In Pursuit of Elegance - an interview with Caroline Latrive
At our Ultimate Champagne Evening in December 2018 we were lucky to have Champagne Ayala’s Blanc de Blancs 2012 as one of the night’s prestige cuvées. This outstanding wine, fully expressive of the house’s trademark elegance, will again be poured at our inaugural Champagne & Sparkling Wine Festival on April 25th 2019.
We sat down with Ayala’s Chef de Cave, Caroline Latrive, to talk about her love of Chardonnay, her endless pursuit of elegance and the uniqueness of the 2012 vintage, a millésime - her first at the helm of Ayala - she is particularly proud of.
The Wine Gang — Ayala has a very strong identity, built around a very fine expression and elegance. At the same time, the word in everyone’s mouth today is terroir. Is it easy to be expressive of terroir and, simultaneously, build and express a strong house style?
Caroline Latrive — We talk a lot about terroir, effectively. I use terroir expression[s] as a king of aromatic palette. I am very lucky, at Ayala, to be able to work and vinify each Cru, each grape variety and each vintage very differently and therefore to have a very diverse and extraordinary palette of aromas from which I can make my blends. I don’t really seek an expression of terroir in the final wine, but having this [underlying] identity is absolutely essential. Being able to properly express each terroir and seek the essential elements that will make the blends as harmonious as possible. And expressive of the house’s style and of each of its different cuvées.
TWG — So you don’t feel the absolute need to make a single-Cru cuvée for example?
CL — No I don’t have the need to make them to define my identity. From each [different] blend I expect a specific result and a certain style consistency for each cuvée. On the other hand, I allow myself to be much more creative to express the pure character of a vintage, Cru and/or geographical area. The Blanc de Blancs [all sourced from Côte des Blancs] is a good example.
So when you mentioned the “Ayala expression” I do have a need to search for it and it’s certainly not through Pinot Noir. [Ayala and Caroline Latrive’s work has always focused on and been known for Chardonnay] Part of the language is certainly the expression of each terroir’s character but, for me, it’s more about the expression of the winemaker. Expression is much more the realm of the winemaker.
TWG — It’s inevitable to talk about climate change. Do you feel that this is indeed becoming a problem? That the extremes have become more accentuated? Do you feel a tendency to increasingly sharp differences between different terroirs?
CL — Yes. I think there’s definitely a tendency towards sharper differences that strongly distinguish each terroir. But certain terroirs, in specific regions in Champagne, will suffer much more than others with the current changes.
TWG — But do you have complete faith in your growers to adapt and implement practices that might offset these changes?
CL — Well, I do have complete faith in the growers I work with but there’s also a tacit agreement among us to continuously exchange knowledge. It’s more of a partnership. When we visit a grower we don’t try to convince him to be a supplier, we motivate him to be part of Ayala’s project and to embody our philosophy. This means that they will accept shared choices on viticultural practices, farming, and harvest dates when the maturity is not at its highest level. Precisely to maintain what we consider to be the expression of Champagne Ayala.
TWG —Do you impose specific viticultural standards – such as lute raisonnée or organic certification? Or is it the grower’s choice?
CL — We don’t impose them. It’s their choice. But we do encourage them to follow that path. One of the ways to motivate them is to support them financially and technically throughout the process.
TWG — Your job is to make wine, certainly, but perhaps more than that, to blend. Blending is, I think, an extremely creative exercise. Do you have any references that are not necessarily within the wine world?
CL — Well evidently! We can make so many analogies. The first that comes to mind is music. When a conductor stands in front of his orchestra and seeks the best harmony for the best melody, it’s him that needs to make the chords sound stronger than the winds, or vice versa, to produce the result he wants. This is a very strong analogy for me and that I find particularly accurate.
Then there’s also painting of course. The choice of palette, the intensity, the composition, the infinite expressions of each colour – all the variations of blue, red,… I find this so similar to what we do while blending.
TWG — They are all composition exercises.
CL —Voilà! It’s all about composition. They are extremely creative activities.
But there’s another fundamental parallel: cooking. One needs to be able to make the most of each vinification or cooking method (cooking with steam, en vide, grilling…). It gives me a lot of pleasure to think of this analogy.
TWG — Do you think a lot about the gastronomic potential of your wines?
CL —Yes. It’s actually something consumers seek so, naturally, we’ve been increasingly exploring the best matches between what we pour in the glass and what is served on a plate. The world of gastronomy is also really enriching because it explores flavours and aromas but there’s also the structural side. The texture, the length, the body, the acidity, the sour-sweet contrasts. All this nourishes my inspiration for each assemblage.
TWG — We’re hosting our Ultimate Champagne Evening in December and one of the cuvées we will be presenting is Ayala’s Blanc de Blancs 2012 [Which will also be poured in April at our inaugural Champagne & Sparkling Wine Festival]. Can you tell us a little about this cuvée?
CL —Definitely. Presenting this cuvée is actually very emotional for me. I joined Ayala in 2007 and for five years I worked alongside the previous Chef de Cave, Nicolas Klym. It was him who taught me all about the Ayala style and how to work to express it. He retired at the end of 2011. I then took charge of winemaking and assemblage from the beginning of 2012 and therefore I’m very proud to present this vintage because it was the first that I did on my own!
TWG — And it’s a Blanc de Blancs!
CL —Yes, it’s a Blanc de Blancs, 100% Chardonnay, a variety I have such a strong affection for and affinity with.
TWG — 2012 was a very particular vintage, right?
CL —Indeed. It was far from being an easy year. The winter was dry and very cold. We had winter frosts, hale storms in spring, frosts in spring as well… it was really not an easy win. The Summer was relatively cold and rainy. But then, starting in mid-July, we did get a warm dry spell, that allowed us to overcome all the problems and arrive at perfect maturity. It was almost a blessing that we were eventually able to harvest under extraordinary conditions: maturity was perfect; the grapes were healthy, free from all diseases, botrytis, free of everything… so were able to make magnificent wines, specially for Chardonnay in the three Crus that I blended for this cuvée in 2012: Mesnil, which is the main component, Cramant et Chouilly. This was my specific selection for this vintage. Mesnil for its tension, freshness, acidity, backbone and also the ageing potential that it gives the wines. Cramant for the minerality, very specific of Chardonnay. Chouilly for me is a bit like a regulator between the other two; it’s the connecting element between the other crus and the three together to arrive at perfect balance. The Blanc de Blancs 2012 is, for me, the perfect definition of the Ayala’s style: the elegance, the freshness, the purity, the precision. It’s an expression of great aromatic freshness due to: of course, Chardonnay, fully vinified in stainless steel; alcoholic fermentation at low temperatures (18°C) allowing us to have a very harmonious development of the aromas; very low dosage (6 gr), just on the border Extra-Brut – Brut, precisely to have a full expression of the wine, in all its elegance, without make-up or artifice. Bringing together minerality and silkniness, what I seek in the Blanc de Blancs blends is an expression of Chardonnay in all its three stages: primary – citrus, white fruit, white flowers; evolving notes of cooked fruit that are already starting to come through in the 2012; and then the final stage of Chardonnay’s evolution, with toasted notes, pastry aromas with gentle notes of brioche.
TWG — Is this still a ‘young wine’?
CL — Absolutely, it still has an enormous potential. Underneath the minerality and silkiness there’s a vibrant, luminous line.
TWG — Ayala’s wines have this very marked long structure, very vertical. Is length something you seek?
CL — Yes, I really seek that. Something very ethereal but that pulls. It’s sometimes difficult to explain mouthfeel but is indeed like having a line that has no limits.
— posted by Ines Salpico