One is a family champagne house that’s been ploughing a traditional furrow in the vineyards of the rural Montagne de Reims since 1763. The other is an upstart founded in the 20th century by the son of a Champenois cart-maker, who started his working life as a furrier’s messenger in Paris. Today both Salon and Armand de Brignac belong to a growing category of niche prestige champagne cuvées so revered by their respective followers that they command a higher price than Cristal, Krug or Dom Pérignon.
The concrete tanks and tiled floors of the family company Cattier – located in cellars in the sleepy village of Rilly-la-Montagne – resemble any other unlovely production facility. Descend the 119 steps to its 150-year-old subterranean cellars, though, and the eye is dazzled by thousands of gold and silver bottles. This is Armand de Brignac, a deluxe product so bedecked in gaudy livery that the champagne establishment and its customers refused to believe that such an ostentatious bottle could contain anything worthy of its stratospheric price. Until, that is, the Brut Gold beat Dom Pérignon and Cristal to the top spot in a Fine Champagne magazine blind tasting in 2010, repeating the feat this year with its Blanc de Noirs.
In contrast, Salon, founded by the messenger boy upstart Eugène-Aimé Salon in 1911, could hardly be more discreet. Thanks to an uncompromising focus on quality, the Le Mesnil-based champagne has reached such a pinnacle of quality that today it outclasses, and outprices, most if not all of its more familiar luxury peers. Developed from pure Chardonnay vineyards in the chalky soils of the Côte des Blancs, Salon is declared as a vintage only in a year that its cellar master, Didier Depond, deems exceptional. The 2004 vintage (£310-£350), a sculpted beauty of floral fragrance, saline freshness and brioche-like complexity is only the 39th vintage ever to see the light of day.
Cattier’s cellar master Alexandre Cattier and his family would scarcely be able to believe their good fortune if they weren’t sitting on the one they’ve made from Armand de Brignac. Ten years ago, Shawn “Jay Z” Carter was among a group of American hip-hop rappers who were devotees of the jewel in the Roederer crown, the reassuringly expensive Cristal. “Let’s sip the Cris and get pissy-pissy,” he intoned in one song. In an interview with The Economist, Roederer’s managing director Frédéric Rouzaud declared sniffily, “What can we do? We can’t forbid people from buying it. I’m sure Dom Pérignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business.”
Taking umbrage at this perceived racial slur, the king of bling turned to a newly launched deluxe champagne decked out in a garish gold bottle emblazoned with a pewter Ace of Spades label. “Jay Z liked our bottle and, on its first release in 2006, put it in a video clip, Show Me What You Got,” says Alexandre Cattier. “It was the Big Bang for us. All of a sudden, calls were coming into the winery, even the village, from people who knew only that Armand de Brignac came from a family company in Chigny-Les-Roses.” Rock gods, oligarchs and A-listers wanted what Jay Z was having. In fact, Jay Z liked the bling de blings so much that in 2014 he bought it.
Although an overnight succès de scandale, the groundwork had been laid ever since Alexandre’s grandmother, Nelly, came up with the name after reading a novel in which the swashbuckling hero was called de Brignac. In the early 1980s, Cattier made a limited edition champagne in a silver bottle for the futuristic fashion designer André Courrèges. It wasn’t until 2000, though, that Alexandre’s father Jean-Jacques revived the name and the process with a metallised bottle and an inspired Ace of Spades icon, aimed at a younger crowd. The stars of the five-strong range today are the rich and structured yet somehow weightless Blanc de Noirs, £695, and the elegantly pure and gently toasty Blanc de Blancs, £450. There is also a new mini, Les Petites d’Armand de Brignac Gold Brut, at £125.
In the nature of the bête, champagne is a wine that bides its time, deluxe champagne all the more so. In the same year that Armand de Brignac achieved its breakthrough, the 2006 vintage of Salon was born. Such is the length of time it needs to mature that it is set for release in spring 2017. The time it spends on its lees in the bottle before release and its remarkable subsequent ageing potential are the building blocks of Salon’s iconic status. In its most recent offer, its UK agent, Corney & Barrow, confidently gives the drink-by date for magnums of the 2002 as 2070.
It was Salon’s founder Eugene-Aimé Salon who realised that his native Le Mesnil’s chalk soils had the potential to yield a great vin de garde with an exceptional spine of acidity and an iodine-like mineral quality. Nobody had made champagne exclusively from Chardonnay before but Salon chose east-facing grand cru sites in the mi-coteaux, the middle of the slopes. In 1911, he bought the single hectare plot now known as Le Jardin de Salon – from which Salon is still made – and formed an association of 15 growers, whose 20 parcels, including Le Jardin, are spread over 10 hectares. Salon’s reputation was made in the 1920s at Maxim’s in Paris, where it was sold exclusively until the 1950s.
According to cellar master Depond, “Aimé Salon was a genius and the first to decide on creating a champagne from a single grape, a single grand cru and a single vintage.” He said, “Salon is for privilégiés” – a seemingly elitist concept but one that works for Salon, best interpreted as “exclusive”. In 1988, Salon was acquired by Laurent-Perrier, whose inspirational owner, Bernard de Nonancourt, appointed Depond to the position of president of Salon in 1997. Next year marks Depond’s 20th anniversary as president of Salon and its sister house, Delamotte. “It’s like burgundy with bubbles,” says Depond. “Aubert de Villaine [proprietor of the prestigious Domaine de la Romanée-Conti] said to me: ‘Salon, c’est le plus bourguignon des champagnes.’ My customers and importers are all burgundy lovers.”
Freshness, purity and a degree of mineral austerity are the hallmarks of Salon. “Before me and after me, Salon will be the same,” says Depond. “Even so, I wake up every day asking myself how I can improve it.” “How can you improve it?” I ask. “Selection is the key word. It’s a rigorous selection of quality,” he replies. “I can be tough. If I want the best every day, I have to be strict with the staff in the cellar and in the vineyard, every single step of the way. There’s no compromise.”
Selection for a limited edition is also key for the many champagne houses now keen to create similar flagship cuvées for discerning consumers. Lanson and Pommery, for instance, are well-known brands producing discreet prestige cuvées. From its so-called “secret garden”, a one-hectare plot dating back to the 18th century and overlooking Reims cathedral, Lanson recently announced the release of a limited edition of 7,870 bottles of its 2006 Clos Lanson champagne, at £160 each. Fermented in oak casks and aged in its cellars for nine years, it’s a seriously refined and toasty fizz.
Coincidentally, Pommery’s special cuvée Les Clos Pompadour takes its name from its walled vineyard, also within view of Reims cathedral. Les Clos Pompadour, a Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier multivintage blend based on the great 2002 vintage, is a first release produced in a limited edition of 3,000 magnums, at £696. This year it won the Best in Class Single Vineyard award in the Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships.
Anniversaries are the perfect peg on which to hang new cuvées de prestige and last year Billecart-Salmon launched an exceptional cuvée from the 2002 vintage named after its founder Nicolas-François in good time for its 200th anniversary in 2018, at £130. Champagne de Castelnau, founded in 1916, is also getting in on the posh fizz act for its centenary. The inaugural Hors Catégorie, £85, is a limited edition of 3,500 bottles using the oak of the local Forest of Argonne for an extra touch of smokiness.
This timber is also used in the vinification of Champagne Devaux’s new 2009 deluxe fizz, Sténopé, a collaboration with the Rhône valley winemaker Michel Chapoutier, named after an old photographic pinhole device. Chapoutier is known both for his belief in the primacy of terroir and his gargantuan appetite for champagne, so with 5,000 bottles (£149) and 900 magnums (£310) produced, there may just be enough to go round after deduction of his allocation.