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Single Vineyard Champagne - Tom Stevenson in The World of Fine Wine

ALL FOR ONE, AND ONE FOR ALL? SINGLE-VINEYARD CHAMPAGNE (The World of Fine Wine  Issue 49 2015)

Houses may have been the early pioneers,but over the past ten years growers have sent the number of single-vineyard Champagnes rocketing, to 120 and rising. Tom Stevenson introduces a tasting shared with Essi Avellan MW and Andrew Jefford in which they set out to identify the rare sites that really merit such special treatement and the producers who translate them most successfully

THE GROWERS NOT ONLY DOMINATED THIS TASTING IN TERMS OF NUMBERS, BUT THEY ALSO DOMINATED IT FROM A QUALITY PERSPECTIVE, WITH 24 OF OUR COMBINED 36 TOP-PLACED WINES. THAT IS NOT TO SAY THAT THE HOUSES DID NOT DO WELL

1ST – Prévost Closerie
2nd= Ulysse Collin Pierrières
2nd = Cédric Bouchard Roses de Jeanne

Ulysse Collin Les Pierrières Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut NV   (TS 19)
(12.5% ABV)

EA | Medium-deep lemon. Soft fudge-and-apple nose. Underlying biscuity and leesy complexity, with sweet vanilla notes and oaky tones. Mild oxidative note. Positively crisp palate, fluffy mousse and mouth-filling, round structure. | 15.5

AJ | Lemon-gold; gentle mousse. Soft, lemony, piled knickerbocker-high with whipped cream: attractive and well away from the faintly dour aromatic norm of the dryer end of the tasting. By contrast, there’s scant evidence of the aromatic contours on the palate; this is a quite a steely, lunging, sappy Champagne, with a stony finish. An attractive combination; clever cellar work from what is presumably a cooler site. A little new oak snuck in here? It’s just a little bit too taut and green at the very end for me for a really high score, but well worth buying and trying. | 16.5

TS | Oaky, but beautifully oaky. The lemony oak is not seamless but does melt into the fruit, which is deliciously spicy, and remains there all the way through its long, tapering finish. I’m not a great lover of oak in Champagne, but I have to take my hat off to this cuvée, which has elegance, class, and finesse. Gorgeous! | 19

 

Cédric Bouchard Roses de Jeanne Côte de Val Vilaine Brut (TS 18.5)
NV (12.5% ABV)

EA | Peach-hued medium-deep color. Lifted, oak-toned, overwhelmingly powerful nose. Sweet impression. Overoaked. Intense palate; would be great to see how it is underneath the sweet, oaky coating. | 13

AJ | Mid- to old gold; steady mousse. This one is a little bit obvious on the nose, with a little bit of DMS [dimethyl sulfide], which I find a turnoff. Coarse, careless nose. Rather acidulous and then dosage-balanced on the palate. | 10

TS | Lovely, clean, fresh, lemony-toasty, yeast complexed aromas, with intense, super-clean, yeast-complexed fruit on the palate. | 18.5

 

Jérôme Prévost La Closerie Les Béguines Extra Brut NV   (TS 18.5)
(12.5% ABV)

EA | Medium-deep lemon. Fine, toasty, rich, and evolved nose. Sweet fruitiness and plenty of depth. Gorgeous coffee and cream notes, with burned-sugar charred nuances. Promises a lot. Mature on the palate, with age-derived calmness. Full-bodied and crisp, with good linearity. At a great drinking age now, with some potential left to improve. | 18

AJ | Fuller gold, rather torpid mousse. Terrific bready aromas here; like stumbling into the boulangerie shortly after five in the morning. Very enticing. Deep, full, rich and very generous for an Extra Brut, with wonderful-quality raw material: grand architecture of fruit, vinosity, length, sap, and wealth. Completely dry, yet doesn’t seem dry or drawn at all; lovely flesh on the sculpted cheekbone. Rigor, purity, and generosity; hard to better that. Whose vineyard? | 18

TS | Youthful toastiness in the aroma and on the finish. Nicely timed disgorgement. Lovely mid-palate plumpness derived from good yeast-aging. A classically constructed Champagne of individual style and character. | 18.5

 

TOM STEVENSON ON THE TASTING

For this single-vineyard Champagne tasting, 60 wines were submitted by 38 producers, mostly growers, including five who were not even in Essi Avellan’s list of just two years ago. This clearly illustrates how fast-growing this embryonic category of Champagne is.

Essi highlighted the “low- or no-dosage policies [that are] aiming for maximum authenticity and transparency,” and there was indeed an above-average proportion of Brut Nature (18 percent) and Extra Brut Champagnes (40 percent) in this tasting.

In his summary, Andrew states a preference for Extra Brut, whereas Essi and I had preference for Brut, but it was far less marked. The inherent difficulty of producing a low- or no-dosage style in Champagne is due to its intrinsically lean structure, so when it does work and the result is harmonious, it must be applauded. It is much easier to produce such styles in Franciacorta, where the slightly warmer clime provides a plumper base wine, whereas low- and no-dosage styles are difficult for Trentodoc, which has a much leaner structure.

Surprisingly, no fewer than 26 of the 60 wines were Non-Vintage, and you have to wonder about such a development. Is it a logical strategy for single-vineyard Champagnes to be produced and sold without a vintage?

THE CORE QUESTION IS, DO SINGLE-VINEYARD CHAMPAGNES EXIST BECAUSE THEY HAVE ANY INHERENT ABILITY TO PRODUCE SOMETHING EXTRAORDINARY ON A CONSISTENT BASIS?

How a vineyard responds to the climate is one of the most essential elements of terroir. Each year the terroir imprints itself on a wine according to how the vines have responded to that vintage, and thus a single vintage is a pure expression of individual terroir. This is lost when blending two or more years. Losing the pure expression of individual terroir does not necessarily devalue its quality. Eight of my top 12 wines were Non-Vintage, as were six of Essi’s top 13. Only Andrew had a clear preference for Vintage, with just two of his top 11 wines being Non-Vintage.

Still, the fact that a Non-Vintage grabbed any of the top spots—even just two, as in Andrew’s case—demonstrates that a lack of specific terroir expression does not detract from the quality of a Champagne. It is more about being true to the concept of terroir and how a producer—particularly a grower producer— presents his domaine. It goes without saying that all Non-Vintage single-vineyard Champagnes should carry an easily understood code indicating the age and, ideally, disgorgement date, much like Ulysse Collin and others do. This is a basic requirement, whether the Champagne is from a single vintage or not. If it is from a single vintage and is being released after three years of age, then it is ridiculous not to proudly show its vintage. If it is from a single vintage and is being released after less than three years of age, then it does not deserve to be promoted as a single vineyard Champagne, because in all but a few rare (and unpredictably occasional) cases, an exceptional terroir will require more than three years on yeast to show its potential. If it is not from a single vintage and the only reason for labeling it as a single vineyard is simply to express a point of difference between a grower’s Champagne and the region-wide blends of a major house, then do not devalue single-vineyards in the process. Simply prefix the producer’s name with “Domaine,” and highlight “Estate Bottled” on the front label. It is the ability to use these two terms—not single-vineyard names— that defines a grower’s point of difference. The use of “Domaine” and “Estate Bottled” endows growers with the terroir specific reputation they crave.

THE GROWERS NOT ONLY DOMINATED THIS TASTING IN TERMS OF NUMBERS, BUT THEY ALSO DOMINATED IT FROM A QUALITY PERSPECTIVE, WITH 24 OF OUR COMBINED 36 TOP-PLACED WINES. THAT IS NOT TO SAY THAT THE HOUSES DID NOT DO WELL

 

The results

The growers not only dominated this tasting in terms of numbers, but they also dominated it from a quality perspective, claiming 24 of our combined 36 top-placed wines. That is not to say that the houses did not do well. Essi in particular was partial to the style of the houses, putting Krug Clos du Mesnil, Philipponnat Clos des Goisses, and Pommery Les Clos Pompadour in equal first place; Taittinger Folies de la Marquetterie second; Philipponnat Clos des Goisses Juste Rose equal third; and Cattier Clos du Moulin, Drappier Grande Sendree Rose, and Thienot La Vigne aux Gamins equal fourth. I had Pommery Les Clos Pompadour in equal second place and Krug Clos du Mesnil equal third, while Andrew had Duval Leroy Clos des Bouveries equal second and Thienot La Vigne aux Gamins equal fourth.

There were several grower Champagnes I was either pleased with or pleasantly surprised by, even beyond my top wines, but I was particularly impressed by the immaculate quality of Ulysse Collin, Cedric Bouchard, and Jerome Prevost. Collin might overdo the oak, but he overdoes it in a way that works, with the right kind of oak, and he fills that oak to the brim with the most majestic, creamy, Burgundian-style fruit, giving it a voluptuous Meursault-like feel. On the other hand, Bouchard (technically not a grower) and Prevost lean away from excess, toward purity and finesse. They have both been among my favorite growers—or, at least, boutique Champagne producers —in the past.

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