Some Champagnes are going back to the land

Champagne, it is often said, celebrates the art of blending.

In the cellars of the best of the big houses, the chef de cave (the head of the winemaking team) selects from dozens of still wines, taken from different grapes grown in vastly different vineyards from many different vintages.

From these still wines, the chef assembles an ideal combination, which will then be bottled with a bit of yeast and sweetness. The resulting second fermentation in the bottle produces carbon dioxide, which creates Champagne’s sparkle.

This is how the best nonvintage Champagnes are produced. By the time these Champagnes are uncorked, the pleasures they offer will have little connection to the lands on which the grapes were grown. Instead, the Champagnes present, year after year, a consistent style embraced by the house.

Even as the vast majority of Champagnes are made in a similar fashion, a growing number now express a different point of view. Instead of wines that convey a house style, these Champagnes — often produced by small farmers who tend their own vineyards — reflect the characteristics of grapes grown in a particular village or area. They are specific, individual and occasionally quirky, rather than smoothly consistent.

Some producers have taken the notion of specificity even further. In the last 20 years, Champagnes in which all the grapes come from a single vineyard, or a single plot within a larger vineyard, have proliferated.

“It’s related to the return to prominence of vineyards and viticulture,” said Peter Liem, whose new book, “Champagne: The Essential Guide to the Wines, Producers and Terroirs of This Iconic Region,” chronicles the re-emergence of Champagne as an agricultural product rather than an object of urbane sophistication. “As people are paying more attention to their vineyards, that increasingly leads to winemakers vinifying different parcels separately.”

With more discrete wines at their disposal, Champagne producers have more tools for improving their blends. But these microvinifications also give winemakers the opportunity to highlight a truly distinctive wine by bottling it separately.

This is nothing remarkable if you are thinking of wines from almost anywhere else in the world. The Burgundy region was built on parsing the minute differences among vineyards, with the greatest respect given to those with the most instinctive characters.

But in Champagne, such differentiation represents almost a sort of heresy against the art of blending. For decades, Champagne marketing has emphasized the importance of such cellar work over the character of the vineyard.

“If you could transform Champagne into Burgundy, you would destroy it,” Rémi Krug of Krug Champagne, possibly the most prestigious house, told me back in 2003. Krug Grande Cuvée, one of the world’s great Champagnes, is indeed a masterpiece of blending, made up of more than 100 wines coming from dozens of places and vintages.

Yet, Krug is also responsible for perhaps the most famous single-vineyard Champagne, Clos du Mesnil. Since 1979, Krug has produced this blanc de blancs (Champagne made solely from white grapes) with chardonnay grown in a small walled vineyard in the center of Mesnil-sur-Oger in the Côte des Blancs. Krug has also, since 1995, bottled the most expensive single-vineyard Champagne, Clos d’Ambonnay, a blanc de noirs — made only from black grapes — from a tiny walled plot in Ambonnay. It runs from $2,000 to $4,000 a bottle.

Back in 2003, Krug called the single-vineyard Champagne “a contradiction wine.” If so, Champagne has been producing more and more contradictions.

Chartogne-Taillet, an excellent producer based in the town of Merfy in the northern reaches of the Champagne region, makes several fascinating single-vineyard Champagnes, including Heurtebise, a harmonious, savory wine made of chardonnay that is rich with creamy, chalky, umami flavors, and Les Orizeaux, made of pinot noir, that is pure, saline and practically weightless with the telltale scent of red berries.

R. Pouillon et Fils, a small producer based in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, east of the city of Épernay, has been making several single-vineyard Champagnes since 2007. Les Valnons is a rare blanc de blancs from the village of Aÿ, an area renowned for its pinot noir. The wine, grown on chalky soils, is intensely mineral and stony, almost austere, with fine saline and citrus flavors.

Pouillon’s Les Blanchiens, by contrast, is made up of pinot noir and chardonnay grown on soils with more clay. As is typical of clay’s influence, the wine is broad and voluminous, savory with an almost exotic spiciness.

These two utterly distinct wines might have been blended together. They might have made a more-complete single Champagne, though consumers would have lost the pleasure and fascination of comparing the two different expressions.

For Alexandre Chartogne of Chartogne-Taillet, who runs his family’s estate, the decision to make single-vineyard Champagnes is a matter of education, of trying to understand through the medium of the wine the character of the land in all its intricate, natural details, much as Cistercian monks did in France centuries ago.

“By choosing to work with plots, I continue the work of understanding and interpreting nature,” he wrote in an email. “I try to capture the natural wealth and translate it in the best way in my cellar, without modification.”

Dozens of growers are now seeking to better understand their terroirs through single-vineyard Champagnes. Often, the wines are superb.

Just to name a couple, Les Roises from Ulysse Collin, a blanc de blancs, comes from chardonnay grown on a south-facing slope in Congy, southwest of Épernay. It is broad, rich and intense, deep and long yet precise. It reminds me of a grand cru Chablis.

Les Béguines from Jérôme Prévost is made entirely of pinot meunier grown at his estate, La Closerie, in the village of Gueux in the Montagne de Reims. It’s a beautiful wine, pure and refined, with an edge of earthiness and a hint of red fruit.

The bigger houses, too, are getting in on it. Lanson recently released its first single-vineyard Champagne, Clos Lanson, a 2006 blanc de blancs produced from a tiny enclosed vineyard on a hill in Reims. It is pure, lightly creamy and graceful, a lovely, vibrant Champagne that will get even better with a few more years of age.

No doubt, some single-vineyard Champagnes are a result of fashion. Just as with extra-brut Champagnes — which evolved from a laudable effort to make drier wines into a faddish race to jump on the bandwagon — single-vineyard Champagnes are not necessarily better Champagnes. They are just a different expression.

While the proliferation of single-vintages is recent, the Champagnes have been much-sought-after curiosities for decades. The first of any prominence was Philipponnat’s Clos des Goisses, a steep, chalky, warm, hillside vineyard in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. When Philipponnat bought the plot in 1935, it recognized its singular qualities and started bottling it separately immediately. The 2007 is superb, fully of energy and persistent floral, chalky, red berry flavors.

Other producers here and there began making single-vineyard wines. Cattier started bottling its Clos du Moulin in 1952. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, a few others popped up. Perhaps the most influential explorer of Champagne’s terroirs has been Anselme Selosse of Jacques Selosse, who over the last 30 years or so has made many different sorts of terroir-specific Champagne and has inspired other producers to do so as well.

Single-vineyard Champagnes are largely a high-end pleasure. Less-expensive bottles, like the Chartogne-Taillet Champagnes, run around $85. But most cost more than $100 a bottle, while the Selosse wines can cost as much as $500 or $600, and Clos du Mesnil, $800 to $1,000.

So little is known about the terroirs of Champagne — or, to put it another way, so much that was once known has yet to be rediscovered — that the single-vineyard Champagnes are an odd sort of pleasure. Without knowing what to expect, as one might with, say, a white Burgundy like Meursault Perrières, the sensation is one of discovery rather than recognition. The recognition will come with drinking these wines over the years and noting the characteristics that distinguish one plot from another.

“As a consumer and as a student of Champagne, I’m really happy to see this proliferation because it helps us get a more detailed picture,” Liem said. “I don’t think this is the future of Champagne terroir, but these are really important tools for understanding it better.”

More Typical, But Still Good 

Single-vineyard Champagnes are unusual, rare and expensive, generally starting at around $100 a bottle. But good, moderately priced Champagne, made in the more typical manner of blending grapes grown in different places, is widely available, though rarely cheap. Expect to pay $45 to $55 for these six excellent, nonvintage choices, in alphabetical order.

Bérêche Et Fils Champagne Brut Réserve: Lively, savory, deep and rich, yet with great finesse. (Petit Pois, Moorestown, New Jersey)

Bruno Paillard Champagne Extra Brut Première Cuvée: Graceful, ample and elegant, with plenty of minerality. (Verity Wine Partners, New York)

Charles Heidsieck Champagne Brut Réserve: Toasty, voluminous and always surprisingly complex. (Folio Fine Wine Partners, Napa, California)

Chartogne-Taillet Champagne Cuvée Ste.-Anne Brut: Lively, resonant, vivacious and always satisfying. (Terry Theise Estate Selections/Skurnik Wines, New York)

Larmandier-Bernier Champagne Longitude Blanc De Blancs Extra Brut: Elegant and pure, with deep mineral flavors. (Polaner Selections, Mount Kisco, New York)

Louis Roederer Champagne Brut Premier: Energetic, harmonious and graceful. (Maisons Marques & Domaines USA, Oakland, California)

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