Ayala does not sound like a French name for a Champagne house is because it is not French at all
In the mid-C19th Edmond de Ayala - a Colombian of Spanish ancestry - married the daughter of the Viscount de Mareuil, thus setting himself up to inherit the Champenois Chateau d'Aÿ and its vineyards.
Now owned by Bollinger, Ayala has been making Champagne since 1860; their approach is to use low dosage and a lower Pinot Noir content than Bollinger.
I sampled a range of their wines at the Cambridge Wine Merchants wine bar on Cherry Hinton Road as a guest of CWM owner, Hal Wilson.
There is definitely something of a family resemblance amongst these wines - an elegance that comes from gentle extraction, good fruit expression, leesy persistence and a grippy, pleasantly rasping sharpness to the acidity.
Brut Nature NV, £28.99
Made from 40% PN, 40% Ch and 20% Pinot Meunier with zero dosage; very pale sandy colour in the glass due to using the "coeur de cuvee" (i.e. excluding the watery, dusty first, and overly extracted last parts of the pressing and taking only the middle section).
The nose is quite restrained but with hints of orchard fruits and vegetal Pinot character.
The palate is leesy, with Pinot fruitiness, focused but rounded linear acidity and gentle fruit sweetness. A creaminess develops and the finish is persistent.
There is a good, fine mousse, good complexity and perfect fruit expression.
Brut Majeur NV, £25
This is made from the same base wine as the Nature, but has 8 g/l of added sugar.
The flavour profile is essentially the same but with added sugar, so the Majeur is a little fuller, weightier and more suited to food.
This wine proved more popular amongst those in the room, but I found the extra sugar did not bring anything more interesting to the wine and would have preferred the weightiness to come from complex fruit sugars.
Rich Majeur NV, £28
The same base wine again, but this time with 40 g/l of dosage, giving a wine that, whilst perceptibly sweet, is not a full-on dessert wine.
Again, the additional sugar did nothing to enhance the wine and felt like an unnecessary appendage.
Ginette our presenter, likened dosage to make-up for wine in that "it allows you to smooth over any imperfections". Later we learnt from her that this allows them to use different reserve wines in the blend, which also goes some way to explaining the different pricing.
It also means that the best reserve wines go into the Brut Nature which has to rely on pure fruit expression for quality and not added sugar.
Viewed in these terms, the Nature is a quintessentially natural beauty, the Majeur needs to put its face on before it goes out and the Rich Majeur is nipped, tucked, pushed up and squeezed in all over the place.
Brut Majeur Rosé NV, £33
An unusual rosé, this is 51% Chardonnay with the balance a blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and some still Pinot Noir for colour.
It is a pale salmon pink in the glass and froths enthusiastically on first pouring.
Initially, it has a sharp bite - there is red berry fruit and a touch of Pinot vegetality. Good acidity and leesy persistence.
I can't quite get my head around a rose that is mostly Chardonnay and does not have the weightiness of a Pinot-based pink fizz.
Light, elegant and subtle if a little confusing.
Blanc de Blanc 2004, £54
From 100% Chardonnay, it shows citrus, white flowers and honey on the nose.
On the palate, there is the sharp crispness of green apples, sherbet, grippy acidity and yeasty brioche.
Leesy and persistent, it feels extremely elegant.
I'm a little surprised to find this is the most expensive wine of the night as it's neither the oldest nor the most complex.
However, it is perhaps the most elegant wine and the price is driven by rigorous fruit selection, but to me this merely highlights the inherent limitations of a Blanc de Blanc.
Brut Millesime 1999, £48.50
By contrast, this slighly older, rather cheaper blend I found much more interesting.
Incredibly powerful, expressive and complex nose - fruity, vegetal, sour-hay and oxidative cellar mustiness.
Sharp, linear, fresh acidity; developed red berry fruit sweetness; a leesiness that become creaminess on the palate; persistent finish.
Great complexity and for me, the best wine of the evening. Not cheap in absolute terms, but worth the money as Champagnes go.
The Brut Nature NV is a great bottle of elegant, well-made youthful, non-vintage fizz.
If your pockets are a little deeper, however - or your rich uncle's paying - the Millesime 1999 demonstrates the added complexity that comes from an aged, vintage wine.
Ayala - http://www.champagne-ayala.fr/
Cambridge Wine Merchants - http://www.cambridgewine.com/