The Many Faces of Pinot Noir in Champagne: G.H. Mumm

A rare opportunity arose to taste vins clairs, the base wine for champagne after alcoholic fermentation is finished. Such a stating is exciting, because it allows for insight into what goes on behind the curtains on the backstage, so to say. Didier Mariotti, Chef de Caves at G.H. Mumm, presented a couple of Chardonnays and a wider selection of Pinot Noirs in order to illustrate the differences between the terroirs within the Champagne region.

The G.H. Mumm house, now owned by the international drinks corporation Pernod-Ricard, has over 200 hectares of vineyards in the fine grand crus even today despite its stormy history. Founded in 1827, the house quickly earned a good reputation, mainly due to its Cordon Rouge cuvee. The first challenges arose at the beginning of the First World War, as the originally German family – the Gottliebs from the Rheingau – had retained their nationality. As a result, the French government confiscated the property, which changed hands a number of times thereafter. This left its mark on the quality and it was not until 1991 that Pierre Harang, the new chef de caves, started to turn the fortune of G.H. Mumm around. Dominique Demarville, now at Veuve Clicquot (read my article on the tasting he presented in London in 2011), brought the quality back to its glory and his protégé Didier has made the transformation of Mumm’s fortune.

We started the tasting with two Chardonnays from Cramant: Les Perthes and Les Bionnes. These two parcels are noted for old vines with lower yields, thus prone to higher quality. The separation of the vineyard holdings into small plots allows for very precise work with the different terrroirs. In terms of the acid profile, it needs to be noted that all the wines at Mumm undergo malo-lactic fermentation to make them softer.

Les Perthes: light watery lemon. Medium intense nose, vibrant with lemon and lees, some rose petals too. Dry, quite fresh, lean citrus tones.

Les Bionnes: a bit deeper, yet very light lemon. A medium intense nose with ripe grapefruit, lees and lime mixed with a touch of acacia honey. Dry, fresh, but more silky in texture. It feels less concentrated and lean.

Another six samples followed. This time Pinot Noir in order to focus on the differences between the base wines from different parcels and villages. To the question of what role single vineyard plays in the context of champagne, a product typically blended across villages, Didier resonded: “blending is important, I can talk about village, but I do a blend, even within a village. However, different vinification  can be applied to the different villages  in order to enhance what they bring to the blend.” Another important aspect in making Mumm is to increase the age of the vines used for the blend. Older vines with lower yields will bring more complexity, as Didier and the team assume, however, it is an experiment that started a few years ago only. As such, they focus on using grapes from vines with a minimum of 15 years of age.

Of the five villages tasted, Bouzy shined through with its elegance and finesse. It is also said to be the backbone of the structure in the blend. In the final blend, not all villages are used. There is no recipe, but it is dependent on the vintage and what each village and plot, indeed, brings to the final product. Ay and Ambonnay produce Pinot Noirs with better weight of fruit, with the former being more savoury and the latter fleshy and juicy. Verzy and Verzenay were both restrained and lean bringing an element of structure and definition to work with during blending. Here are the notes on the individual wines:

Ay – Les Valnons: deeper lemon with a pink hue. Quite sandy, gherkin and some pink grapefruit. Heavier on the palate, generous fruits, very savoury.

Bouzy – Les Hannepes: watery lemon with a pink hue. More restrained, elegant with a citrus domination over some pink grapefruit. Leesy touch, really fine and soft in body.

Ambonnay – Les Crupots: deep lemon with a watery and pink hue. Sandy, citrus juice with pink grapefruit. Fresh, fleshy fruits of grapefruit, some juicy lemon and a touch of lees. Really rounded body. Less concentration.

Verzy – Les Houles: rather lemon with a pink hue. Restrained nose, freshness of lemon, white grapefruit and lees, only a touch of pink grapefruit. Dry, fresh, really lots of limestone, very well structured.

Verzenay – Les Perthois: watery lemon in colour. Really restrained, but lean elegance of lemon juice, light and airy. Some generous lees.

We finished the tasting with a 1999 vintage so as to see the components in one blend. Didier explained that the dosage is important, as it is the last step where you can address shaping the final product. This wine went through malo-lactic fermentation in stainless steel tank, then spent six months in barrel for micro-oxidation, but not for oak flavour. Yet, a tiny bit of vanilla was present on the wine. The base wine got battonage every week to bring structure to the wine instead of oak structure.

R. Lalou 1999
(bottled in 2000 and disgorged in 2011, dosage 6g/l)
Pronounced straw with a golden hue and a touch of green veil. Intensity is striking with elegance and concentration. Really polished nose with a bit of brioche, soft toast, lemon zest and apples, lovely ripe and fleshy turnip is just starting to develop. Very soft mousse, with medium sized bubbles. It pulls the back-palate, rounds well off. Framed by the lively acids and the amount of the vegetals. It comes at a price. £112.59 RRP.

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