In Champagne, branding is everything. The tradition of blending to maintain a consistent house style, marketing and image building are designed to foster loyalty to a particular house. Behind the scenes are the 20,000 growers who provide grapes to the Champagne houses. The practice of blending across grape varieties, vintages and particularly different villages in the Champagne region is the antithesis of terroir.
Despite this tradition, in the past 10 or so years, there has been a renewed interest in the vineyard in Champagne. The organic consequence of this is a growing emphasis on the concept of terroir. Individual growers who bottle their own bubbly understand this because their holdings are small and often based on one village. Even some Champagne houses have embraced terroir, notably Krug with its two mono crus, Clos du Mesnil and Clos d’Ambonnay.
For many years, however, there was one grower exploring not only the relationship between his different parcels and the wines they gave birth to, but also his relationship to the land and to his wines. Anselme Selosse is an iconoclast in Champagne and his wines have acquired a cult status amongst connoisseurs.
I had the opportunity to meet with Selosse and his wife Corinne earlier this week. That same evening, I attended a dinner at Eleven Madison Park, where a range of Jacques Selosse Champagnes were matched by chef Daniel Humm’s exquisite cuisine. In the past, it has been difficult to obtain these wines. For several years, they weren’t available in the United States. Now, small quantities are imported by The Rare Wine Co. in Sonoma.
For Selosse, it all begins in the vineyard. He admires the tradition of the monks, feeling an obligation to work naturally rather than profit-driven. His goal is to understand the singularity of each parcel and its evolution, without imposing his will on it. It’s a philosophy he calls savoir réfléchir, rather than savoir faire. By this he means adapting to what nature gives and thinking about what to do rather than following the way of previous generations without questioning the methods.
Selosse worked his vineyards biodynamically for over a decade, but rejected it in the end because it “…didn’t give me what I needed.” He does favor biodiversity in the vineyard and active microorganisms in the soil.
He is toying with the idea of planting vines on their own rootstocks, because they are better suited to the limestone soils than the American rootstocks, despite their susceptibility to phylloxera.
Low yielding vines are important to Selosse, as are deep root systems, to transmit the terroir to the wine. He feels that as yields have increased in the region over the past 50 years, growers must harvest earlier to preserve the acidity. Selosse believes that the freshness in Champagne comes from the minerality derived from the chalk subsoil. As a result, he is able to harvest ripe grapes and retain acidity in the wines.
That said, yields are a complex issue. For Selosse, it’s a question of finding the balance for each vine within its parcel. This varies from parcel to parcel and from year to year. There is a window, or a range of crop load per vine, below which it is as out of balance as overcropping.
With the focus on terroir, Selosse looks more to Burgundy for inspiration. "The road is more advanced in Burgundy," he says. He defines terroir as a harmonious society amongst all the living organisms in the system.
In the cellar, Selosse allows the natural yeasts to ferment the wine in barrel. There is a mix of pièces (228 liters), fût (400 liters) and demi-muid (600 liters). Malolactic conversion may occur, or not, but as he points out, ripe grapes have very little malic acid.
Furthermore, the barrels provide a gentle exchange with oxygen, which Selosse feels transmits the sève, or sap, from the vines' root system in contact with the minerals, imbuing the resulting wines with more character.
After the alcoholic fermentation, the wines are kept on their lees. This is important, as Selosse feels the lees nourish and protect the newly fermented wine, allowing him to use less sulfur dioxide. He experimented for a while without any SO2, but didn't achieve the balance in the wines he was seeking.
The result of all this are Champagnes that are aromatically complex, deep, round and rich on the palate, yet with an underlying freshness that resonates like spring water over stones.
My favorite was the Brut Blanc de Noirs Contraste NV. With its floral, berry and citrus peel aromas and flavors of strawberry, cherry, lanolin and ginger, it was complex, round and fresh, with an innate sense of power and fine length (95 points, non-blind).
It’s a blend of 2002 and 2003 from Aÿ and Ambonnay. Two villages were used because of the small crop; however, in the future this will focus on the terroir or Aÿ.
The Blanc de Blancs 1999, which he hasn’t yet bottled, was disgorged and bottled just for the dinner, without SO2 or any dosage. Based on Avize, it exuded floral and citrus aromas with hints of malt and toast. It was delicate, almost ethereal on the palate, with coffee, toffee and toast notes that lingered gracefully on the finish (93 points, non-blind).
Selosse also poured his Brut Blanc de Blancs Substance NV, a wine he makes using a solera system, drawing off 22 percent each year to bottle. It reminded me of an Oloroso aromatically, with caramel elements and a leaner profile.
Selosse sees a connection between the white marl albariza soils of Spain’s Sherry region and the chalk soils of Champagne. This led him to the idea of using a solera to eliminate the influence of weather by blending over several years, in order to bring out more of the influence of terroir.
There was also the airy Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs Version Originale NV, with its vibrant character, the elegant, strawberry-scented Brut Rosé NV and complex, detailed Demi-Sec Exquise NV.
What makes these wines so exceptional is the balance and harmony without much "makeup" in the form of dosage. With the exception of the Exquise, at around 24 grams per liter of residual sweetness, all the other cuvées are between 1.5 and 6 grams per liter.
These are artisanal wines, hand crafted with minimum intervention. Selosse prefers to do as little as possible in the vineyard and cellar other than achieving a balance among all the components. It may sound easy, but doing nothing is often the most difficult path to choose.
Scott Oneil — UT — November 1, 2008 11:42pm ET
Russell Mccandless — Minnesota USA — November 3, 2008 10:56pm ET
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions