In October 2016, a group of 12 members of the Circle of Wine Writers came to the Champagne region to visit Jacques Selosse, AR Lenoble, Jacquesson, Ruinart and Eric Rodez.
Michèle Shah from Italy survives the stairs to dig deep into the origins of AR Lenoble:
Our visit to AR Lenoble in Damery was hosted by owners of the Champagne house, sister and brother Anne and Antoine Malassagne, and marketing manager Christian Holthausen. Antoine and Christian gave us a thoroughly interesting introduction to AR Lenoble, an independent family estate originating from 1915 when the family moved to Champagne from Alsace. Yet the name Lenoble does not originate from the family. This is because when Armand-Raphael Graser (Anne and Antoine’s great-grandfather) started making Champagne in 1920, he did not want to use a German sounding name and so chose Lenoble as he believed the wines of Champagne to be the noblest wines from France; his initials AR preceded ‘Lenoble’.
The village of Damery, some 6km from Epernay, is surrounded by vineyards and the estate is housed in a magnificent stately home dating back to 1772. Antoine explained that the estate owns a total of 18ha, which in Champagne makes for a small-medium sized house, with 10ha of grand cru Chardonnay in Chouilly, 6ha in the premier cru village of Bisseuil and 2ha in Damery in the Marne Valley. Their total production focuses on low yields (10 tonnes/ha) producing some 320,000 bottles per year, of which 50% is exported, and which are not released before at least three years of ageing in the cellars followed by three additional months of post-disgorgement ageing. Lenoble was the second house in Champagne to have been awarded the Haute Valeur Environnementale certification in recognition of its commitment to sustainability and biodiversity.
As with many of today’s Champagne houses, Lenoble is sensitive to lower dosages to enhance the freshness of the Champagne. This relatively new trend for Champagne is also partly made possible by the greater awareness of viticulture, lowering yields to keep the grapes healthier and obtaining better maturity – the latter maybe also assisted by global warming. The average dosage at Lenoble is below 6g/l.
We were lucky to be visiting at the time of the harvest, although Antoine explained that it was still early days to be able to decide if this year would be good enough to produce a vintage. “We will have a better idea by December,” he said. Antoine tastes every batch in order to decide how to vinify, he prefers to declassify a wine rather than make a vintage that in his opinion does not have the desired character. “I know what kind of wine I want to produce so I adapt my cuvée to the wine I want to produce,” said Antoine, who has been in charge of the winemaking since 1996. Our descent down to the cellars some 20 metres below ground was quite a challenge – this was even before we had done really serious tasting! We were warned to take special care and to hold on to the bannisters, so most of us did as we were told. Suddenly from above there was some commotion as our photographer, Matt, had tripped on his tripod and was in danger of setting off a domino effect. Luckily, no one was hurt and nothing damaged!
Anne Malassagne, who in 1993 gave up her role as financial director at L’Oréal in Paris to join the company and run AR Lenoble with her brother Antoine, joined us for a very enjoyable and comprehensive tasting:
- Intense: a blend of Pinot Noir Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, 5g/l
- Dosage Zéro: another blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, 0g/l
- Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs: 100% Chardonnay, 5g/l
- Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 2008: 100% Chardonnay, 4g/l
- Rosé Terroirs: Chouilly – Bisseuil, 88% Chardonnay, 12% Pinot Noir, 3g/l
- Premier Cru Blanc de Noirs 2009: Bisseuil, 100% Pinot Noir, 4g/l
- Cuvée Gentilhomme 2009 Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs: 100% Chardonnay, 3g/l
- Cuvée Les Aventures Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs: 100% Chardonnay, 3g/l
- Cuvée Riche Demi-Sec: blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, 34g/l
Following this excellent tasting which really opened our eyes and palates to the potential quality of AR Lenoble, we were then invited to a magnificent dinner. The evening came to a close with Antoine’s first vintage, a special bottling of vintage 1996, one of Champagne’s top vintages, to which Antoine in great modesty commented: “I was just lucky to kick off to my winemaking career on such a great vintage.”