When people ask me for a Champagne recommendation, unless I know there’s a food pairing in the works I usually start by asking what they like. 75% of the time – conservatively – I know the answer before a lip’s been parted: Veuve Clicquot. The ubiquity of the yellow label is mind blowing. What accounts for this pervasive popularity? Huge annual production allows the wine to be placed on nearly every liquor store shelf and restaurant wine list in the world. Big budget advertising and marketing dollars place the brand in lifestyle magazines, food and wine publications, blockbuster movies, and in the hands of celebrity chefs on the Food Network. The point of all this is not to debate the historical significance of the Maison Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin. Rather, it is to put into context the fact that Veuve’s “Carte Jaune” NV tells us as much about Champagne as Kendall Jackson “Vintner’s Reserve” Chardonnay tells us about California wine. Both brands are successful, both appeal to a broad audience, both are made from juice and fruit purchased from vineyards spread over all corners of their respective regions and both offer a touch of sweetness in the guise of sophisticated, dry wines. Both also lack any real sense of individuality, of character, of place.
To get a meaningful sense of Champagne, it is necessary to understand it as a place, not just a beverage. For Champagne, like California albeit on a much smaller scale, is a region of diverse geography, climate, soil, history and culture. A strong common thread exists but it is the differences that make the place and its products truly significant. To get a real sense of Champagne, it is necessary to explore the wines of the small growers.
One of my long time favorite Récoltant-Manipulant (grower-producer, RM for short) Champagne houses is Diebolt-Vallois. Based in the village of Cramant, just south of Epernay, Jacques Diebolt’s family has been producing expressive, elegant, small farm Champagnes for generations. I visited Diebolt-Vallois on a cold, rainy day in February 2004. It’s a shame when the weather prevents a walk through the vineyards; sometimes, though, one can learn more about the true heart and soul of a wine by traveling underground. Upon descending into the bottle storage cellars, excavated in 1880 in the earth below Diebolt’s pressing facility, we discovered not only some beautiful old bottles of Champagne – more on them later – but also what made those wines so expressive. We were able, literally, to see, feel, smell and taste the chalky soil of Cramant.
Most of Diebolt-Vallois’ ten hectares of vineyards are located in Cuis and Cramant, respectively premier and grand cru rated vineyard areas situated on a chalk dominated geographical outcropping called the Côtes des Blancs. If you own land on the Côtes des Blancs, you grow only one thing: Chardonnay. To plant anything else there would be folly. The chalk-rich soil is perfect for Chardonnay and, by natural extension, for the production of Blanc de Blancs – Champagnes made purely from white fruit, the specialty of the house at Diebolt-Vallois.
Like at the big Champagne houses, the non-vintage cuvées at Diebolt are made according to a house style. Consistency of flavor is sought from year to year, from bottling to bottling, making the job of the master blender – Jacques himself in this case – of utmost importance. Unlike at the big houses though, small grower wines also taste of their place. The green label Blanc de Blancs of Diebolt-Vallois, produced primarily from fruit grown in Cuis, is redolent of the Côtes des Blancs, full of fine, green apple fruit, chalky minerality and elegant focus.
The depth of character and texture that the Méthode Champenoise can add to this sense of place is made evident when tasting the estate’s special non-vintage bottling. Cuvée Prestige Blanc de Blancs is an assemblage of three consecutive vintages, the quality of each year allowing. The base wines, from old vine fruit grown entirely in Cramant, spend two years in foudres (4000 liter, 50 year-old oak casks), vessels favored by Jacques for the subtleness and complexity they impart relative to the more modern tendency toward aging in steel tanks. After blending and secondary fermentation, the Prestige spends three years on its lees before disgorgement. This period, about twice as long as for the regular non-vintage cuvée, lends the Prestige a greater degree of richness, power, toastiness and nuttiness.
The real pride of the maison is their tête de cuvée, the vintage Fleur de Passion. Made only in the best years, Fleur de Passion is a selection of the oldest vine fruit from the estate’s vineyards in Cramant. Currently, it sees five years of sur-lie aging before disgorgement. Jacques’ goal is to increase this time to seven or eight years as the estate matures. Over lunch with three generations of the Diebolt and Vallois families, we had the pleasure of experiencing what one of the best wines of the Côtes des Blancs can offer.
- 1999 Fleur de Passion
Displaying an easy, soft, broad character, this vintage was already drinking well. It showed glorious fruit, with ripe flavors of melon, pear and apple.
- 1998 Fleur de Passion (from magnum)
Leaner, more tightly wound and less opulent than the 1999. At the same time, it was more exotic in its tones of fruits and spice, was slightly yeastier, finer and brighter in its acidity.
Jacques considers 1985 one of his finest vintages. The wine showed a nose of brioche, fresh hazelnuts and flowers. A bouquet suggesting the early stages of maturity was evident but freshness was still abundant on the palate. Perhaps imagination takes too many liberties but I could clearly smell the chalky soil, just like in the caves, among the wine’s aromas.
This hailed from the era of Jacques’ father. Though not possessing as much breed as the 1985, the 1976 was still very fresh, deeply nutty on the nose, dancing on the palate with complexity and lively acidity.
After our repast, as if we needed further convincing as to the beauty and longevity of his wines, Jacques led us back down to his family’s bottle storage caves. There he opened for us not one, not two, but three bottles of his grandfather’s production of 1953 vintage Champagne. Earlier in the day, M. Diebolt had expressed that, in his experience, the benefits of sur-lie aging tend to end at around eight years, after which disgorgement is usually best. These chalk-dust covered bottles of 1953 Champagne, though, were still on their lees, resting in cork-and-clamp finished (not crown sealed) bottles. He opened and disgorged these bottles – living wines – on the spot. Like 50 year-old identical triplets who no longer look or sound exactly alike, no two bottles were the same.
The first bottle Jacques deemed not bad, not great. It was redolent of earth, leaves, mushrooms and toasted hazelnuts. He readily admitted that he’ll sometimes open several bottles before finding a really good one. He hit with bottle two. Fresher and lighter in color, it smelled of forest in the spring, tasted of stones, showed vibrant acidity and finished forever. 1953, he tells us, was a good but not great year, not like 1955, 1959 or 1961…. Still on the hunt for that elusive something special, Jacques disgorged the third bottle. Very similar to but not better than the others, this was less petillant, more oily and nutty on the palate and slightly more evolved. Just as with the other aspects of our visit that day, we learned something from all three. And all three were a true pleasure.
When selecting a grower Champagne – or any wine – it’s always best to know the producer. In the absence of foreknowledge or a helpful wine salesperson, there’s an easy if somewhat arcane way of determining the difference between grower and merchant Champagnes. A small set of letters and numbers on the label of every bottle of Champagne holds the key to the origins of what’s in the bottle. Ignoring the numbers and focusing on the letters, look for “RM.” It’s a sure sign that the wine has been made by the person who grows the fruit and owns the vineyards. Wines produced by large merchant houses will typically be labeled “NM” (Négociant-Manipulant).
As of 2004, Diebolt-Vallois has dipped a toe into the NM end of the business and their wines are now labeled accordingly. Good vineyard land in Cramant, on today’s market, is difficult to come by and prohibitively expensive, effectively keeping the Diebolt’s from adding to their ten hectare estate. Following the hot, low production 2003 growing season, and in the face of ever increasing demand from their loyal customers, M. Diebolt applied for a négociant license which now allows him, if he so chooses, to buy in up to ten percent of his overall fruit. Here’s where knowing your producer, or trusting in someone who does, becomes key. Jacques assured us that if he does purchase fruit, it will be only from talented growers with whom he has a strong relationship and whose vineyards are situated in Cramant. The goal is not to make more Champagne just to satisfy the market. It is to maintain the current and historical expression and quality of the wines of his estate while allowing his family to eke out a comfortable yet modest living from the production of their tiny property. The goal is to grow great Champagne, backed up by an economically rational insurance plan.