Champagne Castelnau

The French term ‘Hors Categorie’ may not be familiar. It was first used to describe special stages in cycle races, the toughest and steepest hill climbs, that were ‘beyond classification’. When Champagne producer Castelnau launched a range of one-off, limited edition wines that would be unique blends of Crus, vintages and ageing regimes, they chose the name to signal that they would be ‘aiming for the top’. This tasting was to celebrate the third release of the range, tasted alongside the second release.

The project began in 2016, Castelnau’s centenary. The first release was CT 2115 released in 2016, followed by CCF 2067 in 2018 and now CM 1993 in 2021. The naming? Each is the initials of a specific Hors Categorie hill climb stage, along with its height in metres.

Unusually, the base wines are barrel-aged in oak for up to one year after fermentation, in barrels from both Burgundy and Champagne’s own Argonne forest. The wines spend a long time on the lees: for the CCF 2067 that was five years, for the newly-released CM 1993 just over six years. Another unusual aspect is that the addition of the liqueur de tirage (the yeast and sugar blend that starts the secondary fermentation) is deliberately lower in sugar to create a lower pressure in the final wine.

Established in 1916, Castelnau was bought in 2003 by CRVC, a cooperative cellar that controls over 800 hectares of Champagne vineyards and is known for its long ageing of wines.Though still subject to final ratification, in 2020 it was announced that CRVC/Castelnau was to merge with another very large co-op, Nicolas Feuillatte, which will form a very major new business with over 6,000 grower shareholders.

Winemaker for these wines was Elisabeth Sarcelet, who joined CVNE in 2002, but who has just handed over to new Chef de Cave, Carine Bailleul, at the time of this tasting. CRVC is also signed-up to sustainability charters that will reduce overall carbon footprint by 15%, and see herbicide free farming across their estate, by 2025.

The wines are distributed in the UK by Castelnau Wine Agencies.

The Wines

(2021) 'C.M. 1993' is not a vintage date: it refers to the 1993 metre height of the Col de la Madeleine. In 2013, when the components of this wine were assembled, it was one of the 'Hors Categories' climbs of the Tour de France. Ninety percent of the base wine was barrel fermented, in new barrels from forests in Champagne. A slightly lower liquor de tirage has also reduced the pressure slightly, for a less aggressively bubbly style. It is a blend of 55% Pinot Noir, 30% Pinot Meunier and 15% Chardonnay from 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2012. 5,100 bottles were disgorged in July 2019 with a dosage of 6g/l. A terrific nose, where there is vanilla and a touch of toast overlaid on mushroom and truffle, confit lemon and a suggestion of sweeter peach. It is fresher than the C.C.F 2067, for me it has more nerve and vitality, the rolling mousse leading onto mouthfilling but super-fresh flavours, a beautifully elongated palate where acidity shimmers to a fine, tapering point.
(2021) This cuvée named after the Col de la Croix de Fer, the Hors Categories stage of the Tour de France, where riders climbed to 2067 feet to the summit. That was in 2012, when this wine was laid down to be disgorged in May 2017. It blends 45% Pinot Meunier with 40% Pinot Noir and 15% Chardonnay, with 85% of the blend being 2010 vintage (fermented and aged for a year in barrel), along with 15% from 2011. Only 3,600 bottles were produced, and once again a lower tirage means it has lower pressure than most Champagnes. Dosage is 5g/l. Somewhere between butercup yellow and gold, the nose shows lots of vanilla, dominating a light earthiness and bruised apple fruit. In the mouth it is gently effervescent, and the maturity of this bottle, #3,151, gives more of the lightly oxidative but honeyed style, before freshening citrus and apple acidity, plus a lick of saltiness, balances the finish.

4 comments

  1. Well done on explaining the “concept” Tom.
    Someone might gently remind the marketing department that the very simple ‘Mis en Cave’ explanation was too much for anyone latch on to and nearly did for Charles Heidsieck.
    The concept is clearly Bonkers!
    I might just as well release a cuvée 96 to commemorate the year I cycled past the Krug building.
    That 95 pointer sounds wonderful, your description has me wanting to try it and I shall indeed seek it out.
    I can of course always ask my merchant for that bottling……”You know, the one that mentions 1993, though that has no thing to do with the year of bottling, oh, nor any of the years in the assemblage…..doh!”

    1. 🙂 I have to agree that linking each release to a special stage of the cycle race is a concept that is being strained to breaking point Ray! It’s clearly a marketing angle, but one that I think just makes the releases harder to follow in many ways.

    2. I agree with you both and get the feeling it will only appeal to a very small target audience of Champagne-loving TdF fans. As soon as “Hors Categorie” was read I assumed the initials related to the mountain climbs in that gruelling test of strength and endurance and it didn’t take too long to work them out (with CT 2115 (not tasted here) being Col du Tourmalet ;-}. Just as well there are so few bottles made or they may have ended up with a huge stockpile, followed by a renaming exercise.

      1. Yes. It was all beautifully explained by Castelnau’s CEO at my tasting, but I guess he doesn’t come free with every bottle 🙂 Still lovely wines, but maybe a branding rethink could be in order…

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