Monday, 30 September 2013

Giraud Master of Argonne Oak in London

Until recently, trying to identify the origins of oak in French fine winemaking was a fool's errand since tracing the wood to an exact forest and type had become impossible.The supplying coopers  tended to give vague answers about the provenance of their wood to houses and growers, who had to resort to averaging everything out by using up to five different coopers to arrive at a style of wine that they thought best suited their wine. It was all a bit hit and miss, anything but precise and clear.That began to change in the early 1990s, when Claude Giraud from one of the oldest wine growing families in Ay began the most intellectually rigorous study of Champagne's local forest, the Argonne, south east of Chalons which for three centuries had provided the most suitable, least invasive type of oak to support the delicate flavours of Champagne. Claude was at Lord's Cricket ground last week at Coe Vintners Tasting to reveal the fruits of his research into oak, expressed in a range of champagnes that come  predominantly from Ay, the silkiest of Grand Cru Pinots; and certainly all his wines are born on the Montagne - unique for a producer who straddles the world of merchant and grower with effortless ease.

Claude Giraud of Hemart-Giraud

Claude began the seminar with some essential background. He told us that with the dramatic expansion of the Champagne market post World War 2, by the 1950s the Champenois were faced with the  Industrial/Agricultural option. As they had become rich,with the thought of becoming richer still, it is no surprise they chose the industrial path based on volume and ambitious distribution. The oak forest of the Argonne was abandoned and stainless steel fermenters were installed to bring a simpler type of Champagne, which was easier to make for mass markets with fewer challenges and risks. Yet from the late '80s, a stalwart band of smaller producers ( led by the pioneering example of Bruno Paillard in 1981) returned to the precepts of their fathers, seeking to  express the true nature of chalky Champagne - fresh, pure, mentholated, mineral and dry, set for a long distinguished life. At first, several growers were wary of returning to oak for fear of distorting the purity of their wines.

Claude had other ideas. Because of  his heritage, he knew that the poor soil of the Argonne was the perfect place for the subtlest oak to enrich his grands vins d'Ay - if only he could identify and authenticate the forest of this ideal wood. Thanks to Claude's 20-year friendship with Camille Gauthier, a 'meraindier' (tree cutter), the last link in the puzzle has been solved. So Maison Giraud now choose all their own oak from trees that are 150 year old, 100 per cent  Argonne authenticated, the only houses in Champagne that can make this claim. Claude signs off in his laconic humorous style: ' Since 1990, there's been no racking. If you touch the wine, you lose its sense. We're not bio or extremist, we just use sustainable methods to make the best wine. Steel tanks are inert, the cask is alive, giving texture, tension , durabilty.' Another way of saying great Champagne. The sweetest irony is the two entry- level cuvees made in stainless steel, Esprit de Giraud, white and pink, are still of the highest quality at their price point.

That's a long enough post for one day...for a full report on the current Giraud range,  the next postfollows in a few days.

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