One clear trend in Champagne is the introduction of more vineyard-designated wines. It is admittedly not a trend very much in evidence among the largest Champagne houses, and the number of bottles produced annually that carries a vineyard designation is not particularly large. However, the number of vineyard-designated wines are increasing, and several of the most highly regarded smaller producers are in this game, and Champagne geeks are definitely taking notice. A common French term for a specific vineyard and wines from such vineyards is lieu-dit, “named place”, with the plural form lieux-dits.
A small number of enthusiasts gathered in late April in Stockholm to taste a trio of vineyard-designated Champagnes from each of two producers: the quality-oriented and regularly improving smaller Champagne house Jacquesson and the cult producer of the cult producers, Jacques Selosse. The tasting, which had been brought together by people active at the Swedish online forum finewines.se, turned out to be just as spectacular as we expected, and very informative.
Jacquesson’s white Lieux-Dits trio was launched in 2011, with the 2002 vintage. Selosse started to release vineyard designated Lieux-Dits wines in 2010, when they were two. In 2011, they had become three, and the plan is for them to become six in due course. A peculiarity in the case of Selosse is that the wines are produced as a solera, similar to his Substance, but in difference from his Initial and Version Originale (V.O.). Since the soleras, which are characterized by continuous mixing of vintages in several steps – are still being built up, the wines still consist of only one or two vintages. Anselme Selosse’s idea is that by mixing vintages, the terroir will emerge more clearly. I will return to this idea below. Jacquesson’s wines are produced as “regular” vintage Champagnes but from a single vineyard, and they do see some oak.
All wines tasted were released in 2011 and were disgorged the same year. The vineyard wines were supplemented with one additional wine from each producer: a “regular” 2002 vintage Jacquesson and a Selosse V.O. disgorged in 2011. They were served in pairs in the order I present them below.
Jacquesson Millésime 2002
57% Pinot Noir (35% Dizy, 15% Aÿ, 7% Mareuil-sur-Aÿ) and 43% Chardonnay (36% Avize, 7% Chouilly). Disgorged 1st quarter 2011.
Bright yellow colour. In the nose yellow fruit, hint of herbal notes, some honey, citrus, initially a candy-like note of fruit essence that subsides somewhat after some time. After a while a certain smoke note, bread and brioche also appear. On the palate pronounced minerality with a “mineral water” impression, yellow fruit, high acidity, medium bodied. Still young. 89+ p.
I hadn’t tasted this wine before, but the two who had commented that it was better at this time than when released in autumn 2011, when it had come across as very strange. The nose is still a little funky, and the initial impression of candy/fruit essence gives a surprisingly “simple” impression, since Jacquesson’s other 2002s were very elegant and classically strict in style. The palate is more OK, but indicates that it could use more time. At this time, I still consider it a bit of a weak effort, because I expect a good house like Jacquesson to do better in a top vintage like 2002!
Selosse Version Originale
100% Chardonnay from Avize, Cramant and Oger. Disgorgd 20 July 2011, probably with a base of 2002, 2003 and 2004.
Bright to golden yellow colour. A nose with clearly minerally smoke notes with some dust of crushed stones, discrete hint of mature yellow fruit with some exotic fruit, peach and papaya can be found, some honey and a hint of dried fruit. Powerful nose with well integrated oak notes, that is very reminiscent of a white Burgundy from Côte de Beaune. Pronounced minerality on the palate, powerful, spicy, rather high acidity, slight impression of salinity and bitterness, aftertaste with grapefruit. Young, would gain from some cellaring. 92+ p.
Classical Selosse style, but not at all the oxidative notes shown by the three Lieux-Dits, and definitely more “muted” (in a positive sense) nose than the 2002 Jacquesson. A bit more accessible and enjoyable already than I’d expected from a V.O. at 9 months after disgorgement.
Jacquesson Avize Champ Caïn 2002
100% Chardonnay. Disgorged 9 February 2011.
Bright yellow colour. A very brief first impression on the nose of dry road dust quickly dissipated. Nose of yellow fruit, pronounced minerality, some honey, a certain spiciness; rather powerful and elegant nose. On the palate pronounced minerality, quite high acidity, some citrus and apple, quite elegant. Young. 93+ p.
Produced in a quite firm, elegant and minerally style, it clearly outshines Jacquesson’s other vineyard blanc de blancs, Dizy Corne Bautray 2002, but is probably in need of more time to peak fully.
Despite the fact that Avize Champagne is supposed to represent a powerful and spicy style of Blanc de Blancs, this wine is much less foody or powerful than the V.O. Already here, the difference in producer style shows clearly; this Jacquesson is strict, elegant and mineral, but not excessively powerful, while the Selosse V.O. is much more similar to an oaked white Burgundy, also in possession of minerality and elegance, but with more of power and spiciness.
Oddly enough the vineyard Champ Caïn turns out to be located far down on the flatter land below the built-up areas of Avize, even on the other side of D9, with some non-vine crops as neighbours. I had expected that a vineyard selected for the production of a lieu-dit wine would be located in the slope above the village. However, the quality and style of the wine indicates that Jacquesson knows what they’re doing.
Selosse Les Carelles (from Le Mesnil-sur-Oger)
100% Chardonnay. Solera in build-up, with a base of 2003 and 2004. Disgorged 24 February 2011.
Golden yellow colour. Powerful nose of dried yellow fruit, some oxidation notes, quite spicy, minerality that grows with time in the glass. Reminds me of rum-soaked raisins, if made with white or golden raisins. Quite powerful nose but also with a certain elegance. The palate give a slighty sweetish impression on the attack, rather concentrated yellow fruit with some dried fruit, rather high acidity, pronounced spiciness, minerally mid-palate and on the finish. Rather ready to drink, but will surely be able to take long time in the cellar. 93 p.
Of the three Selosse Lieux-Dits wines released in 2011, I’d rate this in the middle.
The first pair of vineyard-designated wines, both Blanc de Blancs, could hardly have showed the difference in producer style more clearly. In comparison to V.O., this wine is much more of an extreme creation, with noticeable oxidative notes, in similarity to Selosse’s Substance. This means that the difference in style between Champ Caïn and Les Carelles is even larger than between Champ Caïn and V.O.
Jacquesson Dizy Corne Bautray 2002
100% Chardonnay. Disgorged 9 February 2011.
Bright yellow, relatively deep colour. Discretely fruity nose with mature citrus, mineral, a hint of flower. With time in the glass it develops more mature fruit and some smoke; elegant. Minerally attack on the palate, citrus, green apple, high acidity, impression of mineral water, a hint of bitterness. Young, but somewhat accessible. 91+ p.
A very good wine, and a clear step above Jacquesson Millésime 2002 in quality, but in comparison to the excellent Jacquesson Avize Champ Caïn 2002 it is somewhat weaker to me; Corne Bautray has a less minerally nose, and is more foody and comes across as slightly more “coarse” on the palate. Someone at the tasting considered it downright bad, but I would definitely go that far, and I also remember someone who held it higher than I did, on a relative scale between the wines.
By the way, Dizy is classified as premier cru (95% på échelle des crus), rather than grand cru as the villages where the other five vineyard-designated wines originate from. However, Dizy is the home village of Jacquesson, which explains why they produce wines from there.
Selosse Le Bout du Clos (from Ambonnay)
80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay. Solera in build-up, with a base of 2004. Disgorged 24 February 2011.
Golden yellow colour. Nose of mature red fruit, red apple, red berries, nectarines, some dried fruit, slight oxidation notes, discrete fudge notes, some rum-soaked raisins. Rather fresh attack, the palate shows obvious oxidative notes of cocoa powder, red berries and winter apples, good acidity (but not really high), spicy. Rather powerful, acidic and spicy aftertaste with a hint of bitterness. Definitely a food wine. Rather ready to enjoy, but gives a slightly disjointed impression that indicates that it could gain from some additional cellaring. 92 p.
Of the three Selosse Lieux-Dits wines released in 2011, I’d rate this in the third place.
Less mineral than Les Carelles, which is not too surprising. The varietal composition of Le Bout du Clos has previously been said to be 100% Pinot Noir (such as in Selosse’s price list), but it now seems to be confirmed that there is a coplantation of 20% Chardonnay in the vineyard.
Jacquesson Aÿ Vauzelle Terme 2002
100% Pinot Noir. Disgorged 9 February 2011.
Bright to golden yellow. In the nose ripe fruit, peach, ripe lemons, red apple, some perfume, discrete spiciness, mineral. Elegant nose. On the palate quite minerally with some salinity, ripe yellow and red apple, spiciness, high acidity, definitely elegant. Young. 94+ p.
Not obviously Aÿ-styled to me, I rather thought of a cooler Pinot Noir cru on Montagne de Reims, such as Verzenay, but this effect is produced by Jacquesson’s elegant, minerally style. To me, this is the best of Jacquesson’s three lieux dits of the 2002 vintage, as it slightly outshines even the excellent Avize Champ Caïn. Unfortunately – or perhaps predictably – this is produced in the smallest quantity of the three, from a measly 0,30 ha (0,75 acres).
Selosse La Côte Faron (från Aÿ)
100% Pinot Noir. Solera in build-up, with a base of 2003 and 2004. Disgorged 21 February 2011.
Golden yellow colour. Powerful nose of ripe fruit, ripe citrus, red apple, red berries, some cocoa powder, discrete notes of dried fruit and very light oxidation, some perfume, very elegant. On the palate a powerful, spicy attack, slightly oxidized (“winter apples”) yellow and red apples, peach, a hint of sweetness of fruit, honey and dried fruit, quite spicy. Fruity-minerally aftertaste with mild bitterness. Rather ready to enjoy, but could gain from further time in the cellar. 94 p.
A marvelous wine, and just as in the previous pairs, the difference in producer style is very obvious. I found this wine to outshine Le Bout du Clos rather clearly; of the three Selosse Lieux-Dits wines released in 2011, I rate this the highest. Curiously enough, I also found it to show the mildest oxidation notes of the three, and it had more pronounced acidity than Le Bout du Clos. This is contrary to what is expected, since Ambonnay is a slightly cooler village than Aÿ (it is situated higher up on the slope), which should give higher acidity. In addition, Le Bout du Clos is supposed to be straight 2004 (a high acidity vintage), while La Côte Faron is a blend of 2003 (an extremely hot year with low acidity) and 2004. Finally, La Côte Faron is Pinot Noir only, while Le Bout du Clos contains 20% Chardonnay. That’s three factors all pointing in the opposite direction from what I actually experienced the difference in the glass…
Also in the case of Selosse it seems that this wine, the best, is the one produced in the smallest quantity of the three Lieux-Dits. I found a second hand claim of only 600 bottles per year, while the other two were supposed to be 2000 and 3000 bottles per year!
Who won the duel?
I must say that the tasting was dominate by the great stylistic difference between Jacquesson and Selosse rather than by quality difference. For both of them, the vineyard-designated wines were of very high quality. My verdict based on these wines is a draw, with the participants in this unique tasting the true winners. 🙂 If the first pair of wines is included, I’d have to name Selosse the winner, since the 2002 Jacquesson didn’t quite live up to the 2002 reputation, while the V.O. was of very high class, as usual.
Our collective scoring, where each of us voted for 1st, 2nd and 3rd place (corresponding to 3, 2 and 1 points) gave the following result:
1. Jacquesson Aÿ Vauzelle Terme, 16 p (three 1st place votes)
2. Selosse La Côte Faron, 16 p (two 1st place votes)
3. Selosse Les Carelles, 11 p
4. Jacquesson Avize Champ Caïn, 3 p
5. Selosse Le Bout du Clos, 2 p
It’s worth noting that two Aÿ wines, both 100% Pinot Noir, ended up in the first two places, despite the fact that several of the participants declared themselves to usually have a preference for blanc de blancs.
By the way, this was a “coordinated BYO tasting”, where you basically had to be able to contribute one of the bottles to be able to attend. Based on the fact that these wines are all very difficult to lay your hands on, one of the participants concluded that “you want to have contributed the worst” wine, since you now have one less bottle (or none at all) of that one in your cellar. 🙂
Some final reflection on vineyard-designated Champagne
Vineyard designation on Champagne bottles is not something completely new, as Philipponnat’s Clos des Goisses and Krug’s Clos du Mesnil have been around for decads. Both Clos du Mesnil and Clos des Goisses are vineyard sites rather than cuvée names (Dom Pérignon, La Grande Dame, Cristal…) invented by the producer. My impression is that these early vineyard Champagnes were seen as a bit of odd creations since blending – the creation of cuvées – long has been seen as the core of the Champagne craft, and a way to guarantee the house style and an even quality. However, its is quite obvious that the new generation of small producers in Champagne too some extent look at Burgundy rather than the big houses in their own region for inspiration, and so to speak focus on the wine rather than the bubbles, the festive popping of corks, and the high marketing budget. In Burgundy, only the simpler wines are sold as Bourgogne rouge or Bourgogne blanc under the name of the producer and possibly a cuvée name. One example would be Cuvée des Jacobins from Jadot. In other cases you see village name or village name + vineyard name up to the premier cru level, and the vineyard name in splendid isolation for grand cru wines. This is obviously something that some champenois want to take after. Of course, in Champagne there is only an official classification at the village level (so all of Aÿ is grand cru, for example), while in Burgundy it is the vineyards that are classified.
But is it really the true “terroir” of the vineyard site that is felt in the respective wine? To me this tasting was a very clear demonstration of something that extreme “terroirists” prefer to be silent about: the great importance of winemaking (and the choices in handling of the vineyard). Through the entire tasting, what was most obvious was the enormous stylistic difference between the Jacquesson and the Selosse wines. A difference which I found stronger than both village and varietal character, and probably also vintage character. Rather I would say that these wines showed what you can expect from Champagne when a good producer makes a wine from a good vineyard: you get a really good wine that is clearly marked by the producer’s style, in addition to the grape varieties and its origin. You could of course say that the terroir played into this tasting in the way that the single premier cru wine, from Dizy, was a little weaker than those from grand cru villages, although I don’t really this there is much evidence that all vineyards in grand cru villages are better than those of premier cru villages.
I’m also a litte doubtful about the idea that a solera is the best way of isolating the terroir character, since this method not only involves blending vintages and evening out the vintage character, but also includes a certain amount of oxidation. No, I don’t think there’s any reason to be afraid of some oxidative notes now and then, but I don’t think that oxidation will serve to reveal the “underlying character” of a wine. Rather oxidative notes could easily become dominant in themselves. In addition, different grape varieties will reasonably react differently to oxidation, since Chardonnay and Pinot Noir differ in levels of acidity, which includes an additional element not really related to the terroir in terms of the soil. So to some extent, the solera-produced wines of this tasting are much more “Selosse-specific” than they are “terroir-specific”. Not that that in any way is a qualitative complaint. 🙂
Since all three Selosse wines were of different varietal composition, I already feel a strong urge to return to a comparative tasting when Selosse’s entire series of six vineyard-designated wines have been released. 🙂 Well see if I actually manage to lay my hands on the full set at some time, because that won’t be too easy. At that time, in any case, there will be three 100% Chardonnay wine from vineyard sites in three different villages, plus two 100% Pinot Noir and one 80%/20%. The three wines yet to be released come from Avize, Cramant and Mareuil-sur-Aÿ.
If you want to see Anselme Selosse himself talk about his vineyard-designated wines in French, there are two video clips below. One shorter from Selosse’s US importer with English subtitles:
One longer sans subtitling:
The Swedish version of this post can be found here.