Côte des Blancs and Terroir

The Côte des Blancs is an East-facing hillside to the South of Epernay famous for growing Chardonnay. It includes many Chardonnay Grand Crus, and villages famed for wine quality such as Cramant, Avize, Oger, Vertus, and the esteemed Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. In terms of quality and price, these constitute some of the most preciousterroirs anywhere on Earth. Or at least parts of these villages do, since the Champenois cru system allows all vineyards within a village to be considered of equal status, regardless of individualterroir[1].

Variations in soil are broadly categorized as physical and chemical. Physical differences in soils such as depth, layering, consistency, water retention, coarseness and structure all impact on the growth habit and resultant fruit of the vine. Chemical differences are perhaps more subtle, and include acidity (and alkalinity), macronutrient availability, micronutrient availability, chelation and soils microflora.  These two elements are deeply interconnected and manifest as an endless variety of nuance and variation in grape, must and wine flavours.

The climate influence drives elements of the vine’s growth habit and the grape’s ripening (and character of the resultant wines) that are largely determined by sunshine, aspect, heat summation, rainfall, humidity, wind and diurnal patterns. Each growing location is in this way unique.  The influence of climate is perhaps greater than that of soil and vigneron, according to Anselme Selosse.[2]

In the Côte de Blancs, a region of minute vineyard parcels and subtlety of terroir, to consider the importance of individual grape character from each village is to look perhaps too broadly. Instead, the individual vineyard may be taken to have its own personality, just as they do in Alsace, the Mosel or Côte de Nuits. Quoting Didier Gimmonet: “Cramant, for instance, is grand cru, but only 150 hectares of its 230 hectares produce exceptional wine.” [3] Elements of soil depth and moisture; aspect and heat; sunshine and wind all coalesce at a tiny level in terms of hectares, yet perceptible in terms of taste. In cold climates, terroir contributes from the finest details of landscape and geology.

In the Côte des Blancs, the topsoils are thin at around 30 centimeters, and the Chardonnay finds root in chalk at a lesser depth than elsewhere, finding reliable water and undoubtedly its font of minerality. The Easterly aspect basks in the warm morning sun and humidity is dispelled early, reducing the risk of powdery mildew and hastening ripening.[4] The common feature of Chardonnay coming from the Côte de Blancs is minerality, and this relationship between Chardonnay roots and shallow chalks appears to be the key.

By contrast, the Montagne de Reims has Pinot Noir planted in its finest crus.  When we consider Ambonnay and Bouzy these are predominantly South facing, catching the warmest sunshine, and have deeper topsoils, between 1.5 and 2 meters, before the chalk layer.  Pinot Noir, it appears, is less reliant on shallow chalks for its finest expression.

Attempts to objectively assess wine quality, in this context, are of course nearly impossible. Critics’ reviews and scores are inevitably exposed to the vaguaries of bottle, context and subjectivity. The market’s pricing is no more reliable, being a response to fashion and marketing as well as wine quality per se. These factors notwithstanding, it remains worthwhile to consider that two of the greatest Champagnes of all come from the village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. According to Stelzer, “no village in Champagne is capable of standing alone as confidently as Le Mesnil-sur-Oger.”

When considering Krug’s Clos de Mesnil and Salon Cuvee S Le Mesnil, in terms of market price and review, it is clear that this village holds a prestigious position in the Cote des Blancs.[5] For example, although the Jacquesson Avize Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 2000 commands a score of 96 points and a price of $186, by comparison Krug’s Clos de Mesnil 1998 receives no less than 100 points. The listed price is $1950, if you can find it at all.

 



[1] Grapes from a specific varietal may deliver wines with diverse flavours due to variations in the soil and climate in which they were grown. This observation is broadly considered under the notion ofterroir, whereby the growing environment has its unique imprint on the character of the grapes and their resultant wines.

 

 

[2] 3 Taken from Stelzer, T (2011) The Champagne Guide, pp. 10, 23.

[5] 4Drawn from both Jancis Robinson’s reviews viewed at:http://www.jancisrobinson.com  ; and Stelzer, T (2011) The Champagne Guide.

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