The common view of Champagne is that it’s a great apéritif, something to get things going before the real wines are wheeled out. It usually comes from a Grand Marque, one of the big houses dotted around Reims and lining the grand Avenue de Champagne in Epernay. Some people are aware of “Grower Champagnes”, but most of the big houses would rather we didn’t, and some are incredibly rude about them. Insufficient reserves to blend into the current vintage, too few different vineyard sites and just too reliant on the weather in each harvest are all criticisms I’ve heard. Not to mention remarks about how they are just darlings of the wine journos. But then the big houses are losing tonnes of grapes every time a grower stops selling to them. That hurts, especially when some of the Grand Marques have an aristocratic heritage used to the growers doffing their berets with due deference.
The so-called grower revolution is old news now, but what has been born slowly out of it is an increasing appreciation of what I like to call “gastronomic Champagne”, a wine to drink through the meal. This is where the individuality of grower Champagnes really scores for me, and one of the most individual manifestations of this style is the single vineyard Champagne.
Single vineyards are not new in Champagne’s sub-regions. They existed before Krug bought Clos du Mesnil, although this fascinating site, partly surrounded by village houses, is perhaps the first one might describe as iconic. Or does that honour go to Philipponnat’s Clos des Goisses, for me perhaps the perfect Champagne vineyard, a steep slope facing the Marne Canal just east of Mareuil-s-Ay.
In an article in Tong Magazine in 2009, Essi Avellan MW listed more than fifty single vineyard wines. The list has grown since then. Some are in specified Clos (walled or not), reflected in their name (Clos Cazals, Clos Saint Hilaire), whilst others are just tiny parcels, taking the term micro-terroir to its extreme with the wines of Cédric Bouchard (some of whose vineyards struggle to reach 0.2 hectares).
Why are these wines worthy of our attention and worth seeking out? Surely they are just a clever marketing ploy to give prestige to a producer’s range, a wine that they can charge quite a bit more for but that will ultimately lack the balance of a bigger blend? My belief is that on the contrary, they add a new dimension to our appreciation of Champagne as “a wine”, and they help us understand the potential of the Champagne terroir to produce something new and different, not necessarily better.
Of course, the Grand Marques have been happy to produce single vineyard wines and charge a premium for them, and pretty good they are too. Apart from Krug, we have the likes of Billecart-Salmon, Cattier, Taittinger and Drappier among others. Below is a list of my own personal favourites, but remember that they all have their own distinctive personalities, so it’s a case of finding out which you like yourself. But they are well worth the effort of exploring. Experiment, try them with food and you will see what I mean.
My favourite single vineyard Champagnes
- Ulysse Colin Blanc de Noirs
- Philipponnat Clos des Goisses
- Veuve Fourny Clos du Notre Dame
- Cattier Clos du Moulin
- Taittinger Folies de la Marquetterie
- Pierre Peters Les Chetillons
- Krug Clos du Mesnil
- Cédric Bouchard (maybe start with) Roses de Jeanne Les Ursules
- Cédric Bouchard Creux d’Enfer rosé