INTERVIEW WITH ODILON DE VARINE CHEF DE CAVES OF GOSSET

BEST CHAMPAGNE had the pleasure of interviewing Odilon de Varine Chef de Caves of GOSSET. This much-admired House was founded in 1584 and is the oldest wine producer in Champagne. 

Odilon de Varine GOSSET

Odilon de Varine joined GOSSET in 2006 and became Chef de Caves in 2016

In its early days GOSSET produced still wines, mostly red, but then in the 18th century, when the wines of Champagne began to bubble, the House embraced the trend.

Today, the GOSSET champagnes are famous for being full-bodied yet very elegant by avoiding malo-lactic fermentation so that the wines keep all their natural fruitiness and freshness.

Odilon De Varine, a joyful champenois of great pragmatism and with a very clear idea of what champagne should be, explains his approach to winemaking and to build the distinctive GOSSET style, year after year.

You will realize how his view on reserve wines is very different from the general wisdom in Champagne and yet how, through much longer aging, GOSSET wines reach a level of complexity that champagne aficionados love.

Read on to learn about this amazing House and next time you see one of their distinctive bottles on the shelf you will not hesitate…

BEST CHAMPAGNE: What characterizes the GOSSET style? What do you want to transmit with your champagnes?

ODILON DE VARINE: Champagne must give pleasure. Champagne should always be appetizing and never be tiring, never saturate the palate, it must always make you want another glass, with its appetizing, saline minerality.

Champagne is meant to be shared, with a friend, with a dish, with another glass. You do not share something heavy and tiring.

GOSSET Grande Réserve, the cuvée that best embodies our style, is rich, yet elegant, with a very distinctive saline finish, preceded by a freshness and fruitiness resulting from the absence of malolactic fermentation (MLF).

BC: Why this choice?

ODV: One of the peculiarities of GOSSET is to preserve the malic acid of the wines avoiding MLF to preserve the naturally fruity aroma of the wines and a certain freshness.

Once the first alcoholic fermentation is complete we let the wines rest on the lees, without tiring them by warming them to induce MLF.

Our wines are therefore much fresher, less oxidized, and express themselves in a more pleasant way.

But our wines without MLF need more time in the cellar to become smoother and consequently, we have today about 5 to 6 years of bottles in stock against an average of 2.5 years in Champagne.

Moreover, we obtain today in Champagne riper grapes, a little richer in sugar and less acidic, due to global warming, changes in the cultural mode, and changes in the clones of grape varieties used. So not undergoing MLF makes even more sense to us today.

But we also have always produced a champagne to use all our wines that undergo MLF spontaneously: GOSSET Excellence.

We add very little sulfite to our reserve wines and we keep them on their lees, which protects them from oxidation. Consequently, every year, we have reserve wines that naturally undergo natural MLF. We prefer to allow this MLF rather than add too much sulfite to our wines. These wines require more attention and more work but we are a small House and we can afford to do it.

BC: What is the role of reserve wines in building your style? 

ODV: Their role is absolutely essential. Every Champagne House has its ideas about reserve wines.

There is a tendency to use more and more reserve wines in the blends, because with a different raw material every year, you have to make a product consistent in style and taste, and for that, reserve wines help a lot.

They also allow the champagnes to be sold earlier because a shorter aging time of the base wines is offset by the age of the reserve wines.

Champagne GOSSET has a totally different approach to reserve wines. We start from the principle that the Methode Champenoise is based on in-bottle vinification, and it is that one that interests us, more than the one in vats. That’s why we do not use a lot of reserve wines in our cuvées, between 10% and 20% depending on the year.

Therefore, our cuvées must age, in bottles, under carbon dioxide (bubbles), on lees, in the cellar. We use reserve wines only to complement what the base year lacks. We do not create the constancy of taste with the reserve wines; they compensate with small touches what is missing in the base year, to recreate the style.

BC: Your own vineyard is limited in size. How does this impact the creation of your style?

ODV: Our own vineyard is actually very small. Therefore, we work with long-term purchasing contracts with vine growers, but also with four-year inter-professional contracts and one-off contracts from year to year.

We get the grapes where we want, depending on the year, which is for me an advantage. Overall we use about 70 crus from the whole Champagne region.

In addition, we do not press the grapes ourselves. We did in the past but to have juices that are less exposed to the oxygen we rely on external pressing centers that are as close as possible to the harvesting places. In this way, the time between the grapes being picked and pressed is reduced.

From these juices, we only keep the cuvées and resell the tailles. In certain years we may keep some tailles of Chardonnay if we find them interesting (Chardonnay tailles are more acidic than those of Pinot Noir and Meunier).

We vinify the musts in small vats, of different sizes, of 20, 40 and 60 hectoliters to separate the wines of different crus, and sometimes of the different vine growers or parcels in the same cru.

We use larger tanks for storing reserve wines that are grouped, not by year or cru, but by the grape variety of course and especially by the expressions they can bring to the cuvées, so by their organoleptic characteristics, like their maturity, acidity, length, bitterness, etc.

BC: Your choices of wines are based more on technical analysis or tasting?

ODV: At Champagne GOSSET, all wine choices are based on tastings and are then confirmed by technical analysis, because sometimes the sensations on the palate are different from what we could expect from the analysis.

But both are necessary because the tasting can also hide things that can be revealed with the analysis. But the final choice is always based on the tasting.

BC: What is the role of the dosage in your champagnes?

ODV: In Champagne, grapes do not always reach full maturity, and we must give them the balance that the aging on the lees does not completely bring.

The dosage adds the last touch of perfection to champagne, so it is a consequence of the wine.

All our tastings for dosage are done blind and the final dosage varies from champagne to champagne: between 6-8 g / l for some cuvée and 4 g / l for others, to obtain the same balance.

But, there are increasing numbers of champagnes with no dosage and they are not necessarily worse, they are just different. Every producer makes the wine he loves. There are extra brut champagnes that have a fantastic balance that do not require dosage and then some champagnes that need to be smoothed a little, because of a lower maturity of the grapes, through the use of certain vineyards rather than others.

BC: You are the oldest wine House of Champagne. How did you manage to always remain among the best Houses, in more than four centuries of history?

ODV: In Champagne, perpetual renewal is a necessity. Houses have disappeared, either because of financial problems or because of steadiness, rooted in their successes.

We were founded in 1584. If we had not been modern, to evolve in our way of doing things, in our minds, in our wines, we would not exist anymore.

There must be fundamentals, but they must not prevent evolution, renewal. In the last five years, we have launched for the first time, a Blanc de Blancs, a Blanc de Noirs, and the first champagne where we speak of age and not of vintage, “15 years de cave a minima“, a new concept. 

BC: Tell us about this new 15-year-old champagne. What is its specificity?

ODV: According to the Champagne appellation, a non-vintage champagne must remain in the cellar on the lees for a minimum of 12 months, and a vintage a minimum of 3 years. But it takes more than that for the champagne to acquire richness, maturity, creaminess. That’s why our Brut non-vintage champagne Grand Réserve ages in the cellar on average 4 to 5 years.

The idea behind this new champagne, bottled in 1999, is to optimize its very long aging time to 15 years minimum.

It is a cuvée made our own way, with few reserve wines, but where we look for complexity through the aging time on the lees which for us is paramount.

But we have other projects in progress and we will soon release a new cuvée. This constant innovation is fundamental to us. Without it, we would not be here anymore.

These stylistic exercises are limited editions champagnes that dare not included in the permanent range of wines. They exist to please us and of course our customers. 

BC: Is there a profile of GOSSET aficionado? 

ODV: There are consumers who only drink Champagne GOSSET. Generally, these are wine lovers who have drunk a lot of champagne.

They are mainly in France, our main market, where more palates are used to champagne, but also in the UK, in the US, and now in Japan, a country very sensitive to the wine culture and the art of living of the Western world.

BC: The competition of sparkling wines from other regions is increasing. What makes champagne unique? 

ODV: The terroir of Champagne makes our wines unique, with this chalky, salty sensation that can be found in certain wines and which is for me extraordinary. This brings an appetizing side to champagne with one glass that calls for another. No other wine region can reproduce this because it is the terroir of Champagne that brings it.

There are very nice sparkling wines produced in the South of England where the soil is similar to ours, but not the climate which is much milder than ours (continental and Atlantic). It is the equation of soil-climate-grape variety that makes champagne.

Here, the grapes never reach complete maturity but we do not need it because we are looking for this freshness, this finesse, this acidity, and salinity, together with a long stay on lees that brings structure and roundness.

Moreover, “champagne” is a magic word, thanks to the work of generations of producers for its evolution and improvement.

We must continue to defend our name and our generation must also bring something so that champagne remains magic, it is our collective good that we share with the world.

The biggest challenge ahead for us is to remain the king of wines, which makes the eyes shine when we talk about it. For this, champagne must remain approachable, never be too complicated or tiring. Champagne must remain magical, a moment of celebration.

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