2000s Archive

What makes a wine unique? Location, location, location

Originally Published December 2002
More Champagne producers, and Champagne drinkers, are celebrating how each cuvée expresses its vineyards.

There was once a time when Champagne drinkers paid more attention to where the grapes were grown than to the name of the producer. They knew how to choose between a well-rounded Ambonnay, say, and a graceful Avize, much as Burgundy fanciers today consider the rival merits of a Gevrey-Chambertin's gravitas and the surface charm of a Volnay.

But that was long ago. Change began in the 17th century, when Dom Pérignon, a monk at Hautvillers in the valley of the Marne, found he could crush a grape against the roof of his mouth, say where it had been grown, and decide immediately into which vat the load should go. He was one of the first to understand the art of assembling Champagne's diverse qualities to produce a single wine with a style of its own.

Champagne producers continue to blend for balance, but they also want the result to reflect the characteristics of the vineyards they own. André Lallier, former owner of Deutz (now owned by Champagne Louis Roederer), once told me that the most important decisions affecting a blend are made not when samples of the year's vins clairs&mdashnewly fermented wines—are combined in assembling the cuvée for second fermentation in bottle. “They're made,” he said, “when land is bought or grape-purchasing contracts signed. The rest is fine-tuning.”

Until recently, however, what we were told about the composition of a Champagne blend was confined, for the most part, to the proportions of each of the region's three classic grape varieties: Pinot Noir for body; Chardonnay for grace and finesse; and Pinot Meunier for a fruity aroma. Yet as Henri Krug says: “It's more important to know where a variety was grown than how much of it is in the cuvée.” And in the face of growing competition from sparkling wines made all over the world, Champagne producers are now giving greater emphasis to the origins of their grapes. It's the vineyards that make Champagne unique, they're telling us, not the second fermentation in bottle—the méthode champenoise.

The French take for granted Champagnes that reflect a particular place, even a single vineyard. Though not easy to find, such wines are available in the United States. Look for the letters RM on the label (quite small): They stand for récoltant-manipulant and indicate a producer who uses only his own grapes.

While the wines of these independent growers are sparsely distributed here, there is broader availability of Champagnes from other producers—small and not so small—who depend mostly, and sometimes entirely, on their own grapes. Many offer cuvées from specific sites, and in some cases the characteristics of the site and the style of the house have converged to become one.

That's certainly the case with the wines of the Gimonnet family, growers at Cuis, a premier cru on the Côte des Blancs, since 1750. Their vineyard holdings extend into the adjacent grand cru villages of Chouilly and Cramant. “Cramant gives a comforting wine, round and with good structure,” Didier Gimonnet told me. “Chouilly is lighter but more expressive. The two complement each other. But it's the vivacious, low-profile wine from our vineyards at Cuis that draws together the estate as a whole. It adds freshness to the body of Cramant and verve to the elegance of Chouilly. Fortunately, we have old vines: It takes time for roots to go down deep enough to give full expression to the land.”

Of the several cuvées Gimonnet produces each year, the one called Gastronome is typically the most youthful; Fleuron is more evolved and nuttier (it has a higher proportion of Cramant); but in the Cuis Premier Cru, a crisp and airy apéritif Champagne, the intent to fit house style to vineyard character is most precisely achieved.

The most fabled liaison of character and style, however, is the Champagne of Salon, produced a few miles south of Cuis. Eugène-Aimé Salon, a successful Paris couture furrier in the late 1800s, acquired a patch of land at Le Mesnil-sur-Oger to satisfy a long-nurtured ambition to make a Champagne that he could have for the exclusive pleasure of his friends and clients. They loved it, so he bought a few more acres. They wanted more and asked if they could buy wine from him. In 1914, he went commercial and began buying grapes from Le Mesnil growers he trusted. But he made his Champagne only in outstanding years—and even then he sold off in bulk all but the best of his production. With rare exception, only Chardonnay grapes are grown on the Côte des Blancs—hence its name—so Salon sold his wine as a Blanc de Blancs (he was the first to use this term to mean a Champagne made from white grapes alone). His wine was the house Champagne at Maxim's in the 1920s, and by the advent of World War II, its prestige in Paris was firmly established. After the war, the firm was sold, and then sold again, and Salon faded into the background for a while.

It's now owned by Laurent-Perrier, whose management is supportive but careful to leave well enough alone, allowing Salon to work within its own tradition, at its own pace, and in its own style. The Champagne is still made solely from Le Mesnil grapes and exclusively in great years: There have been only 33 vintage cuvées in the last century, and production of any one of them has rarely been as much as 5,000 cases. The wines are held for many years before release. The 1985 was not considered ready for sale until 1999. Yet the 1990, currently available, has not only the opulence of its year—there's even a hint of late-harvest honey in its bouquet—but also the freshness of a wine bottled yesterday. Its style is pure Le Mesnil: delicate yet sumptuous, dry but silky-smooth. Salon is expensive. It's the Champagne for the man or woman who already has everything.

The Côte des Blancs attracts perfectionists like Gimonnet and Salon—perhaps because they feel challenged by the innate refinement of its wines. But in this zone of perfection, Anselme Selosse, of the Champagne house Jacques Selosse, in Avize, has earned himself a reputation as a perfectionist's perfectionist. Personally he is amiable and unassuming, more at ease in overalls than in a suit. But he reads everything, he absorbs everything, and he tries everything. His is the insider's Champagne, the one that now appears before dinner in the houses of those at the forefront of change in all the other wine regions of France.

Anselme Selosse himself is also at the forefront of the new mood in France, cultivating his vines organically and according to the position of the moon. “This business of the moon has nothing to do with waxing and waning or rising and setting,'' he tells me. “Look up in the sky, and you'll see that the height of the moon's path above the horizon rises and falls in a regular cycle. Every farmer knows the difference it makes if he plants or prunes when the moon is ascending or descending.”

Selosse believes in terroir, in the life of the land. “What does terroir mean if the integrity of the vineyard is not respected?” he asks rhetorically. “I see my vines as musical instruments. The land is the score. The interpretation will vary a little from year, but it's my responsibility to allow the vine to express the terroir honestly.”

Unlike Salon, where the wine is never in contact with wood, Selosse does ferment in wood, mixing the age and origin of his barrels and puncheons for maximum effect. He works to no timetable. “I taste the wines in April to see if they're opening up. I make my cuvées when the wines are ready.” He uses little sugar in the primary dosage that controls the second fermentation in bottle, so the pressure of gas in his wines is sometimes unusually low, a surprise to those who judge Champagne by its foam. “The mousse,” he says, “is there to open up the aroma and flavor. It expands the wine on the palate and makes it seem more voluminous.”

Subscribe to Gourmet