White gold: Chardonnay in Champagne

Clos Lanson

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.”

Herve Dantan of Lanson

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.

Krug Clos du Mesnil

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.

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