Journey to the Côte des Blancs (Part 2): SOUTH

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While the wines in the north of the Côte des Blancs tend to be richer, those in the south are typically tense and electric with briny minerality. These differences can be attributed to the geological variation in soil, as villages to the south can have less clay content and topsoil than their northern counterparts, allowing vine roots to plunge deeper into the white, chalky terroir to extract the salt, depth and purity of its distinguished provenance.

In Part 2 of our feature on the prestigious Côte des Blancs, we delve into the south, highlighting two Grand Cru villages and four Premier Cru villages. For this article, we refer to Côte des Blancs as the area defined by the Union de Maisons de Champagne. This is to be differentiated from the subregion of Côte des Blancs, which encompasses the area of Côte des Blancs plus four others further south: Val du Petit Morin, Sézannais, Vitryat and Montgueux.

Part 1 of our series on the Côte des Blancs: NORTH, can be read here.

Sally Hillman – la carte

Sally Hillman – la carte

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oger [o•jay], a Grand Cru* village

Located south of Avize, Oger is a Grand Cru village planted to 100% Chardonnay, with a vineyard area that lies in a large, sun-drenched bowl along the main, east-facing côte (slope) of the Côte des Blancs. Encompassing the features of balanced elegance and the pure, chalky minerality renown of the neighbouring village, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, the cuvées produced in Oger are also rich and voluptuous with fragrant, floral fruitiness stemming from ripe grapes that are fully exposed to the sunlight and warmth.

Oger is more often used as a partner in blends, and a fine example lies in Champagne Agrapart’s Terroirs NV—a Blanc de Blancs with fruit coming from Avize, Cramant, Oger and Oiry. Here, Oger’s generosity and sophistication is on full display; superbly balanced with the power and austerity of Avize, the concentration and composure of Cramant, and the chalky tension of Oiry.

 

Pascal Agrapart

 

Le Mesnil-sur-Oger [luh may•neel sur o•jay], a Grand Cru* village

Awarded Grand Cru status in 1985, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger is a village planted to 100% Chardonnay with a celebrated history dating back to the turn of the 20th century. Two of the most iconic vineyards in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger are Clos du Mesnil (in the centre of the village) and Les Chétillons (southeast of the village), the former of which is inextricably tied to the names ‘Salon’ and ‘Krug’ for many.

Since 1905, Salon was the first known cuvée to be assembled from a single village, and this Blanc de Blancs—made only in the best years—remains a widely coveted release produced entirely from vines within Clos du Mesnil. Each release of Salon invariably displays the supreme chalkiness, racy acidity and longevity that defines the village’s identity. A similarly complex offering from the same, walled vineyard is Krug’s inimitable Clos du Mesnil. Here, the vines lie on a slope facing south-east, receiving plenty of sunlight and warmth that provides a hedonistic complement to Le Mesnil-sur-Oger’s chalky minerality and acidity.

Rodolphe Péters of Champagne Pierre Péters is the most fêted grower-producer in the village, and his vintage cuvée, Les Chétillons, is the most prized offering from the eponymous vineyard. Assembled from three different parcels of Chardonnay within the vineyard, fruit is vinified separately and then blended, magnifying the elegant finesse and chalky complexity that is Le Mesnil-sur-Oger’s hallmark.

A more accessible cuvée from Champagne Pierre Péters is the Extra Brut NV—a Blanc de Blancs created from the fruit of four plots in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Oger, Avize and Cramant. A vintage champagne, this cuvée is assembled from fruit grown only in the same year and blended with around 20% perpetual reserve wine. Boasting a confident and athletic line of acidity with a finish that lingers with briny minerality and anchored by an intensely chalky grip, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger’s presence truly shines in Extra Brut NV.

The village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. Image credit: Champagne Pierre Péters.

 

Vertus [vair•too], a Premier Cru* village

Further down the east-facing slope sits Vertus, a large Premier Cru village of 540ha, with most of its plantings concentrated to Chardonnay (92%) and the remainder to Pinot noir. The village itself can be divided into two regions—north and south—owing to variations in terroir and, therefore, wine profile.

Lying on chalk-heavy soils with little topsoil, the vines in the north of Vertus produce wines that are lively, crystalline and tense. Here, Champagne Larmandier-Bernier produces one of the most legendary and patently terroir-focused wines of the entire Champagne appellation, Terre de Vertus 2014. A 100% Chardonnay champagne finished with zero dosage, this vintage cuvée is complex and pristine on the palate, with briny minerality and a fine, linear finish that is distinctly representative of the village—an immaculate vision of Vertus.

The southern section of Vertus slopes slightly south-east with vines sitting on deeper clay soils in some areas. Together, these differences impart an expansive generosity and charm to cuvées without compromising on the refreshing minerality that is inherent to wines from the southern Côte des Blancs. Champagne Larmandier-Bernier’s Latitude NV is a Blanc de Blancs assembled from ripe grapes sourced from vineyards along the same latitude in the south of Vertus. Generous in both depth and breadth of flavour, this aptly named cuvée bristles with saline minerality and finishes long and rich, as notes of ripe mandarin elevate the palate with mouth-watering acidity.

Carte Larmandier-Bernier Image credit: Champagne Larmandier-Bernier

 

Bergères-lès-Vertus [bere•jere lay ver•too], a Premier Cru* village

The vineyards in the Premier Cru village of Bergères-lès-Vertus are continuous with those in the southern part of Vertus, with similar soils and slopes largely facing south-east until the main Côte des Blancs slope ends.

Notably, the vineyards at the southern end of Bergères-lès-Vertus lie on the eastern flank of a free-standing hill, the Mont Aimé, which is detached from the main, east-facing côte (similar to the Butte de Saran hill in the northern Côte des Blancs, discussed in Part 1). Due to the higher elevation, the climate here is cooler than Vertus, and the soils are a unique mix of chalk, sand, flint and marl. This terroir produces fascinating Chardonnay-based wines that are delicate and stony with flinty minerality and a smoky appeal.

An exciting new development, Champagne Larmandier-Bernier have recently purchased a vineyard along the slopes of the Mont Aimé. Though it will be some time before it makes a debut on the wine circuit, we are certain of its potential in the careful hands of a family that has devoted itself to expressing terroir through biodynamic viticulture, natural vinification and minimal intervention practices since 1999.

Villeneuve-Renneville [veel•nuv ren•veel], a Premier Cru* village

The vineyards of Villeneuve-Renneville are continuous with those of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger and Vertus, however, they lie on flat terrain below the main, east-facing slope of the Côte des Blancs. Vineyards are predominantly planted to Chardonnay, and there are 19 vineyard owners across 96.30ha of vines. Typicity is not widely spoken of as wines from this village are rarely seen in isolation, though they appear in blends from the Grandes Marques (translating to the ‘Big Brands’, this unofficial term refers to the major Champagne Houses which often purchase fruit from growers to blend into a consistent House style). 

 

Voipreux [vwah•pruh], a Premier Cru* village

The vineyards of our final Premier Cru village, Voipreux, are also located on flat terrain below the main, east-facing slope of the Côte des Blancs and are continuous with those of Vertus and Villeneuve-Renneville. Predominantly planted to Chardonnay, there are 32 vineyard owners across 41.10ha of vines. Similar to the wines of Villeneuve-Renneville, typicity is not widely spoken of, as wines from Voipreux are rarely seen in isolation, though they appear in blends from the Grandes Marques.

While the cuvées discussed are all excellent examples of Blanc de Blancs from the esteemed villages of the southern Côte des Blancs, they by no means exhaust this region’s greatness. We invite you to explore these terroir expressions as we build upon our database with more producers and cuvées further afield. The power of knowledge, shared with the magic of Champagne, is simply irrésistible.

Santé!

*Cru indicates a group of vineyards belonging to a specific village in Champagne. There are 17 Grand Cru villages followed by 42 Premier Cru villages in Champagne. Established in 1911 as a formal ranking to fix grape prices, Houses eventually began negotiating directly with growers in 1990, leading to the abolishment of Champagne’s classification system in 2010. Nevertheless, the terms Grand Cru and Premier Cru can still be used on champagne labels.