To really know the taste of wines from a certain place - this is not an easy thing for most of us. If you are fortunate enough to drink many examples over many years, it becomes possible. When trying to learn about terroir, Champagne presents challenges that Burgundy, for example, does not. Although the majority of Burgundy wines are of the regional or villages classification, single vineyard bottles are so widely available that your local wine shop doesn't have to be particularly creative to stock them. There are nowhere near as many single vineyard Champagnes on the market, although the number is growing. Most often when we drink Champagne, we drink a blend of wines from several parcels of several vineyards, perhaps even from several different villages and vintages. Add that to the fact that Champagne must be crafted in the cellar in a way that most still wines are not, it is easy to understand why some people do not consider Champagne to be a wine of terroir.
It may be understandable, but it is simply wrong. Just because it is challenging to discern Champagne terroir does not mean that Champagne is not a wine of terroir. It requires more experience, and I would say more commitment on the taster's part, to understand Champagne terroir. I most certainly do not understand it and I drink as much Champagne as I can. One of the best things about being in Champagne recently was that I had the opportunity to vastly accelerate my learning about the different terroirs.
If you visit a Champagne producer a few months after the harvest but before the following spring, and if you are lucky, you will have the chance to taste vin clair, the base wine that eventually becomes sparkling wine. Some producers vinify all of their parcels separately and you might taste them one after the other, listening as they describe the characteristics of that particular place, comparing the taste of a Chardonnay from an the middle of an east-facing slope with hardly any topsoil to a Chardonnay from the same village, but from a sandy parcel lower down on a south-facing slope. The wines smell, taste, and feel different from one another.
Tasting and then blending of vins clair has typically been the purview of the wine maker and his or her team, a behind the scenes affair. Peter Liem told me that it was only about ten years ago when critics began to taste vins clair. "I want to truly understand the wines," he said. "To do that I need to taste them from the beginning as vin clair, before following their development in bottle." Peter's post on his old Besotted Ramblings blog demonstrates the kind of learning one can do when tasting vin clair.
The first estate that Peter and I visited last week was Chartogne-Taillet in Merfy, and the first thing we did was taste vins clair. Alexandre Chartogne dipped a pipette into a barrel of Chardonnay from Les Heurtebises, a vineyard of sand and limestone. This is the base wine that becomes Chartogne-Taillet's Blanc de Blancs.
We tasted Pinot Noir from Les Orizeaux that is eventually blended with Chardonnay from a great vineyard called Chemin de Reims to make the house's prestige wine, Cuvée Fiacre. And most instructively for me, we spent a lot of time with the Meunier from Les Barres. This wine comes from 55 year old ungrafted vines on sandy soils, and I found it to be highly distinctive. The aromas reminded me of Tarlant's La Vignes d'Antan, another wine made from ungrafted old vines on sandy soils. Sounds reasonable enough until you consider that Tarlant is located in Oueilly in the Marne Valley and Chartogne-Taillet is way up north in the Montagne de Reims. And La Vigne d'Antan is made of Chardonnay, not Meunier! Maybe there is something about ungrafted vines on sandy soils...
I had a similar experience when tasting vins clair at Champagne Philipponnat in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. Philipponnat is the sole owner of one of the most famous vineyards in Champagne, the Clos des Goisses.
Clos des Goisses is a very well exposed severely steep vineyard and is one of the warmer sites in Champagne. Export Manager Vianney Gravereaux said that the grapes regularly achieve 12% potential alcohol, compared with between 10 and 10.5% in most of Champagne. It is a large vineyard at 5.5 hectares, long and narrow with many different parcels, a bit more than half Pinot Noir and the rest Chardonnay. There is not much topsoil over the abundant chalk.
We were lucky enough to taste two vins clair from the Clos des Goisses, a Pinot and a Chardonnay. Although the character of the grape was discernible in both wines, they shared a powerful floral fragrance and an exquisite depth and richness while maintaining great detail and finesse. This, not the grapes, defined the character of both wines.
All of this said, what strikes me the most in reflecting on these experiences is that in the end, I learned how much that I don't know. For example, how to translate this new understanding of certain Champagne terroirs via vin clair, to understanding what I am tasting and smelling when drinking a bottle of the finished product?