, with more complexity and nuance on the palate, and like many of the other Ayala wines, the finish is the star of the show, with expansive aroma and long, subtle length. At the same time, I can see myself drinking more of the Majeur, with its fresh, inviting aroma and graceful balance. The Rosé Nature is a more severe wine, and would perhaps be better with food, or served as an apéritif with hors d’oeuvres. It’s certainly a bold move to release a non-dosé rosé champagne. (It’s not, however, the only non-dosé rosé, as the American press release claims it to be. The same press release states that “Ayala has created the trend for zero and low dosage champagne,” which is about as realistic as Hillary claiming to dodge bullets in Bosnia. Oh well. At least the wine is good.) It will be interesting to see how the style of this wine and of the other Ayala non-dosé wines are refined over the coming years, and how receptive the market will be to wines of zero dosage. So far, I believe the quality is promising.


Henri Vasnier said...

Peter, there is at least some informed opinion (don't know whether I share it, not enough experience) that zero - not just low, but zero - dosage champagne is as good as it's ever going to be the day it's disgorged. Because, among other reasons, this school of thought says, the Maillard reaction which is a significant component of post-disgorgement maturation depends on the presence of a nonzero dosage. Your views? Ayala's and/or Bollinger's views? Must say, I would love to try a serious zero-dosage rose.

Peter Liem said...


I believe this theory as well, that the Maillard reaction (which is responsible for the inimitably biscuity and complex character of mature champagne) requires the presence of dosage in order to occur. Some non-dosé wines can develop quite well with a decade or so of aging, but the character is not the same as a traditionally dosed wine. Certain tasters might prefer one style or the other, but I think that it's clear that the wines do evolve differently. It would be interesting to do a tasting of ten- or fifteen-year old dosé and non-dosé wines. It would be even more interesting to be able to compare the exact same wines: say, to purchase Ayala's Zéro Dosage and Brut Majeur and open the two ten years later.

Ayala's non-dosé rosé is worth a try. I think it's quite interesting. For me the greatest non-dosé rosé currently out there, as far as I've tasted anyway, is Bertrand Gautherot's Saignée de Sorbée, but of course that's very difficult to get one's hands on....

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