Q&A with Antoine Malassagne: Reflections on his 20 years as winemaker at AR Lenoble and on his very first vintage, the legendary 1996!

Q&A with Antoine Malassagne: Reflections on his 20 years as winemaker at AR Lenoble and on his very first vintage, the legendary 1996!

December 2, 2016, Christian Holthausen

1996 was a very special year in your life. You joined your sister Anne, who, in 1993, became the first member of the fourth generation of your family to assume the responsibility of AR Lenoble. It was also your very first year as winemaker at AR Lenoble AND the very first vintage you declared.

What do you remember about that year?

Assuming my new role in January 1996 at the age of 28 years old, I was not able to fully realize the extreme specificity of this particular year. However, my father quickly drew my attention to the very high quality of the grapes, and especially the very high acidity of the musts.

That first year, I will always remember being overwhelmed by the extreme activity in the courtyard of our house in Damery. All of the people from different vineyard sites rushed in at noon on the first day and I had to weigh all of those grapes by myself. My first harvest was a true baptism by fire!

I was placed in complete control of the harvest organisation and afterwards, I was fortunate to have my decisions regarding vinification supported by both my sister and my father. We decided to carry out malolactic fermentation in order to enable us to obtain a more balanced acidity.

What if anything would you have done differently?

If I was able to relive the exact same 1996 harvest today, twenty years later, I would not only have tasted the musts but validated my taste impressions through chemical analysis. But fundamentally I do not think I would have vinifed anything differently, although perhaps I might have placed a portion of the musts in large wooden vats. The wines definitely would have undergone malolactic fermentation. A postioriri, with the benefit of the last twenty years of experience and empirical knowledge, I don’t think we made any bad decisions in 1996.

How often do you release older vintages from the AR Lenoble Collection Rare?

Anne and I are fortunate enough to have a rich collection of older vintages in our vinothèque. These bottles represent the literal heart and soul of AR Lenoble since they were the wines made by previous generations of our family, individuals who are no longer on this earth. For the last several years, we have chosen to release a limited number of bottles from our Collection Rare in December. In 2013, we released Vintage 1973 en Magnum. In 2014: Vintage 1964 en Magnum. In 2015: Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Chouilly Vintage 1985.

In December 2016, we have decided to release 250 bottles of AR Lenoble Cuvée Gentilhomme Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Vintage 1996 and 100 bottles of AR Lenoble Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Demi-Sec Vintage 1996.

This is the first time that either of these wines has ever been offered for sale to the public.

Why did you make the decision to release two different expressions of the 1996 vintage?

I decided to showcase the 1996 vintage in two different ways, one with a low dosage of 2g/l (Extra Brut) and one with a dosage of 32g/l (Demi-Sec). In the last thirty years, the Demi-Sec category has been compromised due to too many producers using lean base wines and not giving their wines sufficient time to age of the lees. Through this splendid 1996 vintage, I thought it might be interesting to try and rehabilitate the image of Demi-Sec which is often mocked or misunderstood.

Are there different periods of ageing and post-disgorgement time for each wine?

Post-disgorgement ageing is absolutely essential for a Demi-Sec. The sugars need to have enough time to assimilate into the wine – and vice versa. For the 1996 Gentilhomme, the quantities of sugar are ten times less important than for the Demi-Sec. Therefore assimilation is easier and post-disgorgement ageing is significantly reduced. This is easier to explain and to understand so for these two wines, I have made the decision to place the date of disgorgement on the back of the bottle.

Do you think that AR Lenoble can rehabilitate the image of Demi-Sec in a similar way to how you helped to advance the appreciation of Brut Nature Zéro Dosage?

In 1999, AR Lenoble decided to create our very first Brut Nature Zéro Dosage but that evolved from a different empirical process. Anne and I were looking at ways to improve our approach to viticulture, ploughing, reducing yields, etc. in order to express three specific terroirs in Champagne coming from our 18 hectares in Chouilly, Bisseuil and Damery.

We started to experiment with lower dosage levels on many of our wines and the Brut Nature was born quite naturally. We liked this wine since it revealed that this type of wine could actually be rich and complex. Brut Nature does not have to mean austere or tough, it does not have to be dominated by the presence of too much acidity.

Today champagnes with low and/or zero dosage are in very high demand but 18 years ago that was not the case.

Who knows, maybe by 2033, people will learn to appreciate Demi-Sec again. Habits are difficult to change but it wouldn’t be the first time that AR Lenoble has been a precursor.

How much dosage is too much or too little?

It is not fair to say that a champagne has ‘too much’ or ‘not enough’ dosage. I prefer to say that a particularly cuvée can be dosed poorly if the balance of the wine has not been respected. Every cuvée is different, every year is different. Just like with disgorgement dates, I am not dogmatic in my approach, I am empirical. That’s the way Anne and I have always done things.

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