Tasting vins clairs with Vincent Laval of Champagne Georges Laval the other day, I was reminded about the debate over whether or not wood interferes with the expression of terroir. It’s not something that is confined to Champagne, although people here tend to talk about it quite passionately on both sides of the issue. Across the wine world in general, there are producers who prefer to vinify in tank because they say that the neutrality of stainless or enameled steel retains the purity of the terroir, and that oak masks or interferes with its expression. On the other hand, there are producers who say that oak helps to bring out the inner characters of the wine, and that wood actually helps to express the terroir better.
Among the many wines that I tasted with Laval that day was a 2008 meunier from 50-year old vines in the vineyard of Les Hautes-Chèvres, in Cumières. Hautes-Chèvres is a more or less south-facing site on the slope above the village of Cumières itself; a portion of it is dominated by clay, and Laval has meunier planted here, while the other side of the vineyard is a little chalkier, and is planted with pinot noir.
In 2008, this meunier parcel wasn’t harvested tremendously ripe, only at about 9.5 degrees or so of potential alcohol, yet in barrel it felt remarkably rich and virile, with a powerful expression of soil character. Clay often gives girth and breadth to a wine, making it feel ample in both body and texture, and that was certainly the case here. However, the soils seemed to lend flavor to this wine as well—this meunier was not at all about fruit aromas, but rather a deep, almost spicy earthiness that served to override any overt notions of fruitiness. To be sure, the vinification in wood probably contributed a bit of weight itself, but as it was a ten-year old barrique, it couldn’t have imparted a great deal of flavor.
Laval vinified a portion of the same wine in stainless steel tank as well, and we tasted this after the barrel-fermented wine, just to compare the two. The tank-fermented meunier was definitely lighter in body, with more pronounced acidity. Its citrusy fruit flavors, as well as that rigid acidity, made it feel more linear, less ample, somehow more bony and angular. What was intriguing was that the powerful expression of soil character that I had experienced in the other wine was largely absent here, or at least greatly diminished. If Laval hadn’t told me that the two were from the same parcel, I would have assumed that they were completely different wines.
It’s hazardous to read too much into this comparison. Wines can change a great deal over the course of élevage, and furthermore, they can develop at different rates in tank and in barrel. In addition, while I was much more taken with the barrel-fermented wine in this particular tasting, I’ve certainly tasted plenty of wines in which wood seemed to blur and obscure other characteristics, and I’m not advocating one side of the debate or the other. This tasting just made me think about the issue.