Wine Legends 2013
Salon, Le Mesnil 1985, Champagne, France
A legend because…
Salon is a unique Champagne house. It is the smallest of the grandes marques but, more importantly, it is defined by three criteria that were unique until Krug started producing its Clos du Mesnil in 1979: it is made from a single variety, Chardonnay; from a single but outstanding village, Mesnil; and is only made as a vintage wine. That means that in many years no Salon is produced. This approach is, of course, the direct opposite of the widespread Champagne philosophy of blending varieties from a range of sources. Like other vintage Champagnes, it is only produced in exceptional years. Thus only 37 vintages have been produced since 1905.
Salon was named after its founder, Eugène-Aimé Salon, a furrier from Paris who set up the house to furnish wines for the enthusiastic consumption of his friends. He produced wines from 1905 onwards, but it was only with the 1921 vintage that Salon was released commercially. After his death in 1943, his niece inherited the property, and later sold it to Dubonnet. By 1985 Dubonnet had been absorbed by drinks giant Pernod Ricard. This would be their last vintage as, in 1988, Salon was sold to Laurent- Perrier, who still owns and manages the property. Winemaker Didier Depond observes that because the wine is made in very small quantities (60,000 bottles maximum), he is encouraged to focus solely on quality, since Laurent-Perrier does not need to rely on Salon for its profits. Nonetheless the wine has always been very expensive.
The winter was exceedingly cold, but as the vines were dormant in January, no damage was done. However, fierce frosts continued into the spring, and some vines were destroyed. ‘There is certainly something to be said for the "survivor" grapes of the terrible 1985 winter – they gave this wine an energy that can still be felt today,' recalls Vianney Gravereaux, export director of Salon. Then the weather improved and flowering took place normally. The summer was warm, with high temperatures in August, and the harvest began in late September, resulting in healthy grapes of very high quality, though volumes were reduced by one-third.
Salon owns just over a hectare of vines, called the Jardin de Salon and located behind the house, but they were virused and had to be replanted in 2002. Most of the grapes are purchased from 19 growers in Mesnil, from 13ha (hectares) of vines. Many of those are more than 40 years old and planted on mid-slopes, the best location for hillside vines. Some of the growers are from the same families from which Salon himself bought grapes. The crumbly chalk soils allow the roots to descend deeply in search of nutrients. The chalk also promotes high acidity in the grapes, which is one reason why the Salon wines need ageing before disgorgement and consumption.
Selection during harvest ensures only top-quality grapes reach the winery. Only the first pressing is used. Fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks, and once the alcoholic fermentation is completed the decision is made whether the wine will be worthy of Salon. There is no malolactic fermentation. The wine is aged in bottles for eight to 12 years before disgorgement, and the dosage is low at 4–8g per litre. Since the wine is always from a single vintage, there is no use of reserve wines. The style of Salon is very distinctive: austere in its youth but with tremendous weight and vinosity that make it one of the few blancs de blancs that can be drunk with food. It is perhaps for this reason that it has always found more favour with export markets than with French consumers.
The tiny production (for a Champagne) means recorded tasting notes are rare. In 1998 Tom Stevenson wrote: ‘Very fine, elegant and pure. Delightful now, but will mature gracefully for another 30 years.' Leading sommelier Enrico Bernardo commented: 'Magnificent effervescence, rich in elegant and persistent bubbles... In the mouth, the structure is very subtle and of extreme elegance. I cannot resist tasting it a second time to savour the frankness and precision of a Champagne that will surely have a long life.'
Bottles produced 20,000
Composition 100% Chardonnay
Yield varied from grower to grower
Release price (in 1999) €150
Price today £780