Stephen Brook takes a closer look at Salon, the almost mythical Champagne house with a loyal following among those in the know.
Salon is a Champagne that breaks the rules. Almost all Champagne is blended from different vineyards in different villages – Salon uses only grapes from the village of Mesnil along the Côte de Blancs. All other Champagne houses produce both non-vintage and vintage wines – Salon produces nothing other than vintage. And
Salon is a blanc de blancs, made solely from Chardonnay. This alone is not remarkable, but taken in combination with its other distinguishing characteristics, it makes Salon a unique product. And rare, with only 34 vintages released since 1911.
It was created more as a hobby than as a business by Eugène-Aimé Salon, a pleasure-loving furrier, devoted to gastronomy, travel and entertaining his friends. At first he made Champagne for private consumption, but over the years it so impressed those who drank it that Salon was urged to produce it commercially, which he first did in 1921.
After his death in 1943, Salon’s niece inherited the property and it passed through various hands until it was sold to Laurent-Perrier in 1988. Despite these changes, quality at Salon remained high. Under the stewardship of Laurent-Perrier, quality has been immaculate, and those charged with running the property are dedicated to improving it yet further.
Salon owns just 1ha (hectare) of vineyards, the Jardin de Salon, behind the house and cellars in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. The vines, however, caught a virus and were replanted in 2002. The meagre production of this plot is supplemented by purchases from some 20 growers with parcels in outstanding sites. Many of these vines are 40 years old with the average age roughly 25. Some of the growers are descended from those who supplied Eugène-Aimé Salon.
Even in the rarefied world of Champagne’s prestige cuvées, Salon remains a curiosity. No more than 60,000 bottles are produced in any single vintage, so by Champagne standards it is rare, and costly. Despite its high price, it is hard to imagine accountants looking kindly on Salon and it’s fair to assume it is made to add lustre to the reputation of its proprietor.
Not everyone will enjoy Salon, which combines austerity with vinosity. It is one of the very few Champagnes I could drink with pleasure throughout a meal. I put this to the test some years ago when dining with the then director of Salon, Bertrand de Fleurian, who disgorged some older vintages shortly before our meal. There was no dosage, so the wines had to be drunk in their purest state, without any softening addition of sugar. They were magnificent, and, as the dinner progressed, I ceased to think of Salon as a Champagne as it gradually took on the vinous majesty of a grand cru Burgundy. The bubbles seemed incidental and the intensity of the fruit took centre stage.
To produce Salon is an act of courage, since by definition it is never subjected to the art of the blender. What comes in from the vineyards and passes through the presses is Salon – nothing can be added. Since the 1970s, the wine has been fermented in steel. There is no malolactic fermentation and no use of reserve wines. The dosage never exceeds 8g to ensure the typicity of Salon is not masked by sugar.
Alain Terrier, chef de caves at Laurent-Perrier, keeps an eye on the young wines and tastes them in January to decide if they are worthy of the Salon label.
The wines of Mesnil are marked by high acidity, and none more so than Salon.
Consequently, it needs time to age. This process varies from vintage to vintage, but in general a bottle of Salon is aged for 8–12 years before commercial release. Because Salon is produced under such severe constraints, vintage years are not always predictable. In 1989, an acclaimed year, it was decided to skip the vintage because its low acidity was deemed inimical to its style. Yet it was produced in the far from exceptional year of 1951.
Curiously, Salon has no great following in France. It appears on many prestigious restaurant wine lists, but sales are sluggish at no more than 2,000 bottles a year. It is easier for sommeliers to sell better known brands than the austere Salon, which is not to everyone’s taste. And it has one final, rather reassuring, idiosyncracy – it has yet to become a celebrity accessory.
Stephen Brook is a contributing editor to Decanter
Written by Stephen Brook