Louis Brochet: “I’m still fascinated by the element of mystery in champagne”

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In the village of Écueil, in the terroir of the Montagne de Reims, the Brochet family have produced champagne for four generations. Louis Brochet and his sister, Hélène, took the helm of the business in 2010. From the cultivation of their vineyard, in compliance with the norms of France’s High Environmental Value (HEV) certification, to the preparation of the label, they oversee every step of the production process behind the precious beverage.
To wish you a happy holiday season, we offer you this interview initially published in Nez #10 – From the nose to the mouth.

You were born in Champagne: Was it obvious to you that you would work in that field?

Yes, I always followed my father, either in the vineyard or in the tank-room [the building that houses the tanks], which especially attracted me. Once I got my degree in oenology, I was lucky enough to be hired by the Oenological Institute of Champagne, in Épernay, where I worked with seasoned oenologists. I followed the work of a hundred or so winegrowers or co-ops, from the harvest to the blending. This gave me the opportunity to discover beautiful things, avenues to explore, mistakes to avoid. It saved me a lot of time and, after about ten years, I returned to the family business with a vision and ideas.

What attracts you to working with champagne, and what, in your opinion, makes this field so special?

 First, champgna is anchored in a terroir. The chalky soils of the Marne, and particularly of the Montagne de Reims, are very suitable for the development of high-quality sparkling wine: Chalk retains water by capillarity, which protects the vines from drought while avoiding excess humidity. This moderate hydric constraint helps maintain a balance between the acids, sugar and aroma precursors of the fruit. I love the universality of champagne: You can drink it in any situation, at any time. At work, I’m still fascinated by its element of mystery. When you produce a still wine [non-sparkling], everything revolves around the harvest, maceration and fermentation. Once it’s bottled, you basically leave it alone. For champagne, vinification is relatively straightforward, but it is followed by highly technical processes. Blending, bottling, ageing in the bottle, disgorging: There are many successive steps during which the wine is agitated a bit, and that can yield surprises.

What makes the aromatic evolution of champagne especially complex?

All wines share this element of mystery, but even more so with champagne because of the operation of disgorging, which consists of removing the sediment produced by fermentation. Once sugar has been degraded by yeast, the yeast deposits itself on the inside of the bottle and exudes aromatic compounds into the wine, releasing round and fatty notes that will make it richer. This is the reason why we let our bottles rest for a long time (at least 15 months in the case of champagne and three years for special vintages). When we disgorge, we open the bottle to remove the sediment and make the champagne suitable for sale: Inevitably, a bit of oxygen enters the bottle, which the wine will consume. The addition and choice of the liqueur d’expédition [during the dosage step] also change the olfactory and gustatory profile of champagne in a rather brutal manner: This is why you need to wait several more months before tasting it.

How do you give a specific identity to your champagne and how do you ensure its stability over the years? Is there a formula, or do you work empirically, by adjusting it as you go along?

It’s a little of both. It also depends on the champagne you want to make. When we prepare our brut of reference, which is a blend from almost all the plots of the vineyard, we try to aim for a consistent, regular style. To achieve this, we use a process typical of the Champagne region: reserve wines. These are grapes that were harvested, vinified and stored in tanks as still white wine for one, two, three or even four years. Even if some years aren’t as good as others, this helps us achieve a good blend. But the quality of special vintage or single-plot cuvées depends on the year. If we decide to produce one of these special cuvées, we indulge ourselves by seeking out a specific style, something unique. Champagne stimulates the sense of smell and taste, of course, but also the other senses by its colour, effervescence and the sound of the bubbles.

How do you control all these parameters?

For the visual effect, it’s a matter of cépage [grape variety]. Chardonnays are very light-coloured, with slightly green reflections. We use a lot of pinot noir, whose tint changes as it ages, from slightly pink to golden. As for the musical aspect of bubbles, it is often caused by the type of glass. On the other hand, we can play with the level of effervescence: Bubbles come from adding sugar and ferments that cause a second fermentation. The gas released by this new fermentation dissolves in the wine and produces the bubbles. Therefore, the sugar dosage conditions the level of fermentation, as well as the quantity of carbon dioxide in the wine. I play with this dosage by adapting it to the gustatory identity of the cuvée and the moment when it must be ready. Smell and taste evolve with ageing. While a young champagne will express slight acidity and greenness, it becomes rounder as it matures. We therefore taste it regularly to try to predict its evolution.

Do you work your vines in a specific way, according to the wine you want to produce?

Yes and no. We now have an approach that is increasingly respectful of the environment: a natural grass cover, maintained by plowing rather than with chemical herbicides. Beyond the fact that this benefits the environment, it allows us to obtain grapes with a more highly concentrated, more complex taste and deeper roots and plants that depend less on weather in the short-term. The yield is lower, but still sufficient, with a high-quality result. That being said, nature will always have the last word. If there are storms in August that rot the grapes, the harvest will be a disaster and there’s nothing we can do about it. Grapes evolve and so does the style of wine.

Is this a response to the evolving expectations of consumers? Are there any foreseeable trends?

Yes, since the 2000s, champagnes are much less dosed with liqueur d’expédition. Before, we made champagnes that were round, mature, fairly sweet and even slightly heavy. Today, they are dosed, fresher, fruitier and more delicate. This is a response to the expectations of consumers, who want a wine that is genuine and easy to drink. When you use a liqueur that is as neutral as possible, in lower proportions, you can’t cheat or correct possible flaws in the wine. The grape expresses itself more directly, with a more natural result, which tends towards more verticality. In addition, consumers are more drawn to special cuvées: monocépage [a single grape variety], single-plot, special vintages. There are many connoisseurs who meet to discuss wine. They want their wine to tell a story, to stand apart. When you take a standard champagne bottle, nothing is specified: Year, blending and cépage aren’t indicated. More and more clients want to understand what they’re tasting. On our back labels, we now specify the cépages we used, the years, the dates of bottling and disgorging, and the sugar dosage. Champagne is not exempt from the trend for more transparency and consumer awareness.

Whose advice do you follow for the blending process?

Even though I have a fairly specific idea of what I want to do, I take a lot of advice. Namely, to reassure myself. There’s always a risk of taking the wrong direction – that’s why I organise tastings as often as possible. First of all, with my sister, who runs the business with me. But also during sessions with all our staff. In addition, we taste the products from other maisons to observe how trends evolve and to see what is being done elsewhere. Finally, I consult with former oenologist colleagues or even winegrower friends. In any case, taste is first and foremost training and memorisation!

How do you use your nose in your day-to-day work?

I trust my nose a lot, especially since tasting isn’t always the most reliable indicator. To best appreciate a wine, the timing must be right. The ideal conditions are late in the morning; you might be less performant in the early afternoon, when your mouth has been saturated by a meal. My nose is a reliable point of reference. I use it preferentially, pairing it with my sense of taste if the hour is conducive. When I smell and then taste a wine, I’m looking for possible flaws because of my training as an oenologist and my past as a consultant. Before describing it, I’ll start by observing, checking whether the wine isn’t corked or oxidised because of too much oxygen added, or even if it hasn’t turned to vinegar because it has been improperly stored.

What is a good champagne, in your opinion?

I love many types of champagne, many cépages. But I prefer well-balanced wines that don’t go too far in any one direction. In a brut champagne, we use three cépages to produce a harmonious, complex wine: pinot noir, which gives it its structure and power, while chardonnay is characterised by floral or white fruit notes, with a vivacity that often verges on tangy. Lastly, pinot meunier can inflect it towards gourmand notes while bringing roundness and suppleness to the wine. I don’t quite trust champagnes that are too extreme. It’s a deviation that comes from the evolution of the market we were discussing earlier: Everyone wants to stand out, to offer the most specific product possible. Of course, wine must have personality, but it must remain smooth and pleasant. When you push a concept too far, of course you stand out, but the taste isn’t convincing: For instance, by extending the vinification process in casks, in the end, all you get is the wood. Or when you practice a ‘noninterventionist’ vinification, bad tastes can develop; some will speak of a ‘taste of terroir’, but the truth is the wine is flawed.

What advice would you give consumers who would like to deepen their knowledge of champagne?

Tasting is training. Everyone can hone their perception. The best thing is to go and visit winegrowers and taste as many different wines as possible, eventually special cuvées of specific cépages or plots, in order to understand the character of each wine and to define your preferences. And, of course, putting it all into words, talking with producers, since wine is, first and foremost, about sharing.

Main visual: Hip, Hip, Hurrah!, Peder Severin Krøyer, Gothenburg Museum of Art. Source: Wikimedia commons


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