‘Vinification parcellaire’ are the new buzzwords in Champagne. The phrase means hand-crafted winemaking of a few rows of a
village-grower’s best vines or of a single vineyard. The aim is to produce a Champagne with a distinctive taste of the special bit of earth from which it comes. Regular, blended Champagne on the
is made using different vineyards. To use a musical analogy, a single-vineyard Champagne is a solo instrument, like a flute, compared to a big house’s blend that uses the full orchestra. One is not necessarily better than the other. They are simply different.
In truth, there’s nothing really new about this micro, terroir-based approach to Champagne making. The Clos des Goisses, Champagne’s greatest walled vineyard at Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, has been the source of superb single-site Champagnes released in almost every vintage since 1956, the property having been bought 20 years earlier by the house of Philipponnat. ‘Goisse’ in old French means hard work or a painful task, and you can see why when you look at the dramatic, plunging slopes – dropping sharply towards the Marne canal, where the presence of water is a natural shield against spring frosts.
This 13-acre property, extending eastwards for 800m along the Bisseuil road, is a dream vineyard, facing south so the vines on pure chalk soils can catch the rays of the sun at their full strength, resulting in Pinot Noir grapes of terrific richness and power. For complete balance, Chardonnay plays a supporting role, giving verve and freshness to the blend. The wine is given a short spell in oak to round it out, but avoiding any overt, woody flavour.
Warmer vintages of Goisses are particular glories. I remember the 1985 as the perfect mature Champagne at a great 1996 dinner in Paris, as good with roast woodcock as with a slightly overripe piece of Tomme de Savoie. The current 1999 vintage is much more durable than many wines from this easy-drinking vintage. It has a volume and texture more associated with red wine than white, but is lifted by the aromatic flavours of lemon and cinnamon that make it an unmistakably great, racy Champagne. (A bottle costs £68.40 from www.lescaves.co.uk.)
In the heart of Mareuil, Billecart-Salmon is renowned for its exquisite rosé. Finest quality red wine, a key element in this cuvée, used to come from a 2.4-acre plot of old Pinot Noir behind the Billecart family house. This walled garden vineyard is now home to the Clos St.Hilaire, a pure Pinot Noir Champagne like no other. Its 40-year-old vines lie over crumbling limestone soils that may not be classically chalky, but Hilaire is as much a fine wine as it is a Champagne.
The 1996 is a monument of substance and controlled power – just as remarkable is its sublime daffodil colour, lace-like mousse and mature fine-drawn scents of yellow peach and apricot, with touches of gingerbread. These are old-fashioned, barrel-fermented Pinot attributes enhanced by modern winemaking touches of a master, François Domi, one of Champagne’s greats. You’ll find a fine range of Billecart Champagnes at Morton’s in Berkeley Square – it’s interesting to compare the conventionally blended 1998 NF Billecart, an elegant classic, with the food-friendly 1996 Hilaire. The now rare 1995 Hilaire is available for £165 a bottle (gulp!) from Alan Goadby’s wonderful wine shop, Upton-upon-Severn Wines (01684 592668).
Westwards to Aÿ, an even more rare Champagne is Bollinger’s Vieilles Vignes Françaises. ‘To talk about this wine, cultivated in the historic manner, is to fling oneself into the past and boldly confront the archetypal taste of Champagne,’ says Ghislain de Montgolfier, Bollinger’s president. Pinot Noir was the only grape available in the 17th century when the first sparkling Champagnes were made. Three hundred years later, it was the English journalist Cyril Ray who was so astounded by the wines from Bollinger’s ancient Pinot vines, these Vieilles Vignes Françaises, that in 1969, he persuaded Madame Lily Bollinger to bottle them separately. Two tiny plots by the Bollinger house still yield minuscule quantities of extraordinarily intense Champagnes that come from untrained vines that sprawl close to the earth absorbing the full heat of the soil for optimal ripeness. The excellent 1998 costs £450 from Berry Bros & Rudd (www.bbr.com), Harrods (www.harrods.com) and Fine & Rare Wines (www.frw.co.uk). For the beautiful people, the softer 1999 listed at Sketch is £560 a bottle.
Further west to Dizy, Corne Bautray is the most surprising vineyard among several jewels belonging to the house of Jacquesson. By rights, the Chardonnay produced here shouldn’t be that exceptional: the vines lie high above the village, exposed to the south-westerly winds. The soil is not pure chalk but heavier burrstone pebbles and clay, which yields a big Champagne with a delicately saline aftertaste, raising the wine to the truly fine class. Corne Bautray is also remarkably consistent, proving itself superior to the merely good-ish 2000 vintage and a sure-fire success in the horribly difficult 2007 harvest. All bottles from the Jacquesson range are available from Berry Brothers; the 2000 costs £65 a bottle.
Finally, on to the Côte des Blancs, to happily recommend two gently priced single-vineyard Chardonnay Champagnes, as good as any. Olivier Bonville, the son of the Avize grower Franck Bonville, is a rising star who uses wood sparingly even in his greatest wine from 100-year-old vines. It’s called les Belles Voyes and is intense yet dances on the palate with hints of lemon and liquorice for a great price of about £30, by mail order from Cadman Fine Wines (www.cadmanfinewines.co.uk). Not to be outdone, Delphine Cazals, Olivier’s better half, has made the magnificent honey-and-minerals 1998 Clos Cazals, one of the finest single-vineyard Champagnes to come out of the Côte in recent years. A bottle costs £57 from A&B Vintners in Kent (www.abvintners.co.uk). Salut!