BestChampagne had the pleasure of interviewing Cédric Thiebault, Chef de Cave at the reborn Champagne house BESSERAT DE BELLEFON. BestChampagne and Thiebault talk about BESSERAT’s very unique style based on a significant presence of Pinot Meunier, no malolactic fermentation and a lower pressure, resulting in wines with a creamy froth and bubbles that are 30% finer than other champagnes and that pair remarkably well with food.
Cédric Thiebault has been Chef de Cave at Besserat De Bellefon since 2006
BestChampagne: BESSERAT DE BELLEFON was acquired by the Boizel Chanoine Champagne (BCC) group, now LANSON-BCC group, in 2006. What does it mean for your house to be part of the second largest group in Champagne?
Cédric Thiebault: As soon as BESSERAT DE BELLEFON was acquired by LANSON-BCC, we adopted the policy of moving upmarket with BESSERAT DE BELLEFON wines. Being associated with the second biggest Champagne group has brought us several advantages. From a winemaking point of view, in addition to our own grapes, we enjoy a very important supply capacity, which we can always rely on when we need to supplement our needs with grapes of high rated sources that perfectly match our style.
Today we have 25 hectares of vineyards belonging to our house, most of which are situated in the Marne valley. Our vineyards are mostly in Cumières and Verneuil.
This large supply potential allows us to create a very particular, unique style for our cuvées.
BC: Tell us about the particular style of BESSERAT DE BELLEFON.
CT: The style of BESSERAT DE BELLEFON revolves around three basic principles that arose from the history of the house: low pressure, which has been a house tradition since 1930; no malolactic fermentation; and a significant presence of Pinot Meunier in the brut and rosé cuvées.
BESSERAT DE BELLEFON wines are characterized by their finesse and elegance, with a fine depth, but never with a marked evolution, even in wines that are quite aged. You will never find oxidised notes in our wines. They are always fresh, with notes that are a little reduced rather than oxidised, even after considerable aging (3 or 4 years in the cellar for our non-vintage bruts). Our wines have great minerality, with a very saline, marine character.
BC: How would you define the minerality so typical of Champagne wines?
CT: To me minerality in champagne is a freshness, a tension, a quality of “chalky tension”: it reminds of rock, of chalk, of flint. That is what I see as minerality.
BC: The bubbles of BESSERAT DE BELLEFON champagnes are 30% finer than those of traditional champagnes. Why is that so?
CT: It was a historic choice. In 1930, the department store Samaritaine de Luxe issued a famous challenge to several champagne producers: to create a champagne that would accompany an entire meal because it would be lighter, rounder, silkier and creamier than any other champagne. As a result, since 1930 we have been making champagnes with a lower pressure.
Because of that, the tactile impact of our bubbles in the mouth is completely different from other champagnes, with a very creamy and silky feel. It has also contributes to the overall balance of our champagnes, since less pressure means less carbonic acid, which counterbalances the acid potential associated with non-malolactic style.
BC: Why do you prefer not to use malolactic fermentation, unlike most Champagne houses?
CT: Historically, before the 1960s nobody in Champagne underwent voluntary malolactic fermentation. Since the 60s and 70s, malolactic fermentation has become common practice in Champagne because oenological laboratories developed freeze-dried bacteria, making it possible to master malolactic fermentation.
The introduction of heating systems in cellars also made it possible to master the process, but this new way of making wine has partly altered the taste of champagne.
BESSERAT DE BELLEFON has kept the original style of champagne without malolactic fermentation. There are real advantages in terms of aromatic finesse, aging potential, and overall balance of the wine.
Bear in mind, however, that we are not fanatically opposed to malolactic fermentation: if we had to face a year particularly marked by an acidic character, we would give absolute priority to overall harmony, even if it means some malolactic fermentation.
BC: You mentioned a significant presence of Pinot Meunier in your cuvées. What is it for? Doesn’t it affect the longevity of wines?
CT: BESSERAT DE BELLEFON has always been deeply rooted in the Marne valley [the area in Champagne where Pinot Meunier is the most planted grape variety]. We have always given priority to these Pinots Meuniers in our brut and rosé cuvées. This is part of our style.
Pinot Meunier has several advantages: firstly, it produces smaller quantities than other varieties; secondly, it is generally riper than Pinot Noir. Moreover, Pinot Meunier really contributes to the balance of champagne by making it rounder and more fruity, which balances nicely the absence of malolactic fermentation that makes the wine a little more tense, a little crisper.
We always make sure that Pinot Meunier accounts for 40 to 50 % of our best-selling cuvees: bruts and rosés.
Honestly, it does not have a negative impact on the aging potential of our wines. If wines are well-made from healthy and ripe grapes, the three Champagne grape varieties have a remarkable aging potential.
I am not saying that all the varieties have the same aging capacity, and overall, it is certain that a Chardonnay from a grand cru has a greater longevity and aging potential. But when we talk about aging, do we talk about 10 to 20 years or 50 to 80 years?
BC: Aside from the absence of malolactic fermentation, are there any other particularities in the winemaking process of BESSERAT DE BELLEFON?
CT: One important thing for BESSERAT DE BELLEFON in terms of winemaking is that we practice no centrifugation or filtration before the “assemblage”. The only filtering takes place after the wine is left on the lees. The wine is clarified only by natural sedimentation. We make one, two or three rackings between alcoholic fermentation and blending.
This way, the wines are nourished by their lees and given a certain complexity right after fermentation. If you remove immediately all the sediments and all the yeasts, the wine would not be nourished. We give our wines time to develop; as a rule, we bottle them quite late, in June usually.
Another particularity we could talk about is how we treat our vins de réserve. We use the SOLERA method of permanent rejuvenation, which brings a fine continuity to our style.
BC: On the other hand, your prestige cuvée B de B is aged in wooden barrels…
CT: Half of the wines in our cuvée B de B spent some time in wooden barrels. Some wines are fermented in wood, while others are only aged in wood. We have been practicing with those barrels for a dozen years now, because it is a completely different process. You could say it is almost another profession. One must learn to master the wood, to get to know one’s barrels.
BC: BESSERAT DE BELLEFON champagnes are quite unique. What is your positioning strategy?
CT: We are positioned in the traditional network: wine shops, fine restaurants, individuals. We work only with the best properties. You will never find a Cuvée des Moines in a supermarket.
This has been the positioning of BESSERAT DE BELLEFON ever since it was acquired by the LANSON-BCC group in 2006. The effort to move upmarket included a redesign of bottles and a prices repositioning.
Still, we remain realistic despite the impeccable and very special quality of our cuvées. We know that BESSERAT DE BELLEFON is not the most iconic brand in Champagne. Although we have potential, we will have to work hard for a long time to catch up with our best competitors.
Exports are very promising. The export team has been sensibly strengthened, and we are opening a number of foreign markets while keeping our spirit of quality instead of quantity.
BC: Finally, Mr. Thiebault, which emotions do you wish to convey with your champagnes?
CT: I wish to share a sense of exclusivity, purity and simplicity. The best things are often the simplest; they are naturally refined, arousing raw emotions.
Everything in our production process is geared so that our customers can experience a special moment when they open a bottle of champagne Besserat de Bellefon.