White gold: Chardonnay in Champagne

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”.

Didier Demond of Salon

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.

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