Vintage Champagne is a rarity. Most houses produce a vintage only in the best years, typically around three times a decade; lesser vintages are never seen, but just blended into the nonvintage. I’m not sure if Clos des Goisses is unique, but it’s certainly an exception as a vintage wine is released virtually every year, “It’s a special spot,” says Charles Philipponnat, “we’ve released a vintage every year in the past thirty five except two when we didn’t make one, and one when we decided not to release it.”
Clos des Goisses is one of the most striking sites in all Champagne, a narrow band of a steep slope perched across the river at Mareuil sur Aÿ. The topsoil is very shallow, the slope ensures drainage, so the vine roots penetrate well into the chalk base. It’s one of the very few genuine clos in Champagne, and Philipponnat have owned it since 1935. Alcohol is unusually high for Champagne, at 13%, due to the ripeness of the site.
So you can get an unparalleled sense of vintage from Clos des Goisses. At a dinner with Charles Philipponnat organized by Bordeaux Index in London, wines were arranged into pairs on the basis of aromatic relationships, rather than presented chronologically. First came 1980 and 1997, because of a shared tendency to grassiness. In the case of 1997, Charles Philipponnat thought this showed as Angelica (an aromatic grass). One of the most varied impressions of the evening, this changed in my glass from toast and brioche to ginger and then to tea. The 1980 is steadier, with a nose poised between herbal and spicy, and a savory impression with vegetal overtones. I don’t believe I’ve had a vintage Champagne from 1980 before, and it’s certainly a stunning demonstration of the capacity of the site.
Next came 1996 and 2002, two great vintages joined by high acidity. The 1996 runs true to form; with 6 g/l of malic acid – malolactic fermentation is always blocked for Clos des Goisses – it has a tight structure showcasing precision of the fruits. Classic for the year, it shows well in comparison with the grand cuvées of other houses. By contrast 2002 is softer and more elegant, in fact it gives an ethereal impression of floating on its bubbles. For me, this pair gave the most contrast between any two matched wines.
1990 and 2000 were extremely ripe vintages with very large personalities – “more representative of the usual character of Clos des Goisses,” says Charles. The 1990 certainly seemed to be the wine of the night: the palate offers perfect balance between broad mature flavors with tertiary notes and lovely lacy acidity, which gives a sense of precision. This vintage epitomizes what Clos des Goisses is all about. The 2000 hasn’t developed nearly so far but gives an impression of a younger version of the 1990 with years to go.
Finally the 1976 was paired with the 1995. It’s a tribute to the character of Clos des Goisses as a wine (as opposed to an aperitif) that they could be matched with the cheese course. The 1976 is fully mature, with a savory impression that becomes a little vegetal in the glass. It conveys a more mainstream impression than 1980, but shares with it a feeling that there’s not much to be gained by holding on for any future disgorgements. Curiously the 1995 gave the impression of having been disgorged before the 1976, although in fact it was the other way round. A second bottle gave a fresher impression, but I still didn’t get that sense of infinite depth that came from 1990 and 2000.
Bottles came directly from Philipponnat and were relatively recent disgorgements. My sense of the older or lesser vintages is that at this point they need to be enjoyed fairly soon after disgorgement. 1990 and 1996, however, clearly have character to develop in the bottle; and 2002 is a mere baby. Clos des Goisses shows as one of the great Champagnes. Dominated by Pinot Noir, in great vintages it’s as deep and broad as any grand cuvée, and in lesser vintages it still comes over with great character and interest. Vintage absolutely shines through.