"Vinification parcellaire" is the new buzz word in Champagne. It basically means hand-crafted winemaking of a few rows of a village grower's best vines or of a single vineyard. The aim is to produce a champagne with a distinctive taste of the special bit of earth from which it comes. To use a musical analogy, a single vineyard champagne is like a solo instrument - a flute or bassoon - in contrast to a big house's blend that uses all the strings and brass of the full orchestra. One is not necessarily better than the other. They are simply different.
In truth, there's nothing really new about this micro, terroir-based approach to champagne-making. The Clos des Goisses, Champagne's greatest walled vineyard at Mareuil sur Aÿ, has been the source of superb single-site champagnes released in almost every vintage since 1956, the property having been bought twenty years earlier by the house of Philipponnat . “Goisse” in old French means hard work or a painful task, and you can see why when you look at the dramatic, plunging slopes - dropping at an angle of 45° towards the Marne canal. The vineyard workers shiver at the thought of working the hill in early march when icy rain chills their bones and mires them in mud. Otherwise,the 13-acre property is a dream vineyard,extending eastwards for 800 metres along the Bisseuil road and facing due south. So the vines on pure chalk soils can catch the rays of the sun at their full perpendicular strength, resulting in Pinot Noir grapes of terrific richness and power. For complete balance, Chardonnay plays a supporting role, giving verve and freshness to the blend. The wine is given a short spell in oak to round things out but avoiding any overt, woody flavour. Warmer vintages of Goisses are particular glories: I remember the '85 as the perfect mature champagne at a great 1996 dinner in Paris , as good with roast woodcock as with a slightly overripe tome de savoie. The current 1999 vintage is much more durable than many wines from this easy drinking vintage. It has a volume and texture more associated with a red wine rather than white, but is miraculously lifted by aromatic flavours of lemon and cinnamon that make it unmistakably great, racy champagne. Contact Les Caves de Pyrène (email@example.com) for prices.
Clos Cazals old wines
In the heart of Mareuil, Billecart-Salmon is one of Champagne's blue chip houses, renowned for its exquisite rosé. The finest quality red wine, a key element in this cuvée, used to come from a 2.4 acre plot of old Pinot Noir behind the Billecart family house. This walled garden vineyard is now home to the Clos St.Hilaire, a pure Pinot Noir champagne like no other. Its 40 year old vines lie over deep limestone 'tuffe' soils that may not be classically chalky, but Hilaire is as much a fine wine as champagne. The 1996 is a monument of substance and controlled power - just as remarkable is its sublime daffodil colour, lace-like mousse, mature fine-drawn scents of yellow peach and apricot, with touches of gingerbread. These are old-fashioned, barrel-fermented Pinot attributes enhanced by cumulative modern winemaking touches of a master, François Domi, one of Champagne's greats. You'll find a fine range of Billecart champagnes at Morton's restaurant club in Berkeley Square – it would interesting to compare the conventionally blended 1998 N.F Billlecart, an elegant classic, with the food-friendly 1996 Hilaire. The now rare 1995 Hilare is available retail for £165 a bottle (gulp!) from the serendipitous wine shop of Alan Goadby in Upton on Severn (+44 (0)1684 592568). Expensive, sure, but about £30 less than the going rate nationally.
Westwards to Aÿ, an even rarer champagne is Bollinger's Vielles Vignes Francaises. “To talk about this wine cultivated in the historic manner, is to fling oneself into the past and
boldly confront the archetypal taste of champagne”, says Ghislain de Montgolfier, Bollinger's president. Pinot Noir was the only grape available in the 17th century when the first sparkling champagnes were made. Three hundred years later it was the English journalist Cyril Ray who was so astounded by the wines from Bolliger's ancient Pinot vines, these Vielles Vignes Francaises, that in 1969 he persuaded Madame Lily Bollinger to bottle them separately. Two tiny plots by the Bollinger house, still yield minuscule quantities of extraordinarily intense champagnes that come from untrained vines that are allowed to sprawl close to the earth absorbing the full heat of the soil for optimal ripeness. The excellent 1998 is available retail from Berry Brothers (www.bbr.com). For the beautiful people, the softer 1999 li at Sketch, the swankiest place in Mayfair,is pitched at £560 a bottle!
Clos Cazals Family House
Further west to Dizy, Corne Bautray is the most surprising vineyard among several jewels belonging to the little house of Jacquesson. By rights, the Chardonnay produced here shoudn't be that exceptional: the vines lie high above the village,close to the woods and exposed to the southwesterlies. The soil is not classic pure chalk but heavier burrstone peebles and clay, which yields a strapping big champagne but one that finishes with a delicately saline aftertaste, raising the wine to the truly fine class. Corne Bautray is also remarkably consistent, shooting an ace in the foursquare, merely goodish 2000 vintage and a surefire success in the horribly difficult 2007 harvest. All the Jacquesson range are available from the Field Fine Wine division of Berry Brothers.
Finally, onto the Côte des Blancs, to happily recommend two gently priced single-vineyard Chardonnay champagnes as good as any.
Olivier Bonville, the son of the Avize grower Franck Bonville, is a rising star who uses wood sparingly even in his greatest wine from 100 year old vines. It's called les Belles Voyes, – intense yet dancing on the palate with hints of lemon and licorice for a great price of about £30 by mail order from Cadman Fine Wines (0845 1214011)
Not to be outdone, Delphine Cazals, Olivier's better half, has made the magnificent honey- and-minerals 1998 Clos Cazals, one of the finest single vineyard champagne to come out of the Côte in recent years. Mail Richards Walford firstname.lastname@example.org) for stockists. Salut!
Stop Press I have just signed a contract to write a new book on Champagne (my third) for a prestigious Anglo-American co-edition - tant mieux. It's due to be published in summer 2009 and will focus on the winemakers and the vineyards – but won't be too solemn, I hope.
Daniel Lorson, Director of the CIVC, confirms that the two communes of Germaine and Orbais l'Abbaye could be excluded from the revised Aire de l'Appellation as part of the redefining and possible enlargement of Champagne Viticole.
The new INAO are firing a political shot across the bows of the mighty (Moet, Vranken...) to remind them that no one will be escape the authorities' scrutiny. On a positive note, I am impressed by the list of 40 new communes (published in October 2007) as candidates for possible inclusion in a revised AOC: there are some fine villages in the Vesle and Ardre valleys to the north west of Reims, and intriguingly some sunny sites near Troyes, running south from Montgueux, which should provide some ripe golden Chardonnays".
It's always a good humbling experience for a soi-disant specialist to eat a few of his words about a new vintage in a marginal climate like Champagne's . I took the Eurostar to Paris and onto Epernay late last month, fearing the worst after experiencing some ghastly, cold, wet weather there through much of last August. On Christmas day, on my blog I wrote impetuously that the authorities may have fired the starting gun for the 2007 harvest (August 26) a couple of weeks too early before the returning sun had a chance to ripen the grapes adequately.
Renaissance church Le Mesnil.
It turns out that the vintage was saved at the end of August by a north wind which dried the grapes and stalled any incipient rot. I now understand why picking started when it did. But I note from a naughty peep at a fiche of quality evaluation sheets for the grapes coming in to a very Grande Maison a big variation in the grades (A – D) given to grape lots received at the start, middle and end of the harvest: e.g one lot 26 -30 August got a miserable D, a loud raspberry; those in the middle around 9-12 September gained Bs and even the occasional A; those at the end of picking, dropping generally to C level. What is absolutely clear is that 2007 is an uneven year, with some remarkable highs but several poor lows. It depends very much on the exact picking date and of course the vineyard zone.
Outsidel mural at Domaine Pierre Peters
The greatest surprise in 2007 is the fine quality of Chardonnays from the best sites in the Côte des Blancs – it's very much a year for grands terroirs. One of my first visits was to the exceptional Domaine Pierre Péters in Le Mesnil, having enjoyed wonderful hospitality from the village's growers the day before at the Fête de St-Vincent. After Mass in the lovely Renaissance church, the congregation was given a little blessed brioche – a Champenois tradition. Tasting the 2007 vins clairs with Redolphe Péters, whose family owns 17 hectares mainly in Grands Crus, I was impressed by the supple, pure grapefruit-like flavours from the lieu-dit of Les Mussettes (Le Mesnil) contrasting intriguingly with the more powerful fuller bodied La Fosse (Avize) where the soil has clay elements as well as chalk. The greatest of Péter's lieux-dits was as always the legendary Les Chétillons in Le Mesnil, one of the best bits of earth in Champagne: the top soil is very light, the vine goes straight down into a stratum of the purest chalk giving the wine an incomparable minerality that often takes a full decade for the finished champagne to really show its paces, though th e ripeness is there thanks to the south-facing aspect of this vineyard. The 2007 Chétillons is as Redolphe says “a difficult child but very promising.” For me, it has real punch and minerality, terrific length and a magnificent capacity for aging.
The 07 still wines from Montagne de Reims Pinot Noir, always a capricious grape, seem to lack overall the ripeness of a great black grapes year like 2002. But I did taste some fine wines from Aÿ, Mareuil, Ambonnay and Verzy in particular at Louis Roederer and Veuve Clicquot. The Widow's team are wisely in my view not going to release 2007 as a vintage year: it's too heterogenuous, there is a real problem with sufficient ripeness in Meuniers from the Marne valley, and it's a very difficult year in the Aube (Côte des Bar) where a lot of the crop was struck by hail. The best of Clicquot's wines will go into Yellow Label non-vintage, to enhance the quality of this famous label.
Winter foggy morning from Abbey d'Hautvillers over shrouded Marne valley.
On my last morning (25 January) I took a taxi ride up through the fog (the sun peeping through) to the Abbey of Hautvillers for a real treat, a Vertical tasting of recent vintages of Dom Pérignon with Richard Geoffroy. An interesting result for my notebook: the 2000, a touch foursquare but full of character; the 1999, all upfront, a grandstanding wine but lacking the substance of a truly great vintage; the 1998, an absolute classic, subtle, stylish and complex; the 1996, big and deep but not quite at the level of the 1998 (a controversial view?) Then two glorious DP Rosés: the 1996, all captivating fragrant-in-the-mouth red fruits flavous, very Pinot with a bracing balance of Chardonnay; the pink 1990, a show-stealer of evolved secondary “sweet” tastes of prunes and brioche.
Wine scribbling certainly beats selling insurance or sweeping the streets.