White gold: Chardonnay in Champagne
While the grape is a relative latecomer to the area, Champagnes made entirely from Chardonnay are becoming increasingly popular. Lucy Shaw discovers why, and whether a possible shortage will hinder the growth of the expressions.
Praised for their delicacy, elegance and ageing potential, a number of the most revered wines in Champagne are solo acts made from Chardonnay. From Krug’s eye-wateringly expensive Clos du Mesnil, crafted from Chardonnay hailing from a walled 1.85-hectare vineyard in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, and the jewel in Taittinger’s crown – Comtes de Champagne – made from Chardonnay grown in five Grand Cru vineyards on the Côtes de Blancs, to the über-rare Salon les Mesnil, of which just 37 vintages have been made in the last century, Chardonnay has proved its mettle in Champagne, demonstrating that when sourced from the right sites, it can shine as brightly if not more brilliantly on its own than when accompanied by Pinot Noir and Meunier.
A relative latecomer to the region, Chardonnay was first planted in Champagne in the second half of the 19th century, predominantly in the chalk-rich soils of the Côtes de Blancs. Over the years it has gained popularity with winemakers because it is higher yielding, easier to grow and less prone to oxidation than the two Pinots, while the second pressings can be more easily used than those of Pinot Noir and Meunier. Thanks to its relatively neutral character, the chameleon-like grape is both a transmitter of terroir and a blank canvas for the chefs de caves.
“In terms of aromas, Chardonnay offers a wide palate of floral and fruity notes, from white flowers and stone fruit to citrus fruit and sometimes spicy notes of ginger and anise.
“When it comes to older wines, it displays notes of ripe white and yellow fruit, such as pear and yellow plum, apricot, hazelnuts and brioche,” says Thibault Le Mailloux, director of the Comité Champagne.
Despite being the least-planted grape in Champagne, with just 10,384 hectares under vine compared with Pinot Noir’s 13,141ha, Chardonnay has become the most highly sought-after and difficult-to-source grape in the region, favoured for its freshness and reliability, as the world wakes up to the delicate charms of blanc de blancs.
The expression not only works wonderfully as an apéritif but as a pairing for everything from sushi to lobster, and aged hard cheeses when the wines have a decent number of years behind them.
On the subject of food, Philippe Sereys de Rothschild, of Bordeaux first growth Château Mouton Rothschild, recently revealed to db that he chose to make Chardonnay his focus at his Champagne Barons de Rothschild project because he believes the grape is the “white truffle” of the region.
“It’s the best, and we wanted to do the best. To put the Rothschild name on it, it had to be the best. Also, there are only a couple of Chardonnay specialists in Champagne, like Salon and Delamotte, which gives us a chance to stand out,” he said. Going against advice “When we came to Champagne everyone was advising us to make wine with Pinot Noir and Meunier because the majority of vineyards in the region are planted with those grapes, so naturally we decided to do a Chardonnay.”
Having spent five years building relationships with local growers, de Rothschild sources his Chardonnay from 75ha of Grand and Premier Cru sites in the Côtes de Blancs. His ultimate goal is to make a single-vineyard blanc de blancs of equal stature to Clos du Mesnil from a 0.5ha plot in Vertus that he snapped up in 2013, which he plans to call Clos Rothschild.
Of the Grand Cru villages within the Côtes de Blancs, Champagne expert Michael Edwards describes Cramant – the first to be named a Grand Cru in 1919 – as “the champion”, and “a model of purity, ethereal aromas and electric thrust”. Salon’s president, Didier Depond, is equally enthusiastic about Cramant, describing it as being like “a spoon of crème fraîche in a sauce, which links everything together”.
According to Edwards, sparklers from Chouilly, meanwhile, are “friendly but serious, with mineral flavours and tension,” while Oger, favoured by Billecart-Salmon, creates “rich and silky” Champagnes, Le Mesnil gives birth to “mineral-rich, long-lived” expressions, and Avize, a favourite of Louis Roederer, produces complex Champagnes that “marry substance with aristocratic class”.
But despite his love of Chardonnay from the Côtes de Blancs, Edwards believes equally interesting expressions can be made from villages that are traditionally known for Pinot Noir, such as Aÿ, Ambonnay, Cumieres, Dizy, Ecueil, Sillery and Villers Marmery, which are “sturdier” than those from the Côtes de Blancs, but have their own inimitable character.
“The Aube has its own style of Chardonnay over Kimmerdgian limestone. It’s very close to Chablis there, and tastes like it,” he says. “Chardonnay has found its spiritual home in Champagne. It can produce wines of exceptional quality, intricacy and floral magnetism that have the intensity and potential to age for decades,” gushes
Hervé Deschamps, cellar master at Perrier-Jouët. Chardonnay and its floral character has been a signature of the house for more than 200 years. Its founders, Pierre-Nicolas Perrier and Rose-Adélaide Jouët, were among the first to recognise Chardonnay’s potential in Champagne, particularly from the Côte des Blancs.
However, a sparse Chardonnay year can mean that the house is unable to create its Chardonnay-dominant prestige cuvée Belle Epoque, and very difficult years, such as 2003, even affect the blend of its Grand Brut, meaning Deschamps has to rely more heavily on reserve wines.
“What I look for in Chardonnay are intense white-flower aromas, an inherent purity of fruit, and a precise minerality that complements the structure of Pinot Noir and the roundness of Meunier,” he says, adding, “Belle Epoque Blanc de Blancs is the quintessence of Chardonnay. It reflects the intricate characteristics of a single year by elevating Chardonnay to its purest floral glory with the brilliance and rarity of a yellow diamond.”
Another Chardonnay pioneer in the region is Salon, which, in 1905, was the first house to make a Champagne from 100% Chardonnay. Going against the grain of blending Chardonnay with Pinot Noir and Menuier and sourcing grapes from different villages, Salon’s decision to release a blanc de blancs from a single vineyard in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger seems so normal now but must have appeared audacious at the time. Convinced that if sourced from the right site, Chardonnay could perform beautifully as a solo act, founder Eugène Aimé Salon started out making the wine for his friends before releasing his first commercial vintage in 1921.
Depond describes Salon as “the story of Chardonnay in Champagne”, and feels Le Mesnil-sur-Oger offers something special, creating Champagnes with high levels of acidity, sapidity and salinity. “Salon is really a white wine with bubbles – the bubbles aren’t that important for Salon, and a lot of people don’t regard it as a Champagne. It’s viewed as a fine wine, which is good for us. Salon is the representation of Chardonnay’s ageing potential. as a Champagne. It’s viewed as a fine wine, which is good for us. Salon is the representation of Chardonnay’s ageing potential. It’s best to drink it after 15 years, but it’s still a teenager then.”
“After 20 years it starts to mature and its citrus and grapefruit notes move into the mature-fruit realm of apricot, marmalade, honeysuckle and jasmine. The complexity and diversity of different tastes is crazy, and it changes in the glass,” Depond notes. “I never drink it as an apéritif, but with food like lobster and scallops. The older vintages pair well with veal, mushroom dishes and old Parmesan.”
Depond admits that the house is in a unique position to be able to be so fanatical about quality that it only produces an average of four vintages a decade and holds the wines back for at least a decade before release, despite huge demand from consumers for more.
“If we made Salon every year it would sell out but I want to stay true to Eugène’s vision,” he says. In the case of Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne, which was created in 1952, like Salon, the house decided to go against the grain. “In the aftermath of the war, the wines made in Champagne were powerful, vinous and generous, and Pinot Noir held a prominent place in the cuvées.
Never ones to follow the herd, the Taittinger family decided to shine a light on Chardonnay in its blends and create a prestige cuvée made solely from Chardonnay to serve as an ode to finesse and elegance,” says Taittinger’s managing director, Damien le Sueur.
Last year, Lanson released its own tribute to Chardonnay in the form of Clos Lanson, a blanc de blancs made from a walled 1ha vineyard close to Reims cathedral, which is fermented in oak and aged on its lees for eight years.
Lanson’s chef de cave, Hervé Dantan, believes the vineyard’s chalk-rich soils and warmer temperatures contribute to its complexity, quality and inherent ripeness. “You get very special Chardonnay from Clos Lanson – it’s very expressive and generous, but never forgets to be elegant and has a mineral core,” he says, adding, “I wanted to tell the story of an outstanding Chardonnay in Champagne with a strong personality.
There would have been no point in making the wine if it tasted like a classic Chardonnay from Champagne – we needed something special – it’s rare to be able to combine such generosity and delicacy in the same wine,” he says.
Just 8,000 bottles of the inaugural 2006 vintage were produced. Dantan has crafted a wine from the plot each year since 2006 and the plan is to carry on in that vein if the quality is there. Chardonnay Shortage This March, Ruinart’s chef de cave, Frédéric Panaïotis, admitted to db that the growth of the house’s hugely popular blanc de blancs expression is being stifled by a shortage of Chardonnay grapes.
And given the damage caused by the late-spring frosts in Europe this year, the situation is only going to get worse. “Everything is going well but my boss would be happier if we could get more Chardonnay grapes.
Chardonnay is still less than 30% of the planted area in Champagne, and the price is not cheap, while buying vineyards is not easy, so we have to grow slowly: demand is faster than the growth we could have,” he said.
The house’s prestige cuvée, Dom Ruinart, is made from Grand Cru Chardonnay, predominantly from the Côte des Blancs, while Dom Ruinart Rosé has the same base, to which 15%-20% of Pinot Noir from Verzenay and Verzy is added. Ruinart’s CEO, Frédéric Dufour, is equally reverential towards Chardonnay, describing it as “a precious raw material”.
“The hardest grape to get is Chardonnay because it is the least-planted grape in Champagne. For great Chardonnay you need chalk and certain slopes, and the quantities produced can be tricky – the grape is fragile because it blossoms early, so great Chardonnay is a challenge to find.
“Everything that can be planted to make good Chardonnay has been planted,” Dufour told db. Bruno Paillard, who sources 80% of his Chardonnay from the Côtes de Blancs, agrees: “You can only plant Chardonnay where there is less risk of frost. The budding tends to happen earlier than Pinot Noir and, indeed, Meunier. Some areas where you now see Chardonnay aren’t necessarily delivering the projected results in terms of quality,” he reveals, describing Chardonnay as “the cornerstone” of his compositions.
In terms of pricing, Paillard discloses that a kilo of Chardonnay can range from €5.50-€6 (£4.80-£5.23) in the less highly regarded communes in Champagne to close to €8/kilo in the Côtes de Blancs. “If you only use the first pressing, as we do at Maison Bruno Paillard, it means you need 1.5 kilos of grapes per bottle, so the cost per kilo is close to €12,” he says. However, not everyone is convinced that there is a Chardonnay shortage in Champagne, with a number of producers like Salon, Lanson and Taittinger keen to point out to db that they’re having no trouble sourcing top-quality Chardonnay.
The Comité Champagne says it has seen “no evidence” of a Chardonnay shortage in Champagne, while Hervé Dantan of Lanson revealed that the house has increased the amount of Chardonnay it sources for its blends, but admitted that Chardonnay prices have gone up in recent years.
“I’m sceptical that there is much of a shortage of Chardonnay in Champagne, particularly compared with Chablis or the Côte de Beaune Blancs, where they have a real crisis of little wine to sell,” says Michael Edwards. Shortage or no shortage, the popularity of blanc de blancs is at an all-time high, and, as global cuisines move towards lighter, fresher flavours, its versatility as a food pairing wine means that this delicate star of Champagne is set to shine brighter yet.