Champagne revels in its exclusivity, yet its 17 grand cru vineyards remain largely unknown. GILES FALLOWFIELD asks what each brings to the table, and why they don’t appear on the label.

Champagne has many similarities with Burgundy, its nearest vineyard neighbour. They have the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grape varieties in common and thus, if you can look beyond the bubbles in Champagne, produce wines with a similar taste profile. Both use the same quality rating system, with the top vineyards in each appellation designated as grand cru, and premier cru the next level down.

However, while in Burgundy the terms grand and premier cru are clearly written on the labels of the vast majority of the wines entitled to use them, they don’t appear on many bottles of Champagne.Why not? Partly because in the modern era, Champagne sales are dominated by brand names like Moët & Chandon, Laurent-Perrier and Veuve Clicquot. As a result, the concept of grand cru Champagne hasn’t really been developed. But consumers are more likely to come across these terms in the future.

So what is grand cru Champagne, why aren’t more wines sold as such? And why are Champagne’s top vineyards not as well known as the likes of Chambertin, Clos Vougeot and Le Montrachet?

In Champagne, all 318 villages are quality rated in the Echelle des Crus system (literally ‘ladder of growths’) and given a classification rating between 100 and 80% (the lowest rating). Some 257 of these are assessed somewhere between 80 and 89. One rung higher come the 44 premiers crus, which range in their classification from 90 to 99. Top of the pile are the 17 grand cru villages, all rated 100% on the Echelle des Crus.

Yet while there may be fewer grands crus in Champagne than in Burgundy, as the designation is applied to whole villages and not just specific vineyard sites, these 17 crus between them cover a far larger total area of vineyard than Burgundy’s equivalent sites. There are more than 4,360ha (hectares) of grands crus in Champagne – close to 14% of the appellation’s vineyards.

Despite their size (or perhaps because of it) you are unlikely to have heard of even half of them. Sillery, with 89ha, is the most substantial of the six smallest, most obscure crus that between them muster 300ha. The other 11 crus are all over 260ha each, and even the smallest of these, Avize, with 262ha of vines, covers an area greater than all 30 grands crus of the Côte d’Or put together.

It is quite conceivable that the very size of Champagne’s grands crus mitigates against the sort of cachet enjoyed by tiny crus like Le Montrachet in Burgundy. As Joseph Henriot said when buying Burgundy négociant Bouchard in the mid-90s: ‘There are 8ha of Montrachet for the whole world. In Romanée-Conti there are only 1.8ha of grand cru vineyard, while in Champagne the appellation covers 30,000+ha of land. Its rarity value is just not the same.’

The largest grand cru in Champagne is Chouilly in the Côte des Blancs with an area under vine of just over 500ha. If all the grapes produced here were vinified and sold as Grand Cru Chouilly Blanc de Blancs as they could be, in an average harvest in Champagne that would easily amount to 5 million bottles, making it hard to claim any great rarity value.

You could argue that the way the grand cru classification is applied in Champagne is not nearly as rigorous as in Burgundy, and that classifying all the slopes in some of the larger villages at the same 100% level doesn’t reflect the varying quality produced in particular parcels of land which don’t all have the same favourable aspect, soil or exposure. But this isn’t why there’s a paucity of grand cru Champagne on the market.

The reason has much more to do with the fact that non-vintage Champagne is a blend of harvests, three grape varieties, and the myriad of crus that exist across the appellation. Champagne is not a compact, continuous, homogeneous vineyard producing grapes with near-identical characteristics. Rather it is one where the differing microclimate, aspect and exposure of individual sites results in a large range of styles. The Champagne appellation extends 150km north to south and 115km east to west.

This is not one continuous stretch of vineyards, but rather various distinct groupings. The southerly villages of the Côte des Bar are considerably closer to the town of Chablis, some 45km to the west, than to Epernay (over 100km away), the town at the heart of the three largest and most prestigious production zones: the Montagne de Reims, the Vallée de la Marne and the Côte des Blancs.

A varied cru

To try to get an idea of what different crus bring to any blend, the best people to talk to are Champagne’s winemakers. Because the non-vintage cuvées produced by the major houses are mostly large and complex blends, sometimes using as many as 100 different crus, it’s tricky for even quite experienced tasters to assess the influence of individual crus in these wines, however strong a personality they may have.

It’s better to look at some of Champagne’s finest and, in terms of the number of component parts, least complex mixes – wines that in many cases are made up from just a few of the appellation’s grands crus. Mumm Grand Cru is one such relatively simple blend that seeks to highlight the potential of five of the best grand crus: Avize and Cramant for Chardonnay; Bouzy, Verzenay and Aÿ for Pinot Noir. Cellarmaster Dominique Demarville talked me through the composition of the blend made from the 2004 harvest, a wine that won’t be for sale until the end of 2007.

‘This wine focuses on the five terroirs at the heart of our house style,’ he explains. ‘Verzenay Pinot Noir brings a distinctive mineral character, hazelnut aromas, fresh fruit flavours of peach and apricot and a long aftertaste. Bouzy provides the wine’s structure and power, with ripe, stewed fruit and hints of smoky vegetal flavours, while Aÿ Pinot contributes spicy richness to the palate.’

The two Chardonnays from the Côte des Blancs make up 42% of the blend. Avize is light and fresh with aromas of acacia blossom, honey and hazelnuts, while Cramant provides crisp acidity and tart citrus fruit flavours. With up to 25% reserve wines in the blend and up to five years’ ageing prior to disgorging, it’s a hugely versatile wine with a rich potential for complementing food.

Taittinger’s Prélude Grand Cru blend, also recently launched in the UK market, is an interesting contrast to Mumm’s. While it too has Chardonnay from Avize and Bouzy Pinot Noir, the other two components are different: Le Mesnil Chardonnay and Ambonnay Pinot. The resulting blend is fuller and richer, showing what Claude Taittinger calls ‘the vinosity of the Montagne de Reims crus, their more pronounced flavours’, balanced by the ‘typical Côte des Blancs villages delicacy, and demonstrating that these grands crus are worthy of their centuries-old reputation’.

Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, head winemaker at Louis Roederer, believes it’s dangerous when assessing wines prior to blending to be too influenced by a wine’s origin, grand cru or otherwise. ‘You can have very good wines from “small crus” and very average wines from grands crus. It is more a question of the quality of your viticulture.

‘That being said, our vintage wines are made from our own vineyards and we are lucky to have some of the best in Champagne,’ says Lecaillon. ‘They are mostly located in grands crus in the Côte des Blancs, Vallée de la Marne and in Montagne de Reims (Verzenay, Verzy). The Côte des Blancs brings finesse, elegance and ageing potential; the Vallée de la Marne brings fruitiness, roundness and silkiness; the Montagne de Reims bringing power, ageing potential and a mineral endless finish.’

‘My purpose is not to criticise the “classification” of grands crus and other crus,’ he adds. ‘My point is just that Champagne is more than a “cru” story. It’s about the art of blending and the particular style of each house.’ Style and substance, then…