Clos des Goisses Triumphs in the Best and Worst of Vintages in Champagne

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.

Goisses7JClos des Goisses from the top of the slope with Epernay just visible in the distance.

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.

Champagne Diary part 1: Brut versus Zero Dosage. Visits to Laurent-Perrier, Ayala, and Philipponnat

“A zero dosage Champagne is like a woman without makeup,” they are fond of saying at Champagne houses that have chosen not to produce this style. “You need a little sugar to bring out full flavor variety.” You could not say that the trend to zero dosage is sweeping through Champagne, as nonvintage Brut remains the vast majority of production at all houses, but there is definitely a trend to reduce dosage in Brut and (sometimes) to go to the extreme of using no dosage. The big question is what does this do to the style: is zero dosage simply the same wine but without the touch of sweetness, or is it something different?

Zero dosage (or Brut Nature) or Extra Brut or Brut is not entirely reliable as a description any more. A general reduction in dosage in Champagne means that some houses are now making a Brut with dosage below 6 g, so it could in fact be labeled Extra Brut (the regulation is simply that Brut must be less than12 g, and extra Brut must be less than 6 g), but they usually stick to the Brut description out of concern that people might think there had been a change in style. “We don’t use Extra Brut,” says Bruno Paillard, “because the category has been ruined by poor wines coming from producers who want to say ‘my wines are purer than pure’.” Zero dosage is a direct statement, however, but the style isn’t as different from the Brut (or Extra Brut) as the name might indicate, because the usual practice is to give the zero dosage longer (as much as an extra year) on the lees: the extra time brings a richness that compensates for the lower dosage. Or put the other way round, a zero dosage champagne does not allow sugar to influence the taste: it’s a wine in which the quality of the fruits is directly exposed.

“The trend for zero dosage is nothing new to us,” says Ann-Laure Domenichini at Laurent-Perrier. “Veuve Laurent Perrier created the first non dosage champagne – Grand Vin Sans Sucre – around 1881, at the request of British customers. It was withdrawn around the first world war as it wasn’t to the taste of the French. Bernard de Nonancourt reintroduced it in 1988 when nouvelle cuisine started the trend for sauces without cream. He called it the naked Champagne.” Today the Ultra Brut comes from an equal blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay chosen for high ripeness and low acidity; in fact, it’s not made in years that aren’t ripe enough (such as 1996). Indeed, I am not sure I would peg this as zero dosage in a blind tasting, because the fruits are so ripe. “This is not the nonvintage with no dosage, but is its own wine,” Ann-Laure emphasizes. The style shows great purity of fruits, poised between Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs in style, with more precision than the Brut. The Brut is quite deceptive because dosage feels extremely moderate although in fact it is quite high at 11 g now that it has 50% Chardonnay (it used to be 12 g when Chardonnay was 45%). These are two different wines, both in the light, elegant Laurent-Perrier style, but personally I’m inclined to regard the Ultra Brut as a step up from the Brut in refinement.

Ayala is another house that has a history of lower dosage Champagnes. In 1865 it was only 21 g, about a third of the standard for the time. Old posters for Ayala from the early twentieth century emphasize its dry character. Since Bollinger bought Ayala in 2005, the brand has been repositioned – or perhaps you might say has returned to its roots of the early twentieth century – by focusing on a Chardonnay-driven, crisp, pure style. The flagship Brut Majeur (a blend of 40% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir, 20% Pinot Meunier), which accounts for about 80% of production, has a crisp, elegant style, emphasized by low dosage (7 g). The Brut Nature is exactly the same blend but has zero dosage; the only difference with Brut Majeur is that the lack of dosage is compensated by an additional year on the lees before disgorgement. So when I tasted the two side by side at Ayala, the current Brut Nature had a base wine from 2009, whereas the Brut Majeur had a base wine from 2010. The house style is recognizable in both wines, fresh and elegant, with a similar balance and without an enormous difference in perceptible sweetness; the difference for me is more that I find the Brut Nature to show more precision and purity of fruits. Another bottle of Brut Nature, disgorged somewhat earlier with base wine 2008, provided a fascinating contrast: extra time in the bottle has brought some development to a broader, less overtly mineral character: so zero dosage can evolve. Another demonstration of this capacity was the prestige Perle d’Ayala Brut Nature from 2002, which added savory brioche to the usual salinity, but, it has to be admitted, was not as complex as the Perle d’Ayala Brut of 2005.

Direct pairwise comparisons of Brut with Zero Dosage show that much more than sweetness is involved. The closest exact parallel was at Philipponnat, where the Royale Réserve Brut and Non Dosé both had base vintage 2010, and are exactly the same blend. The only difference was that Brut has 8 g/l dosage and was disgorged a bit earlier (December 2013) compared with the Non Dosé, which was disgorged later (April 2014). The non dosé has a more citric impression to nose than the Brut. It’s certainly drier, but more to the point, shows more minerality with suggestions of salinity at the end. But the Brut feels more like a full year older, with more sense of flavors broadening out with development. This seems to support the idea that zero dosage Champagnes mature more slowly (some people argue that they don’t mature at all), because the normal development of Champagne depends on the reaction of sugar with nitrogenous components in the wine. A fair summary is that the non dosage is less generous, less broad, but more precise. The main point is that the difference is not just a matter of the sweetness level, but the whole flavor spectrum is shifted from stone to citrus.

Everywhere I was able to perform a direct comparison of Zero Dosage with Brut, I preferred the former, not because it was drier, but because the fruits were more precise and more elegant, but I would be more inclined to have zero dosage with a meal and Brut as an aperitif. It is a fascinating comparison because so much more than mere sweetness is involved: it offers a whole new insight into Champagne.