Traditionally, here we are talking about 50 to 60 years ago all of the ground wines for champagne were held in 205 l pieces or barrels. These barrels cannot be compared to today's more modern barrels where toasting elements are a choice method to influence how a champagne tastes.. The old pieces were used for decades, and probably added an element of richness to the champagne but not the toasting elements we know today.
It is also important to remember, one of the main reasons for the popularity of Barriques was quite simply the size and the abilitiy to transport them.
In the sixties saw the emergence of stainless steel tanks, which brought a number of new tools to the wine making process., most importantly temperature control and better hygiene. Due to temperature control one can preserve more aromatics, the champagnes are fresher and the mineral elements come more to the fore. The wines are however reductive as there is no or very little oxygen contact, they need longer to open up.
Krug and Bollinger are the two maisons that never dropped the barrels. Both allow the fermentation to occur in the barrels, Krug then put the fermented juice into steel tanks, Bollinger into magnums. In the eighties saw the emergence of the new barriques, where the toast element becomes the most interesting aspect.
The advantage of barrique is the oxidative element, which opens up the ground wine but also gives the wine more richness and texture. The big question is how mush aromas should a barrel impart. In the past typical barrel aromas such as coconut, vanilla and english custard were seen as failures but now are accepted.
Savart for instance ages the staves so that they have a minimum of toast aromas which can influence the aromatics of a champagne. In contrast producers like Suenen, Lahertes Freres or Doyard actively use new barrels, where the toasted element is prominent and stronlg influences the aromatics of the champagne.
The most interesting producer is Selosse. Selosse harvest exceedingly ripe grapes, ferments them in barrique barrels but prevents the malaolactic fermentation, which is unusual. The malolactic typicallysoftens and better integrates the roast aromas from the oak. Selosse is obsessed with the oxidisation process which should not be confused with the oxidative process. Selosse pushes champagnes to the limit, he has a cult following but what is interesting is his Exquise Sec which has a high dosage and no oxidative notes. He only makes 1000 bottles of this bottle but I am sure, if he were to make more nonaldehydic champagne, I am sure his followers would happily buy them and probably enjoy them more.
I think personally the aromas of champagne are delicate, the autolyse which is extremely important is seminal in giving a champagne its identity. It is a shame, when these aromas are sacrificied to too strong oak aromas which nullifies them.
Cement eggs and amphore
Cement eggs are becoming more and more popular and are an interesting addition to champagne making process. The amphore or the cement egg have a number of advantages, the wine is constantly in movement, this means one has a natural botannage (stirring of the lees)they are aroma neutral and like barrique barrels are oxidative, meaning they allow contact with oxygen. Benit Lahaye and Marie Courtin are two producer's who make excellent champagnes with cement eggs and amphore.