Romans stored wine in containers made from clay—named amphorae—and later in wooden vats. They discovered that wood modified the quality of juice by adding aromas and flavors. Today many vintages are still aged in wooden barrels not only to impart additional flavors, but to add tannins that provide more heft—structure—and can help prolong aging. (Most wine barrels are made from oak—although other woods are also used, including acacia and chestnut.)
Today, few wine drinkers appreciate the complexity of work that goes into selecting, aging and toasting oak that modifies the taste of what they sip. Creating high quality barrels is as complex and multifaceted as making top tier wines, and choosing which wood to use is crucial to ensure ultimate quality.
Winemakers often visit forests to be involved with selecting which oak will eventually make it to their cellars. After timber is felled and aged (ideally for three years in open air) the rough planks are cut into precise individual strips—called staves—and assembled into barrels. During this process the inside of barrels can be ‘toasted’ (using fire, ideally) to a light, medium or heavy degree in order to further differentiate the wood’s impact on the taste of wine.
Where oak trees grow also impacts the character of wine.
French oak originates from multiple forests, five of which are especially renowned: Tronçais, Nevers, Allier, Limousin and Vosges. These are approximately located along a southwest to northeast axis that cuts across the center of the country. Some of these have been tended with organized care for centuries.
Consider just the Tronçais, located in the dead center of France.
In the 1600’s, the finance minister for King Louis XIV planted this forest specifically to provide timber for building the French navy. Today, timber navies are obsolete and most of this oak produces barrels. The 40 square miles (100 square kilometers) of Tronçais forest produces slender trees with few knots that grow relatively slowly—providing consistently even grains. When felled, these 120 foot (36 meter) tall oak trees are often 120 to 200 years old.
The Argonne Forest
From the Champagne region’s southern city of Aÿ, attention is being re-lavished on the Argonne oak forest, which has witnessed both bloodshed and neglect.
Claude Giraud of Champagne Henri Giraud in decided years ago to seek this oak from his geographical backyard. The Argonne is located roughly 60 miles (100 kilometers) east and slightly north of his champagne house in the city of Aÿ.
Sébastien Le Golvet, operations director for Champagne Henri Giraud, explained how popular the Argonne used to be for champagne producers.
“Argonne wood can elevate a great wine. In 1950, there were 160 coopers making barrels in Argonne. The forest wood is very dense, and slow toasting is needed. We have our barrels toasted for two hours instead of the usual 30 minutes. The soil, called gaize, is very poor, so oak trees grow slowly there. Trees can be 250 to 300 years old, whereas in the Tronçais forest, many trees are 120 years old.”
In the past decades some champagne houses have decided not to use oak, while others now select oak from other more commercially developed regions.
During the First World War, a million American soldiers were stationed in France. The final battle of that war was the Battle of Argonne Forest.
On the misty morning of September 26th, 1918, a massive dawn attack kicked off with a quarter million troops north of Verdun. After a week, Allied forces had advanced 10 miles into the forest—which was sliced by German dug trenches, coated by barbed wire and raked by machine gun fire. By the end of October, their offensive had largely succeeded: most German troops were pushed out of the forest. The region above was also a theater for aerial dogfights: pilots such as renowned Eddie Rickenbacker shot down Fokkers and knocked out barrage balloons.
Today, those who fell Argonne trees still find bullets from this battle embedded in oak. Counting rings on a section of timber can confirm which year each shot entered the wood.
The number of French administrative regions (currently 13 on the continent of Europe) constantly changes. In 2016 the regions of Champagne-Ardenne merged with former Alsace and Lorraine to form what is now called ‘Grand Est.’ Within this block of geography sit not only the renowned wines of Alsace but also bubbles originating from Champagne.
The Champagne wine region is itself sub-divided into five viticultural areas—Aube, Côte de Sézanne, Montagne de Reims, Côte des Blancs and Vallée de la Marne. The last one listed, Vallée de la Marne, curls like a low arch parallel to the generally east-west course of the Marne River.
This is further subdivided into its own regions—six of them—of which one, Grand Vallée de Marne, includes only 15% of the vines within the Vallée, but produces a far higher percent of Pinot Noir (65%) than the five other sub-regions, which produce less than 20% of that grape each. This southern region of Champagne, home of one of the greater focal points for Pinot Noir, is also where the city and commune of Aÿ sit.
The drive from Paris to Aÿ passes vast agricultural fields of wheat, onions and beetroot, interspersed by isles of deciduous trees—where wild boar also roam. Closer to Champagne, this steepening rural land includes quiet villages with ancient, square stone chapel turrets. Around the town of Châtillon-sur-Marne the view opens to a sweeping down valley vista of well-trimmed vine fields. Some soils appear dazzling bright white with chalk, while portions of this rolling land—cut by the murky green Marne River—look both Burgundian and Alsatian.
Every other year, the city of Aÿ holds a festival named after King Henri IV (who lived in the 16th and 17th centuries). Some 25,000 visitors enjoy local foods, drinks, fireworks and music. Henri’s physician apparently recommended that he give up Burgundian wine for champagne, which at the time was called ‘Vin d’Aÿ.’
Today more than 50 champagne houses have addresses in Aÿ. The city of is prim but utilitarian, progressive but traditional, insular yet also quietly welcoming to visitors. Drooping cypress trees line dark canal waters where Avenue Victor Hugo meets Quai de Port. At the northern of the city a steep slope rises suddenly, lined with vines spaced as evenly as tines on a fork.
From Aÿ, Sébastien Le Golvet—cellar master and operations director for Champagne Henri Giraud—drove us out to vineyards. Before sampling how oak impacts wine, we first tasted how soil impacts grapes. The natural location, environment and weather conditions—terroir—is critical to create differentiated vintages.
In light rainfall we parked and walked through vines on a sloping, mucky hill. Sébastien reached down and picked up a spiral sea shell—a remnant from tens of millions of years ago when oceans covered this land. Using an auger, he dug a hole in soil adjacent to vines and extracted a chunk of earth. With fingers he pulled out chips of different minerals. We next stepped back inside the van where he produced ‘terroir cocktails’ in three separate glasses by pouring water—separately—over three different earthen materials: limestone, clay and ferric oxide. I tasted each—discerning the quick ‘attack’ of clay, the roundness of ferric oxide and the acidity and length of limestone. Although it’s uncertain exactly from where wine obtains specific flavors (perhaps environmental characteristics influence microbes on vines and roots, which transmit that influence to grapes) the point was clear—the myriad minerals in soil somehow influence complex flavors within a wine glass.
Recognizing the influence of soils on vines, we then confirmed the impact of using different oak barrels to age wine. Back inside the cellar Sébastien poured two Grand Cru wines—one aged for a year in oak from the Beaulieu region of the Argonne Forest, the other aged in oak from the Chatrice portion of that same forest. The first was fruitier—with a hint of pineapple, while the second was more acidic and had greater length. Considering there are at least 10 different oak regions within the Argonne forest, and any single one may be comprised of 20 sub-parcels, it’s clear that the range of variables for oaking a wine—still or sparkling—is immense.
Sébastien learned much about the Argonne forest during his visits with owner Claude Giraud. Working with forestry experts they selected oak trees—which grow over silex and green clays—that would be felled and transformed into barrels. The work is so quintessential to Giraud’s brand identity that the company logo is a capital G with two dots above—to emphasizes the city of Aÿ as well as the Argonne forest.
Giraud’s wine barrels each include branded information that identifies the forest of origin, the specific parcel where wood was felled and the agency that certified quality.
Owner Claude Giraud is a pragmatic and curious individual who utilizes organic techniques—such as no pesticides—but considers the hoops to jump through to be certified as ‘organic’ as an additional burden the champagne house has little interest in pursuing. Considering his open mind and progressive thinking, neighboring winemakers refer to him as ‘Champenoise but not Champenoise,’—local, but also different.
Because Argonne oak adds distinction to vintages, Giraud encourages neighboring champagne producers to follow the practice.
“We have similar terroir. This is a collective appellation for all of us. I learned that to get ahead, we all work together.”
Notes on some champagnes (and a red wine) from Maison Henri Giraud are below.
Champagne Henri Giraud. Argonne Rosé. 2014.
Only one barrel produced. Claude Giraud described this as having ‘spice, graphite, minerals and violets. The accent is on spice. It’s a big wine from big terroir.’ After minutes in the glass, aromas of fruit march out: peaches, nectarines. Next, graphite. Then, caramel and butterscotch and finally aromas of roses and dried apricots. Quite the spectral nightingale here—a rainbow of flavors. This is only produced during exceptional years.
Champagne Henri Giraud. MV 14 Aÿ Grand Cru Brut.
This multi-vintage includes aromas of biscuits, tangerines and lime, as well as a hit of balsamic and salt. After a few minutes, aromas of tropical fruits seethe out and this champagne turns rounder and more layered.
Champagne Henri Giraud. Aÿ Rouge Grand Cru Cuvée des Froides Terres. 2016. (95 points)
A red wine that includes aromas of cherries and plums and in the mouth is suave, slightly peppery and with a welcome ribbon of acidity. This is the first production of a red wine from this house.
Champagne Henri Giraud. MV Rosé Aÿ Grand Cru Brut. 2016.
Only 4,000 bottles produced of this orange and peach colored champagne. In the mouth this includes tastes of vanilla, orange rind, cumin and aniseed. This is an evolving adaptive beauty in the glass. Soft shoulders and confident body.
Champagne Henri Giraud. Code Noir Grand Cru Brut.
100% Pinot Noir Grand Cru, small production and oaked. Aromas of spearmint and lemon drops. This has a bubbly biscuit kick in the mouth.
Champagne Henri Giraud. Dame-Jane.
Aged in amphora to take advantage of the natural convection of lees, this rosé champagne includes tastes of strawberries and ginger.