Single-vineyard bottlings allow France's revered houses to buck tradition
Ask a Champagne lover to name the greatest house in Champagne, and the answer will often be Krug. One of the region's most famous producers, Krug produces rich, regal wines defined by the quality and complexity of its blends - a typical Krug Grande Cuvee might include up to 100 different wines from six to 10 vintages, drawn from its legendary stock of reserves.
Recently, Krug released a new wine, the 1995 Clos d'Ambonnay - not a blend but made exclusively from a single vineyard. This isn't Krug's first single-vineyard wine: Since the 1979 vintage, it has produced a rare and luxurious single-vineyard Blanc de Blancs made entirely from Chardonnay grapes from the Clos du Mesnil, and the Clos d'Ambonnay is intended to be a Pinot Noir counterpart. However, it's Krug's first new wine since the 1979 Clos du Mesnil was first offered in 1986.
It might seem ironic, even contradictory, that a house known for its mastery of blending has chosen to release another unblended wine from a single parcel. Olivier Krug, director of the house, acknowledges as much, but he says, "This wine has an extraordinary character and personality, and also a quality that is up to the Krug standard." The astonishingly high price tag of the Clos d'Ambonnay, suggested at $3,500 a bottle, means that few people will ever get to taste it. Yet it demonstrates Krug's awareness of the growing interest in Champagne's terroir.
Krug is not alone. A growing number of single-vineyard Champagnes are being made, although they still remain a niche product. In 2004 Billecart-Salmon released the 1995 Clos St-Hilaire, from a parcel in Mareuil-sur-Ay just behind the winery, and a year later Taittinger unveiled Les Folies de la Marquetterie, from the vineyard around its chateau in the village of Pierry. Even Moet & Chandon, Champagne's largest producer, attempted three single-vineyard wines, although they were discontinued.
The appearance of Champagnes like these marks a departure from tradition. In a region long content with discussing terroir on a macroscopic scale, an ever greater number of wineries are willing to explore a sense of micro-identity - a single village, or even a lone vineyard. In turn, there is a growing awareness among consumers that Champagne can be a highly terroir-specific wine just like any other. This shift in attitude is significant, since, in effect, a micro-terroir wine is the very antithesis of conventional Champagne. Whereas a conventional blend seeks to tame wines that have too strong of a personality, subduing their character into a greater collective in order to create a particular house style, a micro-terroir Champagne thrives on its originality of character and encourages its expression to the fullest.
The concept of Champagne from one specific place is not entirely new. In 1921, Eugene-Aime Salon created the Champagne that bears his name, producing it entirely from Chardonnay and entirely from the village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, which was a radical idea for the time. Today, Salon is one of Champagne's most revered and exclusive wines. For many, this elegant and refined Champagne has come to epitomize the character of Le Mesnil.
In Champagne, however, each village is composed of dozens of different lieux-dits, or named vineyards, just as in Burgundy. While Salon is a classic example of a single-village Champagne, there have been famous examples of single-vineyard Champagnes as well, even more geographically precise in their expression of a specific piece of land.
The oldest, and still the greatest, is Philipponnat's Clos des Goisses, from a steep, south-facing vineyard in Mareuil-sur-Ay considered to be one of the finest sites in the entire region. Champagne house Philipponnat has owned this vineyard since 1935, and it has always been bottled separately as a vintage-dated, single-vineyard Champagne. Another historically famous site, the Clos du Moulin in the village of Ludes, has been the source of Cattier's superb single-vineyard Champagne since 1952; among those to follow in later years was Krug, with its Clos du Mesnil.
Many other single-vineyard wines are found among grower estates, who produce wine from their own vines and work on a smaller scale of production than the large negociant houses, which blend fruit from many different growers and areas.
The estate of Jean Milan, for example, produces exclusively single-village wines, grown entirely in its home village of Oger. Since 1985, the estate has made a Champagne from the Terres de Noel, a renowned vineyard located next to the estate.
"It was an unusual idea at the time," says Caroline Milan of her grandfather Jean's decision to bottle the Terres de Noel separately. "Historically the vineyard has always had a high reputation. The wine is always very particular. But also, the Terres de Noel is a sort of emblem of the estate, since our house is right here."
Although the quantity of wine will always be small, Milan hopes to produce it more frequently in the future. "It's interesting to make a Terres de Noel every year, even if it's only 3,000 bottles. It's a kind of photograph of the site and the vintage."
So what does it take to make good single-vineyard Champagne?
"First and foremost it requires a special bit of dirt or something that elevates an average bit of dirt," says author and Champagne expert Tom Stevenson. "Clos des Goisses is so special that even in the region's worst vintages it can produce great Champagne capable of aging 50 years."
The concept of place often called terroir, however, is not only about dirt, and Stevenson notes that other factors can contribute to a successful wine. "Without its walls and the protection and warmth of encroaching buildings, Clos du Mesnil would not make particularly good Champagne, but with the wall it makes a special Champagne," he says.
However, the creation of a micro-terroir Champagne - whether single vineyard or single village - also requires a certain volition on the part of a winegrower, a willingness to defy the traditional practice of blending that has historically defined Champagne.
Perhaps the main reason that more single-vineyard or even single-village Champagnes aren't being made is that, historically, neither producers nor consumers were accustomed to the idea. It wasn't the way that Champagne was marketed or branded. As American importer Terry Theise writes in his 2007 Champagne catalog, "Why do we assume Champagne must be a trans-regional blend? Because (the big houses have) lulled us into such complacency we simply haven't thought about it."
Among those who do think about it is Pascal Leclerc, proprietor of the Leclerc Briant estate in Epernay, who has been making single-vineyard wines since 1990. The boldness of Leclerc's vision lies not only in creating a single-vineyard wine, but in presenting a collection of three, all from the village of Cumieres. Leclerc feels that the individual identities of each parcel - Les Chevres Pierreuses, Les Crayeres and Clos des Champions - are distinct enough to warrant their isolation. "When we tasted the still wines each year," he says, "these parcels always stood out, consistently demonstrating particular characters and qualities, and so we eventually decided to bottle them separately."
While the inaugural examples of the three wines were from the 1990 vintage, subsequent releases have always been a blend of at least two vintages, in order to minimize the effect of the year. "We want the wines to express the terroir, not the vintage," says Leclerc. In 2007, the estate added two more single-vineyard wines: a Blanc de Blancs from La Croisette, in Epernay, and a 100 percent Pinot Meunier from La Ravinne in Verneuil.
As Leclerc points out, the issue of identity is at the heart of the idea of a single-parcel Champagne. In a blend, the identities of different wines are used as means to achieve a further goal; for a micro-terroir Champagne, the expression of identity is an end in itself.
At times, this expression can startle those accustomed to the more reserved harmony of blended Champagne. A single-vineyard Champagne such as Larmandier-Bernier's Vieille Vigne de Cramant or Egly-Ouriet's Blanc de Noirs possesses an unmitigated, intensely minerally character and a highly personalized sense of place that is closer in spirit to a still wine from Burgundy than to traditional Champagne. It challenges assumptions of what Champagne is and what it is capable of.
One of the most outspoken advocates of terroir-driven Champagne is Anselme Selosse, proprietor of Champagne Jacques Selosse in the village of Avize, who has developed a near-cult following for his powerful, expressive wines. "A wine shouldn't merely be good to drink - there are lots of things that taste good," says Selosse. "A wine should have a unique character and identity. It should be original. To be original means that it is abnormal. It is not normal - it is differentiated from other things of its type." The primary element that differentiates one wine from another is the place where it is grown, and for Selosse, expressing the character of this place is the paramount goal.
Selosse's wines are demanding, intense and uncompromisingly original. For his rare, single-vineyard Champagne called Contraste, made entirely of Pinot Noir from La Cote Faron in the village of Ay, he employs an unusual solera system, similar to that used in sherry: A portion of each harvest is added to an existing blend first established in 1994, creating a multi-vintage wine that expresses what he calls "a memory of the terroir." His vintage Blanc de Blancs is intended to convey the character of Avize, and is a combination of two parcels, the steep, south-facing Le Mont de Cramant and the shallower Les Chantereines. The two are deliberately blended to reflect Avize's two types of soils: chalk and clay. "For me, Avize is both of these things," insists Selosse.
Wines like these are at the forefront of Champagne's movement toward a more precise expression of terroir. It's fueled by an increasing interest among growers in artisanal identity, particularly among the newer generation, and also by an increasing awareness among consumers that Champagne is a wine like any other, capable of the same detail and expression of place.
Artisanal vs. industrial
It's possible that even the large established houses will rethink their methods, and it's not inconceivable that Champagne's biggest names could attempt more micro-terroir Champagnes in the future. As Selosse says, "The difference between artisanal and industrial is not one of size. The difference lies in the approach - an artisanal approach seeks to express identity and individuality, whereas an industrial one produces mass objects, all of the same type."
A particularly striking example of an established house embracing just this artisanal approach is Jacquesson, in the village of Dizy. Founded in 1798, Jacquesson had already long enjoyed a stellar reputation as one of Champagne's greatest houses. There was no need for Jacquesson's proprietors, the brothers Jean-Herve and Laurent Chiquet, to change a thing. Even so, today they are radically restructuring their portfolio, identifying specific, high-quality vineyard sites. "As we were improving our farming," says Jean-Herve Chiquet, "we began to rediscover the values of our terroirs."
The result is the creation of three single-vineyard, vintage-dated Champagnes, all from parcels owned by the house: a pure Chardonnay from the Corne Bautray vineyard, in the village of Dizy; a Chardonnay from Champs Cain, in Avize; and a Pinot Noir from Vauzelle Terme, in Ay. The full scope of the Chiquets' efforts won't be fully observable until 2010, when the 2002s are released as a collection. Their blended nonvintage wine still exists, of course, as does a blended vintage wine. Yet it's clear that the house's new identity is shaped in large part by the single-vineyard projects.
For Chiquet, a Champagne that expresses a specific place is as much a part of the region's tradition as a blended Champagne is. "If you think about the old labels from the 19th century, you see Ay mousseux, Sillery mousseux, Verzenay mousseux," he says, mentioning some of Champagne's most famous villages. "In a sense, we're just returning to our roots."
A selection of single-vineyard Champagnes
There are dozens of single-vineyard Champagnes to be found, from all corners of the region. Here are 10 of the most distinctive.
2002 Agrapart et Fils Cuvee Venus Avize ($135) From the vineyard of La Fosse, plowed by a horse named Venus, this barrique-aged wine is exceptionally pure and vividly minerally, released without any dosage. (Importer: Beaune Imports)
1996 Billecart-Salmon Clos St-Hilaire Mareuil-sur-Ay ($450) This 1-hectare clos is planted exclusively with Pinot Noir, creating a wine of rich aroma and subtle, spicy intensity. It's barrel-fermented, made without malolactic fermentation. (Importer: Robert Chadderdon Selections)
1996 Krug Clos du Mesnil Le Mesnil-sur-Oger ($1,100) A Champagne of sheer luxury, both in character and price, this combines power and elegance, showing a sleekly sophisticated texture and creamy, luscious depth. (Importer: Moet Hennessy USA)
2004 Larmandier-Bernier Vieille Vigne de Cramant Cramant ($99) Larmandier's vines in the vineyard of Bourrons are 45 to 70 years old, yielding a wine of extraordinary detail and finesse that's almost severe in its mineral expression. (Importer: Louis/Dressner Selections)
NV Leclerc-Briant Les Chevres Pierreuses Cumieres ($33) This is essentially anti-varietal, its three grape varieties pressed and co-fermented together. It's savory and rich, acquiring a smoky depth from the site's stony clay soils. (Importer: K&L Wine Merchants)
2002 Jean Milan Cuvee Terres de Noel Oger ($97) Flowery and fragrant, this reflects the character of Oger's sunny slopes, pinning down its succulent fruit with an insistently chalky undertone. (Importer: Terry Theise Selections/Michael Skurnik Wines)
2001 Pierre Peters Cuvee Speciale Le Mesnil-sur-Oger ($98) Grown in Les Chêtillons, one of the village's best vineyards, this is classic Le Mesnil in its chalky grip and laser-like focus, gaining a subtle and elegant complexity with age. (Importer: Terry Theise Selections/Michael Skurnik Wines)
1999 Philipponnat Clos des Goisses Mareuil-sur-Ay ($185) The original single-vineyard Champagne, Clos des Goisses is an intense, complex wine of aristocratic refinement and legendary longevity, needing 25 years or more to attain maturity. (Importer: ExCellars Wine Agencies)
NV Jacques Selosse Contraste Ay ($85) From La Côte Faron, this is a Champagne of exceptional vinosity, with clear, precise flavors and subtly resonant depth. It's Burgundian in its sensibility and expression. (Importer: The Rare Wine Co., Sonoma, CA)
NV Tarlant La Vigne d'Antan Oeuilly ($65) Pure Chardonnay from rare, 50-year-old ungrafted vines in the vineyard of Les Sables. It's extremely soil-expressive, possessing a spicy, earthy intensity. (Importer: Jon-David Headrick Selections)