Driven by the need to ensure consistency of winemaking in a marginal climate, the common model in Champagne is overwhelming: blend between varieties, blend between terroirs, blend across vintages. While consistency is certainly a remarkable achievement, especially given the scale of production at larger houses, is it unreasonable to look for something more, for an expression of individuality, for a range of variation? In visits to Champagne, I found a handful of producers who reject the model of blend, baby, blend.
“We have done things differently,” says Jean-Hervé Chiquet at Champagne Jacquesson. “Why does our main wine have a stupid number instead of a proper name like everyone else? The concept of nonvintage, of being completely consistent, began to frustrate my brother and me. In 1998 we were still making a classic blend, we were working on the 1997, and it was very good but it was too Chardonnay-dominated and would be impossible to reproduce in another year. So we made another blend. But afterwards we realized that we’d made a wine that wasn’t as good. So we decided we should make the best wine and we identified it by the number of the cuvée.”
The current release is cuvée 737, and has a base year of 2009. Reflecting the richness of the base year, it has more of a direct fruit impression than 736, which with base year 2008 has a more citric impression, or than 738 (about to be released, based on 2010) which is more aromatic than the others. The reserve wines that supplement the base vintage are also handled differently. “There was an accident in 2007, and the result was that we had too much of the cuvée. We kept it separately as a reserve. It did so much better than the usual reserve that we continued to do this.” So basically each numbered release consists of an assemblage from a base year supplemented by the assemblages from the previous two years. There’s more sense of variation between releases, without going to the extremes of completely reflecting the vintage; the advantage is a sense of discovery with each release, the disadvantage is a certain lack of predictability.
“We want to have Champagne that really tastes of where it comes from, that’s why we make single vineyard Champagnes,” says Sophie Larmandier at Champagne Larmandier-Bernier. Producing wine only from their own vineyards on the Côte de Blancs, Pierre and Sophie Larmandier try to represent their vineyards by biodynamic viticulture (“yeast is part of the terroir,” says Sophie), vinifying the wine in wood, and keeping it in the wood on the full lees until bottling. Wood of various sizes is used, with the more powerful wines, like Cramant, going into barriques, and the more delicate, like Vertus, into foudres. Blending is relatively limited, as all the vineyards are on the Côte de Blancs, and almost all the vines are Chardonnay: the nonvintage cuvées Latitude and Longitude showcase the minerality of Côte de Blancs, Terre de Vertus is a zero dosage premier cru that exhibits a saline delicacy, and the Vieilles Vignes vintage from Cramant stands out as the richest wine in the lineup. The distinctive character here has an authenticity far from the massaged quality of most Champagne.
De Sousa is another biodynamic producer making wines of character. The interesting thing here is the way the style develops, from fruity for the Brut, mineral for the Blanc de Blancs, powerful for Caudalies nonvintage cuvée, and then quite savory at the top end for Umami and vintage Caudalies. Umami is a vintage made only once so far. “We work quite a bit with the East,” says Erik de Sousa, “and on a visit to Japan a chef made a tasting for us based on umami. I wondered how to transmit the concept of umami in wine. We select cuvees from the still wines that have the quality of umami. It only happens in a rounder and riper vintage, just once since we had the idea, when 2009 presented itself.” These are very distinctive and flavorful wines.
Champagne Jacques Selosse has a reputation for being something completely different, and indeed his wines are somewhat controversial, adored in some quarters, but criticized by others for being made in an overly oxidative style or for showing too much oak influence. Anselme Selosse rejects the idea of consistency every year. “I prefer that each wine should be different. I do not want the wine to be the same every year,” he says. “There is a false idea that the vintage ends when the vigneron decides to harvest, but conditions after are different too – which is why malo is left to happen or not happen,” he explains. Bottlings from individual lieu-dits started in 2003 (they carry the notation lieu-dit on the label). Today there are six lieu-dit cuvées, three Blanc de Blancs and three Blanc de Noirs. As nonvintage wines, each represents an assemblage of recent vintages, the idea being to display terroir rather than vintage. In fact, with time this may develop into something of a solera system, reflecting Anselme’s fascination with Sherry. For me it seems that the oak is not so much directly obvious as indirectly, by its effect in increasing richness. Certainly these are powerful wines, suited for a meal more than an aperitif. The style shows a wide breadth of flavor and a strong body, sometimes with a trademark touch of minerality or salinity on the finish. They tend to be seem mature, reflecting the generally oxidative style of winemaking. These are wines that make a statement.
Champagne Salon scarcely needs any introduction, but here is the ultimate rejection of blending across vintages: only vintage wine is made, and only in those vintages deemed good enough. These are not always what you expect. “Sometimes there is a vintage that is astonishing that you don’t find elsewhere, and the reverse,” says Audrey Campos at Salon. I haven’t done a systematic check, but my impression is that Salon does not make a release in the warmer years, which may often be those that are regarded as more successful at other houses. The style of Salon is to maintain high acidity (malolactic fermentation is always blocked) and aim for wines which may be austere when young, but which will age for decades.
There’s a common feature to all of these very different houses: dosage is always minimal. There’s virtually nothing that rises out of Extra Brut, and the dosage is more likely to be absolutely minimal. This is what lets the character shine through. I suppose it would not be possible on the conventional model, because the dosage has a damping down effect that is part of the means for achieving consistency. In fact, taking that thought further, I’m inclined to wonder whether you can really see the difference between, say, Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs so effectively at Brut as at Extra Brut. Anyway, anyone who wants to see expression of place or variety in Champagne should try these wines: it’s night and day compared with the blandness of most blends.