The venerable Champagne house of Ayala is one of the region’s oldest, and for a time, one of the most dominant. But times change and the fortunes of businesses, like people’s, can change as well. Ayala has seen both ups and downs, but based on recent tastings, we can tell you that Champagne Ayala is definitely back on top. These are now top-quality Champagnes at very fair prices.
Ayala was founded in 1860 by Edmond de Ayala (pronounced “eye-uh-la”). De Ayala’s family roots are from Spain. His father emigrated from Spain to Columbia where he eventually received the post of Ambassador to France and re-settled in Paris where Edmond was born.
Edmond worked at the Champagne house of Albrecht and married the owner’s daughter. The Albrecht Champagne vineyards and winemaking facility and Chateau were given to Edmond as his dowry. The vineyards were located in and around Ay, one of the Grand Cru villages of the Montagne de Reims.
Edmond found quick success with his Champagne Ayala. An important contributor to Edmond’s success was his younger brother Ferdinand. Ferdinand moved to London and cultivated many relationships among the aristocracy. He used these relationships to promote the Ayala brand amongst them and in England generally.
King George VI was a notable fan, as Ayala was his preferred Champagne. The reputation of the house continued to grow. In 1882 it became a founding member of the Syndicat des Grandes Marques, a collection of 24 of the most prestigious Champagne houses who banded together to promote the Champagne region across global markets. In 1908 it was awarded a Royal Warrant, signifying its official recognition of being able to sell its product to the Royal Family of the United Kingdom. These and other achievements helped propel Ayala into the top 5 largest Champagne producers by the early 1900s.
Ayala fell on hard times when it was destroyed during the Champagne riots of 1911. After re-building, the house was sold in 1922 to the Lefebreve family. Misfortune continued as the Great Depression struck in 1929 and in 1934 the house sold again to Britain’s Guinness family. Unable to work their usual business magic, it was put up for auction in 1937 and acquired by wine merchant Rene Chayoux. Ayala sold again in 2000 to the Frey Group who brought in former Perrier-Jouet president Thierry Boudin to run the house. A myriad of different owners was unable to stem the tide of reducing sales which had peaked at around a million bottles at the turn of the 20th century and fell to about 600,000 by the turn of the 21st century.
2005 marked the beginning of a new era at Champagne Ayala, with fellow Ay resident Champagne Bollinger becoming the new owner. Bollinger hardly needs introducing as it holds a reputation as being among the finest in Champagne, also a member of the Grande Marques and Royal Warrant holder and a major producer. The fact that it is the Champagne of choice of James Bond certainly has not hurt its stature among Champagne connoisseurs. Bollinger bought the winemaking and the brand but not the vineyards, so now Ayala is a negotiant house, buying all its grapes from other growers.
Ayala is an interesting choice for Bollinger to acquire. Prior to Ayala, Bollinger had not shown much interest in acquiring other winemakers, just other vineyards. So, to buy the winemaking and the brand without the vineyards is a step away from the Bollinger norm. But the acquisition has been a success. Quality has been on the rise. A brand-new winery was built in 2007 giving Ayala the tools to compete with the best. As a negotiant house, having Bollinger as a parent is a significant advantage. Bollinger has developed relationships with the region’s top growers. This now gives Ayala access to some of the top fruit in Champagne.
Stylistically, Ayala is quite different from Bollinger. Bollinger is mainly a Pinot Noir house, building wines of structure and power. Ayala’s focus is on Chardonnay and making focused wines of elegance and finesse. In addition to Chardonnay-dominated wines, Ayala focuses on low dosage (the sugar that is added to the wine to create balance and the appropriate style). Low dosage is on-trend today, but Ayala was one of the original pioneers of the concept. In the 1860s, when Ayala was getting started, Russia was a dominant force in the Champagne market, and Russian tastes were very influential on the style of the day. Then the style of Champagne was very sweet, employing about 100 grams per litre of sugar.
In 1865, Ayala introduced a much drier style of Champagne, taking the dosage level down to around 25 grams per litre. This drier style caught on especially well within Britain, where Ayala already enjoyed a strong foothold in the market and is somewhat instrumental in the acceptance of the drier style the world at large enjoys now. Today Ayala continues to be a champion of drier style Champagnes, with dosages ranging from 0 to 8 grams per litre. The house finds that low dosage compliments the Chardonnay style of freshness and linearity. Finally, only stainless tanks are used to ferment and age the wines at Ayala. This lends further precision to the Ayala style and contrasts with sister Bollinger who uses oak barrels as well as stainless to age and ferment its wines. Two related houses producing stylistically at opposite ends of the spectrum, but a united focus on their commitment to quality.
Perhaps Ayala’s focus on elegance and finesse has been so successful because their Chef du Cave, the Champenois term for winemaker, is female. Caroline Latrive is one of only a few women in Champagne to be a Chef du Cave. Caroline has been in the role for a decade now.
She clearly comes from the right stock for this job: born in Reims, the main city in Champagne, her father was an enologist and her grandfather a grape grower. Caroline has a degree in enology where her graduating class was 80% men. It is ironic there are so few women leading wineries in Champagne today, since it was largely women who throughout the region’s history that made some of the largest impact. Think of Madame Clicquot of Veuve Clicquot whose impact on production and marketing of Champagne was substantial. Or Jean-Aleandrine Louise Pommery, of Champagne Pommery, who, like Madame Clicquot, was forced to take over the winery upon her husband’s death. Coincidentally, Champagne Pommery was another major influence in creating the drier style of Champagne. Another wine-widow was Marie-Louis Lanson de Nonacourt who lead Champagne Lanson to acquire the powerhouse of Laurent Perrier. And of course, her current employer was for many formative years under the control of Lilly Bollinger, one of the great modern-day females and forces to be reckoned within the region of Champagne.
Upon graduation Caroline worked at Bollinger for a short while and then joined her father in his enology lab. After her father sold the lab she returned to Bollinger and transferred over to Ayala shortly after the acquisition. Caroline is one of only 13 employees at Ayala. She describes the house style as “Freshness, elegance and low dosage.”
Ayala’s biggest cuvée, not surprisingly, is their non-vintage brut, and is called Brut Majeur. Brut Majeur is a multi-vintage blend composed of 45% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir and 20% Pinot Meunier and is sourced from 70 different crus (vineyard plots) from across the region. Ayala has 120 stainless steel tanks allowing them to vinify the grapes from each cru in each vintage separately. Once the final blend has been selected and bottled, the wine rests in their cellars on the spent yeast cells for 3 years. Then the small dosage of 7 grams per litre is added to the blend and Brut Majeur is able to hit the market.
NV Ayala Brut Majeur Tasting Note:
Caroline’s goal of freshness and elegance is very well achieved in this non-vintage cuvee. Citrus notes mingle with undertones of yeasty bread dough. There is a wonderful lightness in the mouthfeel that combines with intense flavours of green apples and pear. The acid line gives it precision and adds to the freshness. 25 – 30% of Brut Majeur comes from reserve wines. The wine is aged in Ayala’s cellars on its lees for 3 years before disgorgement.
Excellent (CDN $73 at Gull Liquor Store)
Ayala No. 7
Ayala’s smallest production cuvee is their recently introduced and very limited release “Collection Ayala”. Only two Collection Ayalas have been released. The first was named No. 8. It is a rose vintage wine made entirely from the 2008 harvest and spent 8 years aging on its lees. Paradoxically, the No. 7 was released after the No. 8. The No.7 cuvee takes its name from the fact that all grapes were harvested in 2007 and that it is a blend from 7 different Grand Cru villages in the Cotes de Blancs and the Montaigne de Reims. The blend is 2/3 Chardonnay and 1/3 Pinot Noir. The 5 Cotes des Blancs crus were selected for:
Chouilly: generosity and finesse
Oger: fruit and opulence
Avize: chalky minerality
Cramant: structure and vinosity
Le-Mesnil-sur-Oger: liveliness and tension
The 2 Montaigne de Reims crus were selected for;
Ay: generosity and finesse
Verzy: liveliness and charisma.
Ayala only releases the Collection wines once they are ready to drink. This resulted in No. 7 being released after No. 8, a full 11 years after the harvest. With only 6 grams per litre dosage, this wine is classified as extra brut.
No. 7 is certainly a special wine. 2007 was overall a good vintage, but not a great vintage. Unlike its successor, 2008, which will stand alongside 2002 and 1996 as among the greatest Champagne vintages in a generation, 2007 was an uneven vintage that started off with a very hot spring that morphed into cold and humid summer. The heat returned in August and basically saved the vintage. The Pinots did not fare well under these chaotic conditions but some of the Chardonnay performed exceptionally well. Ayala No. 7 shows that classic Chardonnay character of tight focus and precision but adds some generosity with its fuller body to create a very balanced wine. One reason for its great success could be that it spent its extraordinarily long life on the lees in bottle, 11 years being something of a feat in itself, but also the fact that those bottles were not sealed during ageing with the traditional metal cap (like found on a beer bottle) but actually spent those 11 years under cork.
While this may seem only a subtle nuance to some, it in fact makes considerable difference to how the wines are raised, which the Champenois refer to as elevage. The use of a cork stopper during ageing is referred to as agrafé. Agrafé comes from the word agraffe which means staple, as in to staple together. Before the advent of metal caps, all Champagne was aged under cork. The cork was kept in place with a large metal staple that straddled the top of the cork and hooked under an extra-thick glass lip at the top of the bottle. When metal caps came along they became the closure of choice during ageing due to their much lower cost and the ability to apply them quickly with machines, whereas as agrafé must be done painstakingly by hand. The metal cap basically stops all air transfer between the outside and the liquid in the bottle. The cork closure allows just a tiny bit of transfer and that ages the wine differently. Proponents believe it adds complexity and character. We agree and certainly this is the case with No. 7. The result is a very traditionally made wine that is layered and exquisitely balances the focused linearity from the acidity with body and added complexity from the long ageing under cork. No. 7, in our mind, approaches the quality of the Tête de Cuvées of the larger houses, their best wines. Yet it sells for half the price of those elite wines. In fact No. 7 is one of the most exciting new Champagnes we have tried, and its favourable price point makes it highly recommended.
Ayala Collection No. 7 Tasting Note:
With this wine the dials are turned way up. The signature elegance remains, yet remarkably there are very intense flavours of apple, pear, lemon/lime, grapefruit zest, honey, almond and hints of nougat. Each time you return to the glass you pick up something new, such is the complexity of this layered and multi-faceted wine. At 6 grams/litre, the dosage is very well-judged, providing just the right offset to the strong backbone of acidity while retaining the purity of the delicious fruit. There is a gorgeous texture to this wine offering medium + body. A rare alignment of power and finesse, a gorgeous Champagne not tobe missed
Extraordinary ($139 +taxes at BC Liquor Stores *this is particularly good value for this quality level)