Since its inception more than a century ago, AR Lenoble has developed into somewhat of an anomaly in the region remaining solely family-owned throughout its entire history. One of the smallest houses in Champagne, AR Lenoble’s focus is on quality over quantity producing just over 26,000 cases per year.
AR Lenoble was one of the Houses we were most intrigued by on a recent trip to Champagne with Iberian Wine Tours. We had certainly heard of it but had never tasted it before and were unfamiliar with its unique family history.
We headed to Damery, a village not far from Epernay, to meet with Antoine Malassagne, the great-grandson of founder Armand-Raphaël Graser.
Antoine, together with his sister Anne, are the 4th generation now in charge of AR Lenoble. Antoine told us that his great grandfather was originally from Alsace and made his way to Champagne during the first World War. He purchased the building that houses the winery in Damery in 1915 and in 1920, began making Champagne.
When we asked where the name ‘AR Lenoble’ was derived from, Antoine smiled and explained that his great grandfather didn’t think ‘Graser’ would be a good representation of Champagne which he considered the most noble of wine, nor did he like the German names that were becoming common at the time (i.e. Krug, Deutz). “He chose ‘Lenoble’ because it had a nice association…and because it sounded French.”
Anne was the first of the siblings to be involved in the winery, taking over from their father in 1993. Antoine who was working as a chemical engineer, joined her in running the family business in 1996.
AR Lenoble owns approximately 15 hectares of vines made up of the 3 principal varieties that go into Champagne: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier. The majority of their plantings is Grand Cru Chardonnay in Chouilly. About 1/3 of their holdings is Premier Cru Pinot Noir planted in Bisseuil, while the balance (less than two acres) is Pinot Meunier planted in their home village of Damery.
“Each plot in Champagne is very small. The average is less than 0.4ha (less than 1 acre), so it’s very small. We have 15 hectares but many, many plots…I don’t have 2 or 3 hectares in the same place.” Says Antoine.
He adds that they outsource some grapes, mostly Pinot Meunier for their Non-Vintage (NV) brut.
Chouilly is one of only 17 Grand Cru villages in Champagne and AR Lenoble are one of just a few producers that use only Grand Cru Chardonnay in each and every one of their wines.
Antoine takes us for a tour of the winery and our first stop is to see one of AR Lenoble’s traditional Coquard vertical presses. He explains that they use only the ‘cuvee’ or first pressing for their wines. The first pressing is the initial gentle press of the fruit which produces the best juice.
“I have to press very slowly…if you crush the grapes the risk is to get colour of the juice and we don’t want to produce a red wine, we don’t want to produce a rose champagne, we want to produce a white wine. So I really appreciate these old presses. We load 4 tonnes and from these 4 tonnes we can extract 25.5 hectolitres, not more, not less. But we crush minimum 4-5 hrs…the juice goes down to the tank and when we get the juice, the right quantity, we stop the press and pump the juice to the winery and then we start the vinification.”
Harvest typically takes about 12 days, and while their yields are lower than average in Champagne due to their approach in the vineyard (i.e. letting the grass grow as a natural way to reduce yields), the most recent harvest while very good was a disappointment for Antoine in terms of quantity. “I really expected more but you know, I think the rain was missing and the weight of the clusters was quite low.”
According to Antoine, the essential ingredient to AR Lenoble’s house style is their use of reserve wines which he says are the key to their wines’ complexity.
All of their reserve wines are kept in either small Burgundy barrels of 225 litres or 5000-litre foudres helping to create their ‘perpetual blending’ system, very similar to the solera method where there is a continuous blending of older and younger vintages.
As we continued the tour of the winery, Antoine took us down to the cellar and stopped in front of a wall of racked magnums.
Over a decade ago, they began working with magnums as part of their perpetual blending system given champagne ages better and slower due to the ratio of juice to air. “Our magnums age minimum 4 years and after 4 years, we open the magnums, and we mix with the last harvest, and we start blending.” The result is a wine that is more complex and more integrated.
While interesting, the perpetual blending method isn’t unusual for a House focused on making the very best vintage champagne it can. What IS surprising is that AR Lenoble uses this method for their non-vintage wines—a very expensive and exhaustive process for an NV brut but the results definitely speak for themselves (see tasting notes below).
Antoine sums up the heart of the family’s philosophy in one word: Time.
“At Lenoble, you have to respect the time…time to harvest, time to age. Respecting time is the key to everything we do here.”
That respect for time also encompasses more than 100 years of consistency since AR Lenoble was established. The family’s strategy of maintaining independence from outside investors and staying true to Armand-Raphaël Graser’s vision is certainly paying off with exceptional wines and a steadfast dedication to quality over quantity. There is no doubt Antoine and Anne’s great grandfather would be proud that the winery is truly living up to its ‘noble’ name.
2018 AR Lenoble Intense
This wine is a blend of 25% Chardonnay, and 37.5% each of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
Just 2 grams/litre of dosage is added. The colour is a medium/dark gold. We pick up that slight autolytic character on the nose, and just a hint of baking bread. This blend, sold only in magnum, is based upon the 2018 vintage with 40% coming from reserve wines. This wine is appropriately named as it has a wonderfully intense flavour profile. Loads of complexity here too: notes of pear, citrus, hazelnut and minerals. The body is medium+ and the acidity matches it nicely. There is great depth to the flavours, not usually found in other non-vintage Champagnes. A serious gastronomic Champagne, and a great representation of the house style.
2012 AR Lenoble Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Chouilly
The Grand Cru village of Chouilly, the northernmost in the region of the Côtes des Blancs, is known to produce wines with a richer, creamier profile than the more mineral and austere wines of the other Côtes des Blancs Grand Cru villages. This beauty from the 2012 vintage stays true to the script. Possessing a medium body with medium+ acidity it does have a slightly rich texture that is perfectly balanced a streak of acidity. The 2 grams/litre dosage is expertly judged as the ripeness and fullness of the fruit really calls for no more than that. Notes of apple and mineral mix with biscuity flavours and spiced nut hints. A truly delicious Champagne showing all the pedigree of a top Garnd Cru.
2013 AR Lenoble Gentilhomme
Another great 100% Chardonnay from the following vintage is the 2013 Gentilhomme. Also sourcing fruit from Chouilly, this wine has quite a different character (the village of Chouilly has over 520 hectares and many different aspects). Medium to dark gold in colour, the wine has a lovely nose that shows a slightly floral character. Flavours of green apple, pear, citrus and mineral create a complex and character-filled wine. This is a powerful Champagne with real presence. While coming across as more dry than the Chouilly, it actually has a slightly higher dosage at 3 grams per litre. The finish is long and mineral infused.
AR Lenoble Les Aventures
Les Aventures is a 1/2 hectare plot in the village of Chouilly. This single vineyard wine (a rarity in Champagne) is the house’s Tête de cuvée. A blend of two great vintages, 2008 and 2009, this is another smashing blanc des blancs from Lenoble. This differentiates itself from the rest of the line up with the first sip. Whereas green apple and citrus defined the characters of the three other wines, Les Aventures takes us more into the realm of stone fruits: apricot and peach with hints of honey and spiced nuts. A wonderfully balanced combination of power and finesse, this wine really shows its quality. Just entering its plateau of maturity now, it will likely develop further for at least another decade. A triumph of winemaking.
35-37, rue Paul Douce