BEST CHAMPAGNE had the pleasure of interviewing Caroline Latrive, Cellar Master of Champagne AYALA, a small yet prestigious Champagne House based in the grand cru of Aÿ.
Caroline Latrive Chef de Cave AYALA

Caroline Latrive was appointed Chef de Cave of AYALA in 2011

The Maison was founded in 1860 by Edmond de Ayala, born in Paris to a Colombian diplomat, who settled in Aÿ when invited by the Viscount of Mareuil to learn about winemaking. There he fell in love with the Viscount’s niece, Miss Gabrielle d’Albrecht.

As the dowry for their wedding, he received the Château of Aÿ as well as some very prime vineyards located in Aÿ and Mareuil sur Aÿ. The love story marks the beginning of this House.

AYALA developed rapidly in Great Britain thanks to Edmond’s younger brother, who settled in London where he mixed with British aristocracy and introduced the House’s distinctive style to British connoisseurs, notably with the 1865 vintage that had a very low dosage for the time (22g/l).

Sadly, the House was completely destroyed in the Champagne riots of 1911, yet remarkably, it was rebuilt and resumed production by 1913.

The 1920s were a remarkable golden age during which AYALA produced over a million bottles each year, ranking the House amongst the top brands in Champagne and also according it the privilege of being one of the official suppliers to the royal courts of England and Spain.

After the World War II, the House went through a rather quiet period characterized by multiple changes of ownership that impacted on the relevance of the House.

Finally, in 2005, AYALA was acquired by BOLLINGER, who bought the property and the stocks of wine, but not the vineyards, and put in place an ambitious re-launch plan to restore Ayala’s former glory

Today AYALA owns 20 ha and the quality and precision of its champagnes have been further increased thanks to the careful work of Ms. Latrive and the overall guidance of its young and dynamic Managing Director Hadrien Mouflard.

In fact, the whole small team of AYALA is made of young and passionate individuals who are bound together by this ambition to put Ayala right back among the great Champagne Houses where it belongs.

The result is that today, AYALA is a “small” great house, an artisan of champagne-making, where the origin and selection of the grapes, well-executed blending, and a true passion for wine are all elements that guarantee the quality of Ayala’s champagnes.

Latrive, an elegant lady with a witty soul talks of her wines with great serenity and with a big smile on her face, proof of both her enthusiasm in what she does and the results achieved with AYALA’s champagnes.

In this interview, she shares her winemaking philosophies and describes with great clarity AYALA’s style, built first and foremost on elegance and freshness; the keywords of this House, which are always reflected in its members and its wines.

BEST CHAMPAGNE: What is your career path? How did you get into champagne and into AYALA?

CAROLINE LATRIVE: I am from Reims and my father, an oenologist, passed on to me his passion for champagne. As I obtained my diploma in enology, I had my first work experience at BOLLINGER where I discovered what winemaking under the greatest respect for traditions is.

After that, I became a consultant oenologist, assisting growers in expressing their own identities through their wines.

That was a very enriching experience, after which I went back to school to specialize in Quality with a Master’s degree in Wine and Champagne in 2004. This landed me a new internship at BOLLINGER, which eventually became a project of more than a year and a half.

Finally, in 2007, I was invited to join AYALA (bought by BOLLINGER in 2005) to assist the Cellar Master at that time, Nicolas Klym. I worked hand in hand with him until he retired in 2011 and during this period he passed on to me all the secrets and specificities required to craft AYALA’s champagnes.

BC: What has been the impact of BOLLINGER acquiring AYALA?

CL: With the arrival of Hadrien Mouflard (who also came from BOLLINGER) in 2012 as Managing Director, AYALA started a path to renew itself, under a new drive.

A lot of research was done, especially on the history of the House, to really identify our core values and redefine our identity and our style. This resulted for example in the choice of a black label on the bottles (used by AYALA in the past), elegant and contemporary at the same time, and redefining of our range of champagnes which now includes only 5 cuvées, and in which Chardonnay is always highlighted to my great joy (Latrive is a great fan of Chardonnay as she explains later on).

BC: How do you define AYALA’s style and how do you create it?

CL: AYALA is freshness, elegance, purity, precision, it’s pleasure at its pure state. Every cuvée is characterized by a silky texture, which also participates in this purity.

Brut Majeur (AYALA’s Brut Non-Vintage) is the best representation of our style, with its bright white fresh notes in the nose and on the palate: citrus, flowers, plum, and spices such as white pepper, as well as pastry notes of brioche and breadcrumb.

This champagne opens up on a remarkable freshness that is never aggressive thanks to its silky texture. The wine is balanced and precise with a certain minerality.

The large proportion of Chardonnay in our blends and the long aging on the lees are key components in the expression of our style. Personally, I have a particular affection for this grape variety, which I find amazing.

Chardonnay can sometimes be a little austere, closed, or very acidic during the tasting of the still wines, but if allowed to age, it expresses its richness and generosity, and a wide array of pastry notes.

BC: How does the origin of your grapes, i.e. the crus used, contribute to the creation of your style?

CL: I believe that diversity is a great source of richness, complexity and balance. If a cru fulfills my requirements and is a key component in the making of a cuvée, it doesn’t matter whether it is a grand, premier, or ordinary cru. In this regard our wide supply basin allows us to find the best that the Champagne’s terroir has to offer.

And I separately vinify each grape variety by their individual cru and year to maintain their identity, their expression, their specificity, and to have a very rich palette of choices for my blends.

BC: What is your approach to winemaking?

CL: All our wines are vinified and aged in small stainless steel vats to protect them from the oxygen, thus letting the wine express its primary aromas (from the grapes) and a genuine freshness, which is the pillar of our style.

In addition, in 2018 we added a new winery of 22 extra stainless steel tanks with a capacity of 3,300 hectoliters. Located in the old disgorgement building at AYALA’s historical site in Aÿ, this semi-underground winery was designed to include the aesthetic codes of the brand and to be energy efficient, consuming 50% to 70% less energy compared to a traditional winery (using thermal inertia).

Thanks to this new tool, the individuality of the crus, grape varieties, and vintages are preserved and allow me to have an even more diverse and varied choice for the creation of my assemblages.

BC: You perform malolactic fermentation (MLF) systematically on all your wines. Why this stylistic choice?

CL: The malolactic fermentation adds complexity to the wines and makes them less austere.

It allows the wines to express a wider range of aromas, especially in Chardonnay.

We perform slow MLF at 18°C that lasts up to a month not to “tire” our wines and give them slightly more body.

BC: There is a trend in Champagne, especially among small growers, to build a champagne style in the vineyard rather than with the assemblage, with mono-cru or even single-parcel champagnes becoming increasingly common. What is your take on that?

CL: By definition, champagne is a blended wine.

Single-parcel champagnes are interesting because they are the pure expression of a particular cru.

But I rather use this as an element in my blends because my goal through the assemblage is to create and maintain a constant House’s style, year after year. Hence my priority is to maintain this consistency in quality and taste.

To create such assemblage, one must have a real capacity to project the wine into the future, to imagine and anticipate its evolution because the champagne will be ready in 3-4 years, or 5-6 or even 10 years for some of our champagnes.

BC: All of AYALA’s champagnes are characterized by a low dosage. Is dosage still necessary, with increasingly riper grapes in Champagne?

CL: For our style, I look for maturity but not the over-maturity in the grapes. The keyword for our suppliers is to pick the grapes as soon as they reach the right level of maturity and the right sugar concentration in the berries to preserve the expression of the grapes’ primary aromas.

For me, dosage represents the final touch in the champagne and must be as subtle as possible to bring the right balance.

The dosage of our champagnes is 7 g/l for our non-vintage cuvées and 6 g/l for our vintage cuvées.

For our Brut Nature (with absolutely no dosage) we prolong its aging in the cellar. There the wine will further take advantage of the autolysis and thus become smoother, rounder, richer, to the extent that we can release it without any dosage.

The right maturity of the grapes, their irreproachable quality and great sanitary conditions at the harvest, combined with a long aging on the lees are key components of this wine of great purity and precision.

This champagne also proves our capacity to produce high-quality wines without any makeup.

BC: What are the most interesting and most challenging aspects of your job? How do you feel being one of the very few female Cellar Masters in Champagne?

CL: The most exciting and fascinating part of my job is probably the assemblage, as this stage of winemaking calls for all our senses and much creativity.

AYALA is a House at/of human scale (employing less than 20 people), very open and welcoming.

I am very proud of the team that I bring together for a common project. Mine is a great job of passion and exchange.

Just as I do with my children, I feel the responsibility to guide and closely accompany my wines to let them fully express their potential and their finest qualities.

BC: What does champagne mean to you? What would life be without champagne?

CL: Champagne is celebration, joy, sharing. Champagne is an integral part of my life. Life without champagne would be so sad.

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