A sense of place: pinpointing the terroirs of Champagne

Nicolas Feuillatte isn’t a name that generally sets pulses racing in the champagne world. Founded in 1971 and partnering with the Centre Vinicole de la Champagne in 1986 to form one of the largest cooperatives in the region. Richard Juhlin is lukewarm and describes the wines as “fresh and fruity, and good when one considers the volume.”

It wasn’t the Brut or the Palmes d’Or we were trying this week though, in 1995 Nicolas Feuillatte started to produce a collection of single-village, 100% varietal vintages sourced from six grand crus villages in a single year. This was a real departure for the house, and they only made these wines over a three year period (1995-97), which means it is difficult to find examples – particularly of all six. We were doubly lucky to have the selection from the 1996 vintage, which is renowned as being one of the best in champagne since the famed 1928s. A long, dry summer ensured ripe grapes, but they maintained acidity which promises great ageability.

One of the reasons we were so anticipating this tasting is that in a region so renowned for blending this gave a unique opportunity to examine the influence of the landscape and geology on the wines, and perhaps from there we will start to understand what each village can contribute to a blend.

The wines naturally split into two flights those from Chouilly, Cramant and le Mesnil sur Oger – all grand cru for Chardonnay, and the second from Ambonnay, Verzy and Ay – grand crus for Pinot Noir.

Champagne tasting

The line up, the Cote de Blancs in glass

Round one: Cote des Blancs

The Cote des Blancs stretches south from Epernay along the D9 to Bergeres-les-Vertus, the soils and geographies vary greatly over this 15km stretch.

Chouilly is located below Epernay at the northern tip of the Cote des Blancs, it was elevated from premier to grand cru status in 1985, and some people imply that it perhaps isn’t top of the echelle des crus. The vineyards here often have large rounds stones, like the famed galets in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which act like night storage heaters soaking up warmth during the day and releasing it to the vines at night. This extra warmth is said to manifest itself as a round tropical style in the wines.

The 1996 Chouilly was a bright golden yellow. It had the most complex nose of the three, a vibrant grilled pineapple oozed out of the glass, it was starting to show developed aromas, a nuttiness and vegetal notes.

The second wine was from Cramant, just about 6 kilometres south, the village has steeper gradients which form an amphitheatre of vines around the village with sun seeking south, east and south-easterly aspects. The topsoil in Cramant is thin, and the theory is that forces wines to root deep for water and nutrients and capture the minerality of the soil.

Sadly the 1996 Cramant was corked, it did exhibit a noticeably different nose to the Chouilly and the Le Mesnil, it was fresher with a Manzanilla like saltiness. The palate was slightly waxy with lemons and sour apples.

Finally we moved 8 kilometer further south to Le Mesnil sur Oger, one of the most feted Chardonnay grand crus, and well-known for Krug’s Clos du Mesnil single vineyard cuvee. Le Mesnil covers a large area which is all classified as grand cru, but there are variations so the site is important. The soils in Le Mesnil are very thin, the vines are almost growing directly on the chalk which can lead to high acidity, so grapes need to be properly ripe for a good vintage. Wines often have a high minerality and can be austere in their youth.

The 1996 Le Mesnil took time to reveal its character, it had apple pie on the nose and was savoury on the palate. We detected cashew nuts and a hint of caramel.

Champagne region map

Pinot Noir country

For the next three wines we moved north to the Montagne de Reims area which suits Pinot Noir particularly well. Despite the name it isn’t a mountain, more a long hill with a plateau at the crown which is covered by thick forests where wild boar roam. The vineyards run along the northern and north eastern slopes of the montagne.

Our most northerly village was Verzy, which like Chouilly was promoted to grand cru status in 1985. The north east facing slopes tend to produce slightly less ripe fruit leading to less powerful wines than its neighbour Verzenay.

The 1996 Verzy was definitely edgier than the other two Pinots. It has a pronounced mineral backbone, without so much flesh around it. The aromas were of garden vegetables.

Next we journeyed 10 kilometres south to Ambonnay, which has 100% grand cru vineyards, it has a high elevation and south facing slopes. The soils have streaks of chalk which are said to give a luscious character, a minerality and dynamism to the wines which are sometimes compared to the Burgundy village Volnay.

Our 1996 Ambonnay had a nutty nose which later revealed smoky bacon, dried ceps and honey-suckle. It was quite fresh on the palate with some green apples.

Our final destination of the evening was Ay, a small village with a big reputation. It is considered one of the best in the world and is often spoken of in the same breath as Romanee Conti. European royalty in the 16th and 17th century drank a pale red wine produced in Ay in preference to Burgundy. Ay is about 15 kilometres south west towards Epernay in the Vallée de la Marne. The vineyards here are south facing and generally on steep hills which can produce a variety of styles depending on the site.

Our final wine the 1996 Ay was a real extrovert of a wine. It had a creamy, honeycomb nose and a hint of ripe strawberries with savoury mushroom flavours.

It was a really eye opening evening, all of the wines had their own personalities and given they were from the same producer and year and had been kept together under identical circumstances, it is fair to suggest that the differences must come from their terroir – that elusive impossible to translate concept that cover the climate, weather, vineyard aspect, geology and anything else that is specific to the village location. Asked to pick a favourite, the Ay won the vote – a seductive show stopper with a great balance of textures and a cool sophisticated finish.

There are hundreds of villages across the champagne region, not to mention the numerous lieux-dits (individual vineyards), but by tasting six of these across the three main areas we can start to get a picture of the personalities of some of the best villages. At Clos & Cru our ambitions are always high, after the tasting we were already thinking about the possibility of a 1996 tasting which covers all 17 grand cru villages – watch this space!

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