The World of Fine Wine: “AR Lenoble: Double gold. Neil Beckett relished the first releases of two very different but equally successful expressions of 1996 grand cru Chouilly Chardonnay from the bijou house”
The 1996 vintage was a special one for all Champagne producers, but for none more so than Antoine Malassagne (pictured). At the age of 28, he joined his sister Anne Malassagne as fourth-generation managing owners of the family firm AR Lenoble in Damery and saw in his first vintage as winemaker.
The 1996 growing season resulted in grapes with an unusual balance of high acidity and high sugar levels, and many chefs de caves—and drinkers—now rue the decision not to harvest a little later. But in a completely independent family house with its own 18ha (44 acres) of vineyards, and with the support of his father, sister, and consultant James Darsonville, Antoine had the luxury and temerity to wait for full ripeness; even with 20 years of hindsight he thinks there is nothing significant that they should have done differently. The acidity in the grapes was still high, so they let the wines go through malolactic (a decision since taken on a vintage-by-vintage basis).
Another advantage of being family owned and run is the ability to release wines when they are ready and to retain stock to release at glorious maturity. For the past few years, AR Lenoble has offered a precious older wine each December under its Collection Rare program— in 2014, the 1964 Vintage in magnum; in 2015, the 1985 Chouilly Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs. To celebrate their 20th anniversary together in 2016, Anne and Antoine decided to offer two wines from their first vintage that had not been offered for sale previously: 250 bottles of 1996 Cuvée Gentilhomme Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs and 100 bottles of 1996 Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Demi-Sec. They showed both wines at a meticulously planned lunch at Cabotte in London on December 5, graced by Albert Roux, an early champion of the house in the UK (Gerard Basset MW MS was another).
Antoine explained: “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). Over the past 30 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 on the lees. Through this splendid 1996 vintage, I thought it might be interesting to try to rehabilitate the image of Demi-Sec, which is often mocked or misunderstood […]. In 1999, we created our very first Brut Nature Zéro Dosage. Today, Champagnes with low 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.”
AR Lenoble 1996 Cuvée Gentilhomme Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs – 94 points
100% Chardonnay from Chouilly; 10% aged in wood; dosage 2g/l, added as RCGM* in a liqueur of reserve wine; disgorged June 2014; £280
A pale lemon-gold of impressively youthful hue, and still the energy to generate a steady stream of fine bubbles: the strong pulse of a Champagne full of life. Autumnal bounty, pre-harvest, on the nose: clean, fresh white mushroom, then, with air and a little warmth, subtle scents of baked apple and cinnamon. A fine mousse on a medium body, at once flowing, supple, and vigorous, the ripe acidity contributing to a gently spiraling finish of excellent length. Superb with a soft truffled cheese.
AR Lenoble 1996 Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Demi-Sec – 95 points
100% Chardonnay from Chouilly; 5% aged in wood; dosage 32g/l; added as RCGM* in a liqueur of reserve wine; disgorged January 2012; £240
A limpid pale lemon-gold, the mousse less evident to the eye than the tongue. Ripe Golden Delicious apple scent, fresh and pure. Most remarkable on the palate: still very vibrant 1996 acidity, but beautifully integrated and wrapped, effortlessly soft and supple, less silky than velvety, delicious and moreish in flavor, but so pure as not to seem sweet. Not for dessert but for spice. Special.
The 1996 wines are available through Stannary Street Wine Company, London.