Sténopé – a Champagne from Devaux and Chapoutier
Champagne Veuve A. Devaux was founded in 1846 by brothers Jules and Auguste Devaux, based at the beautiful Chateaux of Domaine de Villeneuve. It’s at Bar-sur-Seine, down south in the Aube region. The Veuve (widow) referred to was Madame Augusta Devaux, in charge of this House for several decades. After five family generations, it became owned by the Union Auboise cooperative in 1986. It comprises about 800 members and 1,500 hectares of vineyards. Devaux is the biggest producer in the Aube, releasing Champagnes at different quality levels and price points. All are good examples in their respective categories, while their top “D Collection” range of Champagnes are all exceptional wines. Sténopé is a relatively new addition; the first vintage was in 2008, and the latest release is 2011. It’s a carefully crafted prestige wine with an exciting story.
Sténopé is the product of a joint venture between Michel Parisot, the Cellar Master at Devaux, and the famous Michel Chapoutier. Chapoutier is a winegrowing legend with his roots in the Rhône. He is renowned for a comprehensive portfolio of biodynamic wines, including some of the very best examples of Hermitage and much more. Hence the credentials of this JV are impeccable.
Sténopé 2011 – a vintage wine, every year
The Pinot Noir grapes for Sténopé are all from a 0.5-hectare single vineyard. It has a southeast exposure in nearby Les Riceys. The JV purchased it and then converted the old vines to organics. Unusually for an Aube Champagne, a high proportion of Chardonnay is included with the Pinot Noir in the blend, roughly 50-50. Meanwhile, the Chardonnay is from the best grower plots a little further north, near Troyes. Pinot Noir dominates the vineyards of this southern part of Champagne, so only 15% is Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier hardly figures at all.
The intention is to make a vintage wine every year, not just the best years, which means it becomes a snapshot and precise record of its growing conditions. Consequently, each year is a different expression, true to its origins. In many ways, this is the antithesis of the Champagne tradition, where the blending of grapes, vineyards and years achieves consistency and a House style despite good and bad years.
But these days, Champagne is a broad Church, and modern winegrowing can create wines that would not have been viable in yesteryear. Indeed, the name Sténopé refers to the French word for the pinhole in a pinhole camera, which captures a single image. How apt!
It’s possible to make a high-quality vintage Champagne every year, but only if a winery is prepared to select the grapes at harvest-time from the best sites without compromise. It must also accept whatever small and varying quantities result, especially in adverse years. Unfortunately, the economics usually rule against this practice unless you are a big producer and can create a prestige flagship demonstrating just what is possible. Rarity is guaranteed then, but is the resultant Champagne worth it?
No expense spared
Consequently, Sténopé 2011 is just 6,387 bottles (and 893 Magnums). The inaugural 2008 vintage was even less; 3,800 bottles and 620 mags. In a world where, for example, the typical amount made of a prestige Champagne such as Dom Pérignon is some five million bottles each year, these quantities are truly tiny, and only a fraction will have made it to the UK.
The chosen grapes get the complete luxury treatment. Only the juice from the first pressing makes the base wines (vin clairs). Fermentation is mostly in 300-litre French oak barrels (between one and five years old) with a small proportion in stainless steel. Some of the base wines also undergo malolactic fermentation to soften the acidity. After finally selecting the best vin clairs and blending the wine, it’s time for the second fermentation in the bottle to create the bubbles, sleeping on the lees for seven years, picking up flavour and complexity. At disgorgement, a small dosage balances the wine to a Brut style, and the bottles then have another six months rest before release.
Sténopé’s luxurious intentions are clearly shown by the packaging, as it befits a Prestige Champagne. A trés moderne shaped individually numbered bottle within a stylish gift box. Meanwhile, the label lettering is also spelt out in Braille, as is usual for Chapoutier wines. And look closer – there’s a small dot on the label representing a pinhole.
Yellow gold in colour, it shows a beaded stream of tiny bubbles and persistent mousse. It also makes a lively crackling sound in the glass, which the French term crepitant. It has the aromas of brioche from the lees ageing plus citrus, elderflower, almond and a hint of honey. Full-flavoured and creamy, yet delicate and filigreed, there’s enough tension from the zesty lemon acidity to balance the flavours of candied fruits, poached pears and freshly baked bread. There are then additional hints of bergamot as it opens before a long praline finish. If you want a Champagne, that’s the definition of finesse; then this is it.
As for further ageing, who knows for sure, given so few released vintages? Yet it’s highly likely this will have a decade or more left in the tank and should improve yet. However, I think this wine is ideal for drinking right now. So many prestige wines need further keeping after you’ve bought them. Not here.
As for food, Sténopé is ideal as an apéritif and a great companion to delicate flavours. Native Oysters are a natural pairing, but so is fish like John Dory. Cheeses such as young Chaorce or Langres will be superb too.
Stockist and prices
Liberty wines import Sténopé alongside the other Devaux cuvées, and 2012 will be along soon. Meanwhile, Sténopé is currently available for £119.00 from Vinatis. Tres expensive, yet good value compared to other competing prestige vintages from the famous marques. Is it worth it? Of course!
And the Devaux-Chapoutier partnership doesn’t end with Sténopé. A rare still red wine comes from the Les Riceys vineyard, a Coteaux Champenois from 100% Pinot Noir, called En Chanzeau. I’ve not seen, let alone tried that wine yet; a review will be forthcoming if and when I do!
Champagne Veuve A Devaux and Michel Chapoutier
Domaine de Villeneuve