I was tasting this morning with Yannick Doyard in Vertus, and while we were working our way through his current range of outstanding champagnes, he talked about how he’s come to reevaluate his ideas about pressing.
In Champagne, a traditional press holds 4,000 kilograms of grapes, a fixed quantity called a marc. One marc yields precisely 2,550 liters of juice, fractioned into two categories: the first 2,050 liters is called the cuvée, and is considered to be the finest portion; the last 500 liters is called the taille, and while it’s legal to use this for making champagne, some houses choose to use it and others don’t. (A third category pressed after the initial 2,550 liters, called the rebêche, cannot be used for champagne, and must be sent to the distillery.) Historically, Champenois barriques have been 205 liters in size, so that the cuvée from one marc equals exactly ten barrels.
Pressing in Champagne is a long and laborious process, and the pressing of one marc takes around four hours from beginning to end. (Having observed this firsthand during the harvest a few months ago, I can personally attest to how boring this is to watch.) Each marc goes through multiple pressings, or serres. In each serre, the press comes down, squeezing out some juice and compacting all of the grapes into a big cake, and then that cake has to be separated and fluffed up in a process called the retrousse (as seen in this photo, taken at René Geoffroy), readying the grapes to be pressed again. This process is repeated several times: the cuvée itself involves the first three serres, and the serre after that is used for the taille.
Like many other top-quality growers, Doyard keeps only the cuvée for his champagnes and sells all of his taille to the négoce. However, he breaks these two distinctions down even further, and in reality he doesn’t even think anymore in terms of cuvée and taille. Doyard believes that the creation of the traditional measurement of 2,050 liters was based simply on the logistics of having a 205-liter barrel, and had nothing to do with making better wine. “It was a mathematical decision,” he says, “not a qualitative one.” Now, he separates the serres instead, keeping only the first two for his vintage wines. “I’ve seen a significant qualitative difference between the first two serres and the third,” he says, “so now I always vinify the third serre separately.” In fact, for a new wine that he’s begun to make in 2008, called the Clos de l’Abbaye, he used only the first serre, meaning that his 50-are parcel in the Clos ultimately yielded just four barrels of wine.
Doyard admits that it’s easier to be this exacting when you work in small quantities, and especially when you vinify in wood. “It’s a big advantage to work with small barrels,” he says. “If you work in a traditional winery with lots of tanks, imagine how difficult and expensive it would be to keep track of all of these separate little things.”