On Reductive Ageing, Or A Few Great Bottles of Champagne and Sherry
Champagne and Fino Sherry share two great commonalities. First, they both grow in calcareous clay and limestone soils. Second, they are (generally) both made with uncommon highly reductive wine-making techniques.
I find the wines tend to pair with similar foods and often do well together throughout an evening of dinner.
Soils: The Impact of Limestone-heavy Clay
Calcareous soils are alkaline, which results in less heat retention and correspondingly greater acidity in the grapes. Hence, the Calcareous soils of both Champagne and around Jerez (where the Palomino grape is grown) produce grapes with extremely high acidity. The acidity works well with reductive ageing.
Why is limestone content so important? Mainly because the limestone increases the amount of calcium carbonate in the soil, a compound that is accessible to plants (versus pure limestone which plant roots cannot penetrate). The calcium carbonate soils provide four main benefits: 1) water retention; 2) cation exchange, grape ph; 3) root systems; 4) disease resistance.
For an extremely in-depth look at the benefits of limestone rich soils, see Tablas Creek’s great post on the subject. In short, the soils retain just enough water and have a chemical structure that promotes nutrient uptake by the roots of the vines; the ph of the soils improves the evenness of nutrient uptake and enhances end of season acidity retention; and calcium rich berries are disease resistant.
In Champagne these soils are called Kimmeridgian and in the Jerez area they are called Albariza. The precise makeup of each is different from the other, but they share similarities in the high limestone and chalk content mixed with clay.
Reductive Wine-making: The impact of minimal oxygen environments and yeast
Both Sherry and Champagne are products of purposefully reductive ageing. More precisely, the biologically aged sherries known as Fino and Manzanilla are aged in cask under the protective veil of yeast known as ‘flor’ and are thus entirely protected from oxygen. Champagne that is fermented in steel and then bottled for ageing on the yeast cells (or lees) is also reductive as it has almost no exposure to oxygen until you open the bottle.
Of course there are both sherry styles and Champagnes that are aged oxidatively – such as Oloroso (no flor) in the case of sherry (Amontillado is a hybrid, beginning under flor and then aged oxidatively after fortification) or a wine such as Bollinger’s special cuvee or Selosse’s Substance.
Reductive ageing in sherry increases the influence of the yeast cells, which produce compounds called acetaldehydes when interacting with the high acids of the juice. Most red wines have only about 30ppm and white wines 100ppm but Fino sherry has as much as 300ppm. These compounds are the same that are produced by your body when it metabolizes alcohol. In most wines they are not desirable in quantities over 150ppm because they impart aromas like green apple skins and nuts. However, in sherry those aromas are part of the style and give the low-fruit Palomino grape character it would otherwise lack.
Reductive ageing in Champagne produces variable results depending on the length of time the wine sees on the lees. A wine with about 2 years or less on the lees will see very little influence from the yeast interactions with the wine and instead present primary, fruity, very fresh and bright wines. In contrast, wines with long lees ageing will contain far more compounds that arise as a result of autolysis, which is a chemical reaction effectively catalyzed by enzymes that break down the dead yeast cells and create proteins and polysaccharides that impart both new aromas and new textures to the wine. The autolytic process imparts new characteristics for at least up to 5 years on the lees and in some cases longer. You can expect such wines to have more brioche and floral aromas as well as a much softer, rounder mouthfeel. This is essential for Champagnes seeking to balance the harsh acidity that results without this long reductive ageing. As such, this process is more important for Champagne grapes grown in more northerly cool climates than the warmer sites. For example, the more southerly Cotes des Bar is able to produce more fruit driven Champagnes because they tend to achieve greater physiological ripeness in their grapes, which can present great wines with less tempering by autolysis.
A Few Wines
I recently had a dinner with friends where we explored reductively aged wines and food pairings for these wines. I highly recommend it!
Pairing: Burrata with Lemon-confit, Marcona Almonds, heirloom beets, Veneto olive oil (from Masi), Maldon salt flakes, and Mizuna.
Resonance is made in a highly reductive style, with vinification in steel and relatively short bottle ageing before disgorgement. It is made this way to emphasize fruit and freshness versus the autolytic characteristics of wines aged long in bottle or the oxidative characteristics of barrel-fermented Champagne (Marie-Courtin releases another bottling with barrel age as contrast to the Resonance).
Because of this, the food marries perfectly. The lemon’s softened acidity from the confit and salt means lemon flavour with less aggressiveness, the almonds add notes that would arise from the Champagne itself if aged longer and the fruity freshness complimented the heirloom beets and fresh Mizuna greens while cutting through the fat of the Burrata and olive oil. The maldon salt flakes added tension to the dish while complimenting the saline qualities of the finish on the Resonance. A stunning pairing.
The wine is 100% Pinot Noir from a single vineyard grown in the Cote des Bar from 40 year old massale selected vines.
~$75 + tax at Kits Wine
Tio Pepe Fino En Rama 04/2016
Pairing: Herring Roll-Mops; Marcona Almonds.
The intense vinegar of roll-mops is an extremely challenging pairing, as can be many types of pickled foods. Fino sherry handles the aggressiveness of the vinegar beautifully and acts as a soft textural counterbalance.
En Rama means ‘raw’, and sherries labelled as such are unfiltered and unfined, tending to have much more flavour than the classically heavy filtered Finos. Tio Pepe is Spain’s largest sherry brand (owned by Gonzalaz Byas) but the En Rama is made in tiny quantities for them (1000 cases) and released every year in April. This bottling was the 2016 release and absolutely outstanding with nutty complexity from the acetaldehydes but much softer texture and greater length than classic Tio Pepe.
~$35 + tax at Kits Wine
Delamotte Blanc de Blancs 2007
Pairing: Home-made Liege Waffles with pearl sugar, coconut-oil fried chicken, strawberries.
This vintage Delamotte (the sister house to Salon) is vinified and aged reductively, but has a far longer time on the lees than the Marie-Courtin (7-8 years rather than 2). As a result, the wine exhibits much more autolytic character, including brioche and floral aromas, and more mid-palate weight and perceived sweetness. This made it an ideal pairing for the richer Liege waffles and fried chicken – which were outstanding. The savory-sweet of the dish melded deliciously with the wine because the acidity cut and contrasted the chicken while the brioche character complimented the waffle and the wine’s acidity married with the strawberries.
~$125 + tax at Kits Wine