In 1956, a small band of growers in the most southern region of Champagne, the Côte des Bar, started a small cooperative called Chassenay d’Arce. Now, 65 years later, it is a thriving company, making high-quality Champagne to rival the best of their competitors. And at a better price for the consumer. We have tasted the excellent champagnes of Chassenay D’Arce and discussed its commitment to the environment with winemaker Brice Bécard and CEO Manuel Henon.
The Côte des Bar is 87 miles south of Epernay, the unofficial capital of Champagne, and not at all far from Burgundy. It is in the department of Aube, and people use both names – Côte des Bar and Aube – alternately when they talk about the region. The big champagne houses have plenty of grape suppliers here; after all, the Côte des Bar has a quarter of the entire Champagne surface.
You can feel it in the atmosphere that we are a bit further south; the villages remind you a bit of Burgundy. It is a pleasant region with vineyards on well-exposed slopes. Pinot noir is the dominant grape with over 80% of the surface. 50% of all the pinot noir vineyards in Champagne is found in the Côte des Bar.
The soil has a bit more clay than further north. Here we have less chalk and more of the clay/limestone soil called kimmeridge, the same type of soil found in Chablis. Also, the climate is different. In Aube, it is a bit more continental compared to the northern Champagne regions, such as Montagne de Reims. “At harvest time, we can pick fully ripe grapes,” says Manuel.
Today, 130 families in 12 villages deliver grapes to Chassenay d’Arce. In total, the small cooperative has 778 acres. One exciting thing about the house is that they have more pinot blanc in their vineyards than most producers. Pinot blanc is one of the permitted grapes in Champagne, but it is grown on a tiny scale.
“We encourage and help growers to move to sustainable production,” says Manuel. Over a third of their total acreage is certified HVE, Haute Valeur Environnementale, a sustainable label issued by the French Ministry of Agriculture.
At the end of 2019, Chassenay d’Arce launched its first organic Champagne, a vintage 2013, and there will be more soon, Manuel promises. Various projects that benefit the environment, such as the installation of solar panels, are underway.
“Warmer summers mean that we are now harvesting riper grapes than before,” says winemaker Brice Bécard. “This means that we chaptalise (add sugar during fermentation to increase the alcohol level) less and some years not at all.”
To keep the acidity in the wine despite riper grapes, he has various tricks. One is to block the malolactic fermentation, wholly or partially. Another is, of course, to reduce the dosage, the small dose of sugar added at the end.
“We may also need to plant other grape varieties,” says Brice. “Varieties that are more adapted to the current situation. It is not carved in stone which grape varieties we must use. Champagne has not always used the grapes we have now.”
(Prices mentioned are consumer prices for purchases directly from the producer.)
Champagne Chassenay d’Arce Cuvée Première
“This is our flagship with 60% pinot noir, almost 40% chardonnay and a splash of pinot blanc”, says Manuel. Cuvee Premiere ages for three years on the lees. This wine is superb in a full-bodied pinot noir style. There are hints of ripe apple, strawberry and other red fruit, and it’s fresh, with a good length and a smooth finish. Manuel recommends it as an aperitif or with a barbecue. (24.90 euro/30 USD).
Champagne Chassenay d’Arce Bio 2013, Brut Nature
2019 was the first vintage for this organic cuvée with 100% pinot noir. The grapes come from three growers. The cooperatives first organic grower started to convert in 2009. She inspired several neighbours to follow suit. “We now have seven growers who are certified,” says Manuel. The wine is dry and crispy (it is a brut nature and you feel it) with lovely citrus aromas and discreetly toasty. It is savoury, quite elegant and with a good body. (36.70 euro/42 USD)
Champagne Chassenay d’Arce Vintage 2008 Brut
Vintage 2008 includes all four grapes of the house: pinot noir, chardonnay, meunier and pinot blanc. A full-bodied champagne with concentration and structure, ripe apricots, honey, white flowers and refreshing acidity in the finish. A superb champagne more for the dinner table than as an aperitif. (28.50 euro/33 USD)
Champagne Chassenay d’Arce Blanc de Blancs 2009 Brut Nature
Here, chardonnay dominates with 84%, which is combined with 16% of pinot blanc. A new vintage, 2010, will be launched soon. Complex, very long on the palate, intense, with citrus and floral aromas and hints of honey. Elegant and refreshing. (31.50 euro/37 USD)
Champagne Chassenay d’Arce Pinot Blanc 2012 Extra Brut
An unusual, 100% pinot blanc champagne. It has an extraordinarily high acidity, which I love, a certain saltiness and a roundness that complements the freshness. An exciting champagne, different and excellent. A perfect match with seafood, says Manuel. (45.90 euro/54 USD)
Champagne Chassenay d’Arce Confidences 2009
The prestige cuvée Confidences is 100% pinot noir. It is complex and full-bodied with a nose and taste of red berries. Very fresh and mouth-filling. Outstanding. (56.10 euro/66 USD)
Champagne Chassenay d’Arce Confidences Rosé 2012
The rose version of Confidences has 86% pinot noir (of which 13% red wine), 12% chardonnay and 2% pinot blanc. The Japanese love it with their sushi, says Manuel. Ripe red berries, some spiciness and white flowers in an intense and concentrated style but with finesse. A smooth finish. (66.30 euro/78 USD)