The single-vineyard champagnes reaching new highs

Single-vineyard is the new vanguard in champagne, with deliciously complicated cuvées from trailblazing terroiriste growers taking the wine world by storm. Alice Lascelles reports

The AR Lenoble vineyard in Chouilly with its owners Anne and Antoine Malassagne
The AR Lenoble vineyard in Chouilly with its owners Anne and Antoine Malassagne | Image: Jean-Luc Barde

The first thing that strikes me about Krug’s walled vineyard Clos du Mesnil isn’t the way it looks, but the way it sounds. On every side, you can hear village life going on beyond its walls: dogs barking, church bells ringing, tractors chuntering down the road, children shouting in the school playground next door. It feels remarkably down-to-earth. Yet this 1.84-hectare plot  – which is just a bit smaller than the cricket pitch at Lord’s – is the source of one of the most rarefied single-vineyard champagnes money can buy: Krug’s vintage blanc de blancs, Clos du Mesnil.

Clos du Mesnil is scarce, and it’s expensive too – a single bottle of the laser-like 2004 vintage, which launches later this month in a run of less than 8,000 bottles, won’t leave you much change from £1,000. But the real reason this champagne is prized is because it comes from the grand cru village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, where the chalky soils are renowned for producing some of the most racy, crystalline Chardonnay in the Côtes des Blancs. And people have been growing grapes here for a long time: on one of the crumbly walls, an inscription records the moment two villagers, called Claude and Pierre, planted vines here in 1698.

Krug owns two walled vineyards – the other is the even smaller Clos d’Ambonnay, which lies about half an hour’s drive north in the grand cru village of Ambonnay. Here, on the southeastern edge of the Montagne de Reims, vines enjoy more clay-rich topsoil, as well as a slightly colder microclimate – conditions that are ideal for growing Pinot Noir with power and complexity.

AR Lenoble Les Aventures Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Brut, £84.45
AR Lenoble Les Aventures Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Brut, £84.45

And the champagnes of little Clos d’Ambonnay absolutely tower. Clos d’Ambonnay 2002, fewer than 3,500 bottles of which will be released this spring, is opulent and exotic, with aromatic notes of lychee that unroll extravagantly in the mouth into bitter marmalade, singed, buttered toast and autumn fruits. It’s imposing, broad and deliciously complicated. Not bad for a vineyard you can walk around in just a few minutes.

Single-vineyard wines are common-place in a fractured region like Burgundy. But in Champagne, an area that has built its reputation on a tradition of blending – villages, vineyards and varietals – site-specific champagnes have, historically, been something of a rarity. When Henri Krug suggested to his father in 1979 that they bottle Clos du Mesnil as a champagne in its own right, Krug Sr was appalled.

‘‘My grandfather said, ‘Henri, we cannot do this!’” recalls sixth-generation director Olivier Krug. “‘Krug is seen as the benchmark for blending. We do not make some kind of grower champagne with grapes from the garden.’”

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Forty years later, that “grower champagne”, Clos du Mesnil, is now widely recognised as one of the trailblazers for a terroiriste movement that’s flourishing like never before. Spurred on by advances in viticultural understanding and a new generation of avant-garde growers, champagne houses big and small can be found creating cuvées that speak of single villages, vineyards and plots. The art of blending has always been at the heart of champagne, and doubtless always will be, but right now, specificity is very much in vogue.

Another star in the firmament of single‑vineyard champagnes is Clos des Goisses, which has been lovingly bottled by the house of Philipponnat, under its own name, since 1935. Set high up above the River Marne, in the village of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, Clos des Goisses is steep – so steep, in fact, that when I accidentally trip on a wire I think for one alarming moment I’m going to tumble down the hill, taking the vineyard director, Claude Laurent, with me.

At 5.5 hectares, Clos des Goisses is also big – in fact, it’s the biggest walled vineyard in Champagne. It feels quite exposed compared to a place like Clos du Mesnil, yet the microclimate this sunbathed, south-facing vineyard enjoys is one of the warmest in the region, a quirk that means Philipponnat has been able to bottle a vintage of Clos des Goisses (from £130) practically every year since the start – even in years when others do not. Clos des Goisses is a name you’ll hear uttered by a lot by aficionados, who love it for its structured, Pinot Noir-led richness and extraordinary capacity to age. But rather fewer people know about Les Cintres, a 2,000-bottle blanc de noirs made from two tiny plots at the vineyard’s centre. Here, at Clos des Goisses’s steepest point, where the topsoil has been stripped to the bone, the vines have to work their hardest, producing fruit that’s even more intense.

From left: sixth-generation Krug director Olivier Krug. Krug Clos du Mesnil 2004 Blanc de Blancs Brut, £874. The Clos du Mesnil vineyard in the village of Le Mesnil-sur‑Oger
From left: sixth-generation Krug director Olivier Krug. Krug Clos du Mesnil 2004 Blanc de Blancs Brut, £874. The Clos du Mesnil vineyard in the village of Le Mesnil-sur‑Oger

“The idea of Les Cintres is to show Clos des Goisses at its most extreme, even more mineral, purer, more austere,” explains house president Charles Philipponnat as we sip another of his single-plot cuvées, Le Léon 2006, with a plate of pungent cheese (Charles is a big fan of champagne and cheese). “That might make it rather less approachable in the early stages, perhaps, but it bodes well for its ageing potential.”

The first vintage of Les Cintres, the 2006 (£220 in bond), made its debut in 2016. And I must say when I tasted it, I didn’t find it austere at all – a decade on, that youthful sharpness was already maturing into something honeyed, earthy and smoky-sweet. It was the kind of champagne you’d want to have with food.

Unlike Clos des Goisses, Les Cintres is only bottled occasionally, and even then only in tiny amounts. This spring will see the launch of the second vintage, the 2008 (£250 in bond) – so seize the opportunity to taste it while you can.

From left: The house’s vineyard is located in the heart of Reims, in sight of Reims Cathedral. Champagne Lanson Clos Lanson 2006, £155
From left: The house’s vineyard is located in the heart of Reims, in sight of Reims Cathedral. Champagne Lanson Clos Lanson 2006, £155

Big brands have been eyeing this market too. Not long ago, Champagne Lanson weighed in with the new prestige cuvée Clos Lanson (2006 vintage, £155), a single-vineyard, vintage blanc de blancs made from a one-hectare plot near the centre of Reims. Poised atop the 7km of cellars that adjoin Lanson’s cavernous HQ, Clos Lanson is decidedly urban, with distant views of Reims cathedral on one side, and a looming tower block on the other. It’s no oil painting, to be sure, but under the guidance of Hervé Dantan, the talented cellar master who’s overseen a major overhaul of Lanson’s operations in the past five years, it’s now producing some really attractive champagne, full of delicate lemon, apple and crème Anglaise characters. The second vintage of Clos Lanson, the 2007, will be released later this year.

All in all, there are 31 officially recognised “clos” – or walled vineyards – in Champagne. Some are beautiful, some are not, some have terroir that’s exceptional, others less so. But what they have in common is great character.

Take Billecart-Salmon’s Clos Saint-Hilaire, a one-hectare plot of Pinot Noir in a pretty corner of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ that’s ploughed by draft horses and mown by a resident flock of sheep. Or Champagne’s smallest clos, Clos Faubourg Notre Dame, a neat little rectangle not much bigger than a vegetable patch, which adjoins the boutique winery Veuve Fourny & Fils in Vertus. Cultivated by the energetic Emmanuel Fourny – a man so dedicated to the exploration of terroir that he produces more than 10 different cuvées from a mosaic of 70 different plots around Vertus – this is another little clos that punches above its weight, with a vintage blanc de blancs that’s aromatic and complex.

From left: Billecart-Salmon Clos Saint-Hilaire 1999 Brut, £335. A horse ploughing Billecart-Salmon’s one-hectare plot Clos Saint-Hilaire
From left: Billecart-Salmon Clos Saint-Hilaire 1999 Brut, £335. A horse ploughing Billecart-Salmon’s one-hectare plot Clos Saint-Hilaire

There’s a lot of romance to cultivating a clos, but there are technical challenges too. When you’re working on a scale this small, every factor is magnified: a slight undulation in a hill, the shadow of a tree, the warmth reflected off a wall, can all make the difference to whether a particular row is ready to harvest today, tomorrow or next week. It calls for a very intimate relationship between winemaker and vineyard. Krug’s cellar master Eric Lebel likes to compare Clos du Mesnil to “an experimental lab where you can go very close in the analysis”. But more often I hear  the Champenois refer to their clos as their “garden” – and in these instances, they do so with affection.

Single-vineyard champagnes – and particularly those from famous clos – often command a premium. Yet everyone is keen to stress that single‑vineyard champagnes are not necessarily better than champagnes that are a blend of different terroirs. “For me, it is like comparing a soloist and an orchestra,” says Olivier Krug. “Both have the capacity to be absolutely wonderful, but in their own, unique ways.”

And some single-vineyard champagnes can be very distinctive indeed. If you want to take a walk on the wild side, try the multi-vintage Les Aventures (£84.45) from one of the growers of the moment, AR Lenoble. Made from a half-hectare plot in the village of Chouilly, this blanc de blancs tastes like a pork chop smothered in creamy mushrooms, dry sherry, nuts, golden plums, sharp pineapple and whiffy Epoisses cheese all in one. I fell in love with it eventually, but not before it utterly freaked me out.

From left: Deutz Hommage à William Deutz 2010 Parcelles d’Aÿ, £95. Deutz’s La Côte Glacière vineyard is nestled behind the family house in Aÿ
From left: Deutz Hommage à William Deutz 2010 Parcelles d’Aÿ, £95. Deutz’s La Côte Glacière vineyard is nestled behind the family house in Aÿ

The powerful, often heavily oaked champagnes of cult growers Jacques Selosse and Ulysse Collin – both required reading for any fan of the terroiriste movement – can also be something of an acquired taste. But there are plenty of single-vineyard champagnes that are just plain beautiful: Larmandier-Bernier’s luxuriantly creamy Vieille Vigne du Levant, made from old vines in the village of Cramant; or Clos Sainte-Sophie by Jacques Lassaigne, a blanc de blancs from a plot in Montgueux that’s as heady as a clover meadow.

At last November’s inaugural La Fête du Champagne in London – an exclusive tasting at The Savoy that showcased a number of exciting single-vineyard champagnes – I was also dazzled by Jérôme Prévost’s esoteric Les Béguines (£50), a 94 per cent Pinot Meunier that hails from his La Closerie estate in Gueux, just west of Reims, where the terroir is a unique mix of chalk, sand and tiny marine fossils.

Broadening the “single vineyard” remit just a little bit, you’ve also got interesting new parcellaire champagnes like Deutz’s Hommage à William Deutz 2010 Parcelles d’Aÿ (£95), which is made from Pinot Noir grown in two little vineyards behind the family house in Aÿ. Aÿ Pinot Noir is known for its spiciness, and that comes through here in anise and pepper that sprinkle their way through fruit so plump and squashy you almost have to squeeze your way in.

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There is something uniquely satisfying about drinking a wine that comes from a place you can see in your mind. And for champagne in particular – a drink that sometimes risks being eclipsed by PR razzle dazzle – the reassertion of that link between the drink and the earth that made it seems particularly important.

Back in the Formica kitchen of the Clos du Mesnil press house, Krug oenology development manager Jerôme Jacoillot and I open a bottle of the Clos du Mesnil. As we stand around the table with its flowery waxed tablecloth, savouring the champagne’s star-shower bubbles, he tells a story about an elderly gentleman who stopped by one year to watch Jacoillot and his team do the harvest. “He came up to me and said, ‘Wow, I used to play here as a child,’” Jacoillot recalls, smiling into his glass. “‘It is wonderful to see what it has become. It makes me very proud.’

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