A New French Pop

The world's best champagnes have always been blends—but now connoisseurs are after something unique. Bruce Schoenfeld investigates the era of small batches and single vineyards.

A few months ago, at the Moet & Chandon headquarters in Ay, France, a young enologist named Benoît Gouez uncorked a vision of the future: three new Champagnes, site-specific down to their names—Les Vignes de Saran, Les Champs de Romont, and Les Sarments de Ay. Known collectively as La Trilogie des Grands Crus and sold as a threesome ($275), they are severely limited in production (4,000 sets per year) and come wrapped in silk paper. The real interest, though, lies within the luxurious packaging, for while most Champagnes are a meticulous blend of grapes from different sites, these unique cuvées are made exclusively from grapes grown in a single grand cru vineyard. "In this way," Gouez explained, "we can isolate each particular terroir."

In recent years, the concept of terroir—the essence of a piece of land as defined by its climate, soil, history, and various intangibles—has captivated the sophisticated palate, inspiring an ever-increasing variety of poultry, heirloom tomatoes, and grain-fed cattle carrying the provenance of specific plots around the globe. With wine, the most noticeable manifestation of this trend has been a dramatic surge in bottlings from grapes grown in a particular vineyard. But specific sources and small batches are inimical to the way Champagne has traditionally been produced, which is why the mere existence of La Trilogie is so fascinating. If Moët & Chandon—the region's biggest, most successful producer of blends—is releasing single-vineyard Champagnes, what does that foretell about the future of the region?

In many ways, Champagne owes its uniqueness to the whims of nature. Because the region is as far north as Newfoundland, summers are often cold and rainy and many grapes fail to fully ripen. Over the years, winemakers developed a defense against difficult harvests. By blending grapes from different areas, they can achieve a high level of quality and consistency from bottle to bottle and vintage to vintage. Champagne houses have always considered that a distinct advantage over still wines, which rely on a small number of vineyards (often just one) and the juice of a single vintage to make each bottling. (In Burgundy, the best bottlings of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are sourced from specific rows of vines.) So while a Romanée-Conti La Tâche will taste different from a Romanée-Conti Echezeaux, and a '79 Lafite will taste different from a '78, nonvintage Champagnes will always taste just as you remember them. Even the top vintage names—Dom Pérignon, Cristal—have enough vineyards to maintain a certain house style year after year.

No specialized knowledge of difficult-to-pronounce grapes or hard-to-remember vintages is required to enjoy a bottle of Champagne, and this has given the top brands incredible staying power. But these days, it is precisely that quality of predictability that has begun to make Champagnes, no matter how exquisite, seem a little less challenging and intriguing to many refined palates. Among still wines, novelty, not timelessness, is the vogue: new appellations, far-flung wine regions, and obscure grapes. Famous names are no longer enough. The most coveted wines in the world today are no longer the first growths of Bordeaux, the Latours and Lafites made in runs of hundreds of thousands of bottles; they're the limited releases from small parcels in Napa, Pomerol, Piedmont, and beyond. If out of a particular vineyard only a few thousand bottles, or even a few hundred, are produced, possessing one of them has a huge appeal.

Would Champagne makers be able to adapt to please this burgeoning market of terroir connoisseurs, or would they stick to their centuries-old traditions? To find out, I shuttled from Reims to Epernay, the towns housing the most famous vineyards and wineries in the region, and roamed the back roads from one village to the next. To my surprise, I found the beginning of a change in attitude. Specific villages and even vineyards have become very important to consumers of fine wines, and the Champagne houses are beginning, ever so slowly, to understand that. While this won't affect that nonvintage Bollinger or Laurent-Perrier you're so fond of, it has already resulted in new lines of high-end site-specific cuvées. Here are our top picks of the best of the new—and the classic—Champagnes.

The Finest Big Blends

In the world of Champagne, bigger has traditionally meant better. Moët & Chandon releases as many as five million bottles of Dom Pérignon in an average year, and an astounding 40 million bottles of Champagne in all. Jean-Claude Rouzaud, CEO of Louis Roederer, says he usually releases about a half-million bottles of Cristal, while Veuve Clicquot makes some 10 million bottles of Champagne annually. Those numbers may sound more fitting for a soft drink than the most exalted beverage in the world, but these producers became famous precisely because they had enough vineyards to source plenty of top-quality grapes every year. Moreover, the blending process itself creates Champagnes of extraordinary complexity, comparable to hearing an entire orchestra rather than a single instrument.

"There's no one vineyard in Champagne that would offer the balance necessary to make a great wine," says Georges Alnot, managing director of Champagne Lanson. "Great grapes make great Champagne, not great vineyards. The secret is in the blending."

Moët & Chandon brags that as many as 300 different vineyards, from outside Reims to the Marne Valley, may be used to make a bottle of Dom Pérignon instantly recognizable. Even the best vintages are far from identical in crop size, ripeness, and flavors, so Dom Pérignon's chef de cave, Richard Geoffroy, tastes and blends and tinkers until the mix is just right. Then the next harvest comes and he begins again, tasting cuvées from a range of new grapes whose different attributes are brought on by more rain, less rain, or cooler nights. The result is one of the very best Champagnes in the world, with the notes of nutmeg and even chestnut leading the way to a crisp and elegantly subtle wine.

Krug's Grande Cuvée is also a model of the art of blending, using as many as 50 vineyards from 20 towns, and up to ten different vintages. "Champagne is a created wine, not just a wine given by climate and soil," Remi Krug says, "just as music is not just notes and instruments, it is Mozart and Tchaikovsky. What consumers should want to know about their Champagne is who made it. That is far more important than where it comes from, or even when."

DOM PERIGNON 1993 Typical nutmeg nose heralds the approach of Dom. Subtle, clean, utterly refined, as always; $125.

KRUG GRANDE CUVEE NV The nose of a red wine, the finish of a champion. Something special; $125.

POL ROGER CUVEE SIR WINSTON CHURCHILL 1993 Yeasty but evanescent. Bubbles the size of pinpricks. Stars in the mouth; $145.

ROEDERER CRISTAL 1995 Too young; the bittersweet fruit on the back of the palate says so. A big, complex wine; $160.

POMMERY LOUISE 1990 Crisp, in the Pommery style. Bordering on abrasive in its purity; $100.

BOLLINGER GRANDE ANNEE 1992 Distinct from the '92 Vieilles Vignes Françaises: peach on the nose, cherries on the palate, layers of flavor; $90.

Small-Batch Champagnes

Moët & Chandon is not the only major house to produce small volumes of connoisseurs' Champagnes that, like La Trilogie, reflect a specific place. Bollinger's startlingly good Vieilles Vignes Françaises is produced in 2,000-bottle lots from fruit grown in only three minuscule vineyards. The house of Salon produces a limited-release cuvée made from the grapes of a single village; it has been released only 33 times since 1921, but the wines are invariably superb.

Not only does Krug's Clos du Mesnil, a knife-sharp Champagne, come from a single village, it comes from a single enclosed five-acre vineyard in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, south of Epernay. Because only tiny quantities are made, Clos du Mesnil can be considered Champagne's first cult wine. Industry insiders were initially very skeptical about its potential. "When Remi Krug decided to launch a single-vineyard, single-vintage Champagne in 1971, I was against it," admits Roederer's Rouzaud. "It opposes the logic of Champagne."

Even the Krugs themselves agreed. When the first Clos du Mesnil vintage was released in 1979, it came accompanied by what can only be described as an apology. "We said, 'This is a contradiction in the Krug philosophy,' " Remi Krug recalls. " 'It goes against what is the essence of Krug. But if you do that with 10,000 bottles of something unique, that's okay.'" Anyone tasting the '79, or any other vintage of Clos du Mesnil, will be grateful that Krug persevered. It has an intensity of flavor that could only come from a specific harvest in one particular vineyard.

Compared to Clos du Mesnil, Moët's La Trilogie is a compromise with current fashion. This is not a top-of-the-line cuvée but an experiment in component parts. "To be honest, they are not complete wines," enologist Gouez says. "They are not as versatile as our regular wines. What they are is precise. Focused. Each has a particular expression." After tasting them, I understood what he meant. However, while they might not be supple enough to drink through dinner, they do offer an unusual opportunity to taste some soil through the bubbles.

BOLLINGER VIEILLES VIGNES FRANÇAISES 1992 Entirely Pinot Noir, from only three sources, and very rare. Dark gold, velvety, rich. Liquid honey; $400.

SALON 1990 A ginger-ale nose and perfect balance on the palate. Vanilla, ginger, cream; $185.

SALON 1985 Dark gold with age, but wildflowers in the mouth. Lingering, spicy finish; $200.

KRUG CLOS DU MESNIL 1988 Crisp citrus flavors. A knife-blade of a wine. The perfect aperitif; $350.

MOET & CHANDON LA TRILOGIE DES GRANDS CRUS NV Sold as a set of three bottles; $275 • Les Vignes de Saran NV: Vanilla on the nose, green apple in the mouth. Crisp finish, but lacks heft. • Les Champs de Romont NV: Tangerine effervescence and a lingering finish. • Les Sarments de Ay NV: Creamy as mousse; spicy finish.

A Tiny, Terrific Terroir

In addition to its major house blends, the Champagne region has always had thousands of small growers that produce tiny quantities of wine, often from a single village, occasionally a single vineyard. Their terroirs are not the hallowed land used by the best producers, but whatever remains.

"There are some 318 villages in Champagne, but only a few of them produce top-quality wine," says Christian Pol-Roger, whose Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill is sourced from 15 of the best vineyard sites. "It's extremely difficult to invent a grande cuvée where it doesn't exist."

Traditionally, names of small producers like Egly-Ouriet and Chartogne-Taillet carried little weight in a culture defined by branding. No longer. Some wine pilgrims now visit Champagne as if it were Burgundy, ignoring the big houses entirely.

"People come here asking about our vineyards," says Jean-Mary Tarlant of Champagne Tarlant, founded by Pierre Tarlant in 1687 but only lately in vogue. "The character and origin of a wine are becoming increasingly valued."

Tarlant is sitting in the kitchen of his home, which is also the winery and a bed-and-breakfast; visitors sleep in rooms directly above the aging bottles. The Tarlants have a line of eight Champagnes, and release some 100,000 bottles a year. Their TARLANT CUVEE LOUIS, sourced entirely from a nearby vineyard that was planted by Jean-Mary's father and grandfather, has the exotic taste of litchi nuts and rose petals. Although it will never have the layered complexity of a top blend, it provides a brilliant snapshot of a specific terroir—especially at $50 a bottle.

"Of course, we also make blends," Jean-Mary says. "But this wine is the expression of the area where we are. For us, the vineyard plot is very, very important." In that sense, Tarlant was years ahead of Moët & Chandon. "We have not tasted their new wines," says Tarlant. "But we could have told them that it makes sense. Where is the food from? Where is the wine from? Connoisseurs want to know." In that sense, it seems, Champagne is no different.

Bruce Schoenfeld wrote about tennis coach Larry Stefanki in the September issue of Departures.