Visiting Champagne Ayala, Aÿ

Champagne Ayala are based in the village of Aÿ, but they are an oddity: this is Pinot Noir country, but their emphasis is on Chardonnay. A sister house to Bollinger, they are a little bit under the radar. They are completely separate from Bollinger in grape sourcing and winemaking.

Aÿ is in the centre of the Champagne region, and because of the river passing through it was an important historical centre. Epernay means ‘after Aÿ’. Historically, Ayala was one of the first houses to make a drier style, at a time when many Champagnes were very sweet. In 1865, Edmund de Ayala decided to launch a dry Champagne with a dosage of 22 g/litre while the French and English liked 150 g/l and the Russians preferred their fizz with 300 g/litre.

The sun sets over Aÿ, viewed from Ayala’s roof

They have 40 km of cellars, and as well as buying grapes from 80 hectares, they have 20 ha of their own vineyards. At the end of last year (2021) they purchased another 0.4 hectares of Chardonnay in Aÿ.

Ayala suffered in the Champagne rebellion of 1911. 1910 was a very cold year and many growers had no grapes to sell. The big houses had also been buying grapes out of the region, which had created a simmering tension that the bad vintage of 1910 tipped over into unrest. The growers rebelled and the first Champagne house in their path was Ayala, which they destroyed. But it was rebuilt three years later.

Caroline Latrive

Caroline Latrive is the chef de cave here, and has been in charge since 2012, although she began in the cellar in 2007. Before this she worked in the lab at Bollinger. They have seven small wineries at Ayala, with 120 vats between them, and are building an eighth. ‘It is so important for me to preserve the identity of each origin,’ says Caroline, which is why there are so many vats. Also, for a Champagne house of this size, they source from an unusually large number of Crus, around 60 in all.

The one we visited with Caroline is a new one, and it’s built with sustainability in mind. It uses half the energy of the older cellars, with LED lights and better insulation.

2021 was a difficult vintage in the region, affected by the double whammy of frost and mildew. They harvested 8500 kg/hectare, which is less than half of a typical year. Caroline says that it’s not a huge problem, though: they have nice quality and quantity of Chardonnay, their key variety.

‘It was a good vintage for us for Chardonnay,’ says Caroline. ‘It has a good equilibrium and a consistent style.’ They are using 40% reserve wine in blending this year’s base wines.

We tasted through a selection of the base wines that are part of this year’s blend, and then the final blend of these base wines that will shortly be bottled for this year’s Brut Majeur, their key non-vintage wine.

First, Chardonnay, which is the core of the blend

Cuis, Côtes des Blancs 2020
Lovely taut, chalky wine. It’s tight with great acidity and nice texture. Grainy and mineral.

Chouilly 2021
Wonderful aromatics with subtle matchstick, some floral notes, nice lemon and grapefruit. Great acidity and purity, showing nice reduction. Serious.

Cramant 2021
Linear and taut, fine and crystalline. Pure. Great acidity with a chalky mineral texture. This is really lovely. Serious.

Mesnil-Sur-Oger 2021
Very fine, citrussy, quite taut with some mineral notes. Lemony and very fine with great length and balance. Chalky, stony finish: really fine.

Then the Pinot Noir, which makes up 25-30% of the blend for Brut Majeur

Verzy Pinot Noir 2021
From the north slope of the Montagne de Reims, Verzy can be austere. This year it is more generous. Juicy cherry and lemon fruit. Very bright and fruity with nice brightness.

Aÿ Pinot Noir 2021
Lively and bright with cherry and cranberry notes as well as lemons. Lively and tart with good acidity with nice purity. Lovely fruit here with good salinity and tension and notes of blood orange. Superb.

Champvoisy, Vallée de la Marne, Pinot Meunier 2021
Vivid, bright and fruity with notes of cherries and orange. Lively with nice juiciness and a zesty linearity.

The blend of base wines for Brut Majeur, 2022 bottling

55% Chardonnay, 27% Pinot Noir, 18% Pinot Meunier. From 60 different crus, and the most of any one cru is 8%. Fresh with lovely citrus fruit and some mandarin, with a touch of salinity. Has a salty, spicy note with a touch of cherry. Juicy and linear.

Range tasting

Champagne Ayala Brut Majeur NV
This was discorged July 2021, and the base vintage is 2017. 45% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir, 20% Meunier, 7 g/l dosage. This is taut and linear with lovely citrus and pear fruit. It has nice texture with some lemony brightness, a hint of cherry and nice precision, showing really good balance and nice acidity. 91/100

Champagne Ayala Brut Nature NV
50% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir, 20% Pinot Meunier. No dosage, 4 years on the lees, base wine 2016. Very fine, chalky and mineral with lovely purity to the citrus fruit. There are some pithy hints but there’s also a good acid line. So fine and expressive with a direct, pure, fruity personality. 93/100

Champagne Ayala Rosé Majeur 2013
50% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir, 10% Pinot Meunier, with 5% still red wine to give colour. Disgorged in May 2021 after 3 years on lees (base wine is 2017). 7 g/l dosage. Slightly smoky edge to the lovely bright red fruits, with some nice taut grapefruit character. Very pure and fine with good acidity. 92/100

Champagne Ayala Blanc de Blancs 2015
The flagship wine of the house, this was disgorged in November 2021 with a dosage of 6 g/litre. Complex nose of citrus, spice and minerals. This has a combination of citrus and yellow fruits on the palate with subtle nutty, toasty notes, as well as lovely tension and balance. Mineral, saline notes here, too. 93/100 (UK retail £52)

Champagne Ayala La Perle de Ayala 2012
The previous release of this prestige cuvée was 2006. It’s 80% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir, all from Grand Cru villages – Chouilly, Cramant and Mesnil-Sur-Oger for Chardonnay, and Aÿ for Pinot. 6 g/l dosage, 8 years on lees. This is pristine. Very focused with lovely taut lemony fruit and some crystalline citrus notes, as well as a touch of salinity. Very bright and linear, but showing good concentration, and a lovely tapering, expanding finish. There’s a lightness of touch here, with superb balance. 94/100

Champagne Ayala No 14 Rosé 2014
This is the third opus of the Ayala collection. 60% Chardonnay, 405 Pinot Noir, from five different Grand Crus. Wonderfully expressive and fine with some toasty notes on the nose. Mineral and taut with a concentrated citrus core with a touch of red cherry and spice, some aniseed, and some saline notes. 95/100

Champagne Ayala Blanc de Blancs 2013
Taut and linear with lovely citrus fruit. Very fine and fresh with a mineral core. Linear and saline with great precision. 94/100

Champagne Ayala 2006
80% Pinot Noir, 20% Chardonnay. Complex, toasty and fine with citrus, pear and spice notes. There’s some structure here with a crystalline quality to the fruit. Fine with some lovely toasty characters. Shows great precision. 94/100

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