Cédric Thiebault has been enologist at Besserat de Bellefon since 1999 and became its chef de cave in 2006. An amiable, discrete, and rational man, he describes with great calm and clarity his house’s distinctive style and how he recreates it year after year, and how a very precise work in the cellar can make some clichés in champagne-making outdated.
Besserat de Bellefon was acquired in 2006 by Lanson-BCC. What does it mean to be part of the second largest group in Champagne?
As soon as Lanson-BCC acquired us, we adopted the policy of moving upmarket with our wines. Being associated with the second-largest Champagne group brought us several advantages. From a winemaking point of view, besides our grapes, we enjoy an important supply capacity of high-rated crus that match our style. Our own vineyard of 25 ha is mostly situated in the Marne valley, in Cumières and Verneuil. This combined large supply allows us to create a very particular, unique style of champagnes.
Tell us about your particular style.
The style of Besserat de Bellefon revolves around three basic principles that arise from our history: low pressure, which has been a house tradition since 1930; no malolactic fermentation; and a significant presence of pinot meunier in the brut and rosé cuvées.
The style of Besserat de Bellefon revolves around three basic principles: low pressure, no malolactic fermentation, and a significant presence of pinot meunier in the brut and rosé cuvées.
Our winemaking style is more reductive than oxidative with little racking and aeration, to preserve all the aromatic and aging potential of the wines. That is why Besserat de Bellefon wines are characterized by their finesse and elegance, with fine depth, but never with a marked evolution, even in wines that underwent considerable aging. You will never find oxidized notes in our wines. They are always fresh, with notes that are a little reduced rather than oxidized, with great minerality, and with a very saline, marine character.
You will never find oxidized notes in our wines. They are always fresh, with great minerality.
In our old vintage champagnes, you will indeed find aromas that are a little more vinous, a little more secondary, and tertiary. But you will always have this great freshness. That’s what we always look for.
Minerality is a term that can mean different things to different people. How would you define it?
To me, minerality in champagne is freshness and tension with remembrances of rock, chalk, and flint.
The bubbles of Besserat de Bellefon champagnes are 30% finer than those of traditional champagnes. Why this stylistic choice?
It was a historic choice. In 1930, the department store Samaritaine de Luxe issued a famous challenge to several champagne producers: to create a champagne that would accompany an entire meal because it would be lighter, rounder, silkier and creamier than any other champagne. As a result, since then we have been making champagnes with lower pressure. This way, the tactile impact of our bubbles in the mouth differs completely from other champagnes, with a very creamy and silky feel. It has also contributed to the overall balance of our champagnes since less pressure means less carbonic acid, which counterbalances the acid potential associated with the non-malolactic style.
The tactile impact of our bubbles in the mouth differs completely from other champagnes, with a very creamy and silky feel.
Why do you block malolactic fermentations, unlike most champagne houses?
Historically, before the 1960s, nobody in Champagne underwent voluntary malolactic fermentation. Since the 1960s and 1970s, it has become common practice in Champagne to induce them, thanks to enological advances. The introduction of heating systems in cellars also promoted malolactic fermentation, but this new way of making wine has partly altered the taste of champagne. Besserat de Bellefon has kept the original style of champagne without malolactic fermentation. There are real advantages in terms of aromatic finesse, aging potential, and overall balance of the wine. However, we are not fanatically opposed to malolactic fermentation: if we had to face a year particularly marked by an acidic character, we would give absolute priority to overall harmony, even if it meant undergoing some malolactic fermentation.
Your cuvées include significant amounts of pinot meunier. Why? Doesn’t it affect the longevity of the wines?
Besserat de Bellefon has always been deeply rooted in the Marne Valley (where pinot meunier is the most planted grape variety). We have always given priority to pinot meunier that accounts for 40% to 50% of our best-selling cuvées brut and rosé, and it is part of our style.
Pinot meunier has several advantages: it is generally riper than pinot noir and contributes to the balance of champagne by making it rounder and fruitier, which balances nicely the absence of malolactic fermentation that makes the wine a little more tense and crisper.
Pinot meunier balances nicely the absence of malolactic fermentation that makes the wine a little more tense and crisper.
I do not see any issue with the aging potential of our wines. If wines are well made from healthy and ripe grapes, the three Champagne grape varieties have remarkable aging potential. I am not saying that all the varieties have the same aging potential, and overall, chardonnays from grand crus have greater longevity and aging potential. But when we talk about aging, are we talking of 10-20 years, or 50-80 years?
Aside from the absence of malolactic fermentation, are there any other particularities in your winemaking process?
At Besserat de Bellefon we don’t practice centrifugation or filtration before the assemblage. The only filtering takes place after the wine is left on the lees. The wine is clarified only by natural sedimentation. We make one, two, or three rackings between alcoholic fermentation and blending. This way, the wines are nourished by their lees and get a certain complexity right after the first fermentation. If you remove immediately all the sediments and yeasts, the wine is not be nourished. We give our wines time to develop; we bottle them later in the year, in June usually. Another particularity is how we treat our reserve wines: we use the solera method of permanent rejuvenation, which brings continuity to our style.
We don’t practice centrifugation or filtration before the assemblage. This way, the wines are nourished by their lees and get a certain complexity right after the first fermentation.
And your prestige cuvée is aged in oak barrels…
Half of the wines in our prestige cuvée spent some time in barrels. Some wines are fermented in wood, while others are only aged in wood. We have been practicing with those barrels for quite some years now because it is a completely different process, almost another profession. One must learn to master wood, to get to know one’s barrels.
With our champagnes I wish to share a sense of exclusivity, purity, and simplicity.
Which emotions do you wish to convey with your champagnes?
I wish to share a sense of exclusivity, purity, and simplicity. The best things are often the simplest; they are naturally refined, arousing raw emotions. Everything in our production process is geared so that our customers can experience a special moment when they open a bottle of Besserat de Bellefon.