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Jefford on Monday: The Champagne enigma

This was fun: the chance to help present two Masterclasses on one of my favourite subjects - growers' Champagnes.

It’s a favourite for three reasons. The first is that small-producer Champagnes of this sort often have a personality which the necessarily crowd-pleasing offerings of the large houses don’t.

The second is that they give you a detailed peep at Champagne’s terroirs, since they are often single-village or even single-vineyard wines.

And the third is that they push the boundaries of the Champagne experience in intriguing ways – towards zero dosage, for example, or towards the controlled oxidation brought by wood handling and storage, or towards a flavour spectrum conditioned not by neutral selected yeasts but by indigenous yeasts.

One of the tastings featured growers from a spread of villages, from Merfy in the north of the region (Chartogne-Taillet) all the way down to Avirey-Lingey in the Aube (Dosnon & Lepage). We taste-travelled via Chouilly, Congy and lonely Montgueux en route (Stéphen Coquillette, Ulysse Colin and Jacques Lassaigne respectively).

The other Masterclass, by contrast, featured one village alone: Le Mesnil, on the Côtes des Blancs. We still, though, scrutinised the work of four growers: Pierre Péters, Guy Charlemagne, J.L.Vergnon and Salon (whose wine is blended from the company’s own small vineyard as well as those of 13 other families in the village).

In the audience for both Masterclasses was a knowledgable Australian couple. They grabbed me afterwards. “If these two tastings prove anything,” they said, “it’s that not every village in Champagne is capable of making single-village Champagne. Le Mesnil’s fantastic. The others just can’t do it.”

Indeed when I’d chatted to Rodolphe Péters in preparing the event, this was the point that he had made. “I think that Le Mesnil in fact is one of the only villages in the whole of Champagne where you can make a wine from one variety, in one village, in one year and sometimes even one parcel which nonetheless has as much power and complexity as a great blend coming from different varieties and different sites.”

This was an uncomfortable moment for me. My interlocutors weren’t wrong. The Le Mesnil wines were clearly superior: sinewy, penetrating and incisive, both shapely and sappy, with an aromatic resonance and purity to them. The others were characterful enough, and mostly well-made, but slight by comparison.

So is it only worth making single-vineyard or single-village Champagne from Grand Cru sites alone? Should we send all the other growers back to selling grapes by phone to Mercier and Moët?

I don’t think so. A bottle of Grands Echézeaux will always be more complete than a village Vosne from the flat vineyards along the side of the D974, but that doesn’t mean that both aren’t delicious at the right moment.

Le Mesnil’s growers have enjoyed over a century of practice in producing unblended Champagne which growers in other villages haven’t. Skill in handling the raw materials counts for much.

Perhaps the best of all the non-Le Mesnil Champagnes came from Alexandre Chartogne, yet Merfy only ever scored a dismal 84% on the former échelle des crus, and Chartogne’s wine is grown on clay, sand and sandstone on the Massif de St Thierry in Champagne’s polar extremes. If he can do it, anyone can.

Confining growers’ Champagnes to the Grands Crus alone, moreover, would mean that we’d never get a taste of anything north of Mailly, west of Aÿ or south of Le Mesnil. That would be a restricted view of the region. Bring them all on; let’s relish the learning experience; and let the market reward the best.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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