Champagne has seen a plethora of blanc de blancs launches over the last year. Richard Woodard looks at the styles available and finds out how restaurants and bars can make the most of them
We’ve had rosé, we’ve had low-dosage, we’ve even had the odd single-varietal Pinot Meunier, but the latest fashion gripping champagne is the renaissance of 100% Chardonnay blanc de blancs cuvées.
This year has seen a spate of big-name launches, including Perrier-Jouët, Charles Heidsieck, Thiénot, Armand de Brignac, plus the rechristening of Billecart-Salmon’s prestige blanc de blancs – now known as Cuvée Louis.
Champagne houses should keep on their toes, since other countries are producing top-quality blanc de blancs at a much cheaper price
‘It’s on fire,’ says Charles Heidsieck chef de caves Cyril Brun. ‘Chardonnay is more resistant to global warming – it’s still able to capture the freshness, the tension, minerality and acidity. Globally, it’s linked to the success of Burgundy. People tend to pay more attention to Chardonnay.’
Partly this trend is self-perpetuating. Hakkasan’s Olivier Gasselin reckons consumer interest in blanc de blancs is being boosted by the expanded offer and sharper focus from the trade, though Ronan Sayburn MS of 67 Pall Mall detects another influence.
‘After the whole brut sauvage kind of thing, with people looking for extra dry champagne, a lot of the small producers are doing real expressions of single-varietal and single-site champagnes, such as Pierre Peters, Agrapart, Egly-Ouriet, making more hand-crafted products,’ he explains.
‘They’re elegant, ethereal and able to age for a long time. If you want that style of champagne, then I think that Chardonnay is the way to go. It’s great with food too, when it’s got some age and complexity.’ For Xavier Rousset MS, consumer confusion with vintage champagne – why does this one cost £200 and that one £60? – is another factor. ‘I think the reason why more and more people are doing blanc de blancs is because they’re going to stop doing vintage, except for prestige cuvée,’ he explains.
‘I think it’s quite elegant, with a lot of finesse and big potential for by-the-glass aperitif – much more so than blanc de noirs. It’s slightly more premium than non-vintage – but without going crazy.’
Alt-Chardonnay: Champagne’s lesser-known hotspots
Avize, Chouilly, Cramant, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger… traditionally it’s the Chardonnay grands crus that attract the headlines. But winemakers are increasingly venturing beyond the heartland of the Côte des Blancs. Here’s a handy guide to the unsung heroes of blanc de blancs
The south: Sézanne, Vitry-le-François, Montgueux
These chalky outposts have calcareous soils, but they’re older, softer and more porous than around Epernay. They may not offer the same consistent quality as the big names of the Côte des Blancs, but the likes of Henriot and Charles Heidsieck like their warmer, rounder character and exotic fruit.
Montagne de Reims
It’s not all Pinot Noir on the Montagne. Communes such as Villers-Marmery and Trépail are often much sought after for blanc de blancs blends, especially those that are destined for release at a younger age. While they can be angular and slightly rustic, they often also possess a stone-fruit character that amplifies the mid-palate.
Pinot Noir-growing areas
You might expect the likes of Ambonnay and Verzy to be monocultures of Pinot Noir, but Gosset for one uses Chardonnay from both villages in its blanc de blancs. A mix of soils and orientation – chalk/limestone/clay and south/south-east respectively – gives flesh, fruitiness and structure.
Increased demand has an impact on supply, especially with a grape that is the least planted of the big three in Champagne, and which is notoriously susceptible to spring frosts.
‘Chardonnay grapes from grand cru areas are the most expensive in Champagne,’ says Bruno Paillard, whose eponymous champagne house includes vintage and NV blanc de blancs in its range. ‘At the moment, they seem a little more expensive than the most costly grands crus Pinot Noirs – maybe 2-3% more. ‘Typically, in a cru where you have two grapes – like Grauves – Chardonnay grapes would receive a 5-10% bonus over the Meunier grapes this cru also offers.’
More expensive grapes, of course, means more expensive champagne. ‘Pricing can be stiff when compared to a NV champagne, and this is one of the downsides,’ admits Gasselin. ‘For the cheaper examples, there’s a 20% price variable, and for the finest examples it would rival some of the well-known prestige cuvées.
‘So NV champagne is the main rival, price is a deterrent, and champagne houses should keep on their toes, since other countries are producing top-quality blanc de blancs at a much cheaper price, like England or South Africa.’
Supply constraints have also forced producers to look further afield when sourcing their grapes, beyond the Côte des Blancs to enclaves in the Montagne de Reims, and further south into Sézanne, Vitry and the Aube.
To some, this is sacrilege. ‘I have not, in my little experience, seen Chardonnay of the same level of quality on a consistent basis [outside the Côte des Blancs],’ says Paillard. ‘The great thing about the grands crus is their consistency in delivering high quality. We may like it or not, but this is a fact and the reason why grapes or land are more costly there.’
Others are less strict. Henriot chef de caves Laurent Fresnet uses only 50% Côte des Blancs fruit in the house’s core blanc de blancs cuvée, supplementing this with 30% from the Montagne (Trépail, Vertus) for white peach and nectarine flavours, and 20% from Sézanne, Vitry and Montgueux for an ‘exotic touch’.
‘I have to catch the composition of a new blend in different places every year. Sometimes you have to find minerality in Trépail, and peach in Vertus,’ Fresnet adds. Gosset’s Grand Blanc de Blancs uses Montagne de Reims fruit for its ‘rustic, earthy’ character, as well as Chardonnay from Pinot Noir areas for its flesh and fruitiness. ‘It’s very nice to be able to use Le Mesnil-sur-Oger and Cramant, but they are tools,’ says Gosset’s director of international business Bertrand Verduzier. ‘Our job is to blend those different tools of, in this case, the same grape variety.’
Brun agrees. While prestige cuvée Blanc des Millénaires only uses fruit from the Côte des Blancs – Cramant, Avize, Oger, Le Mesnil, Vertus – because of their ageing potential, Charles Heidsieck’s new core blanc de blancs cuvée is a different matter.
‘We wanted to have a wine that could be a way of accessing the Chardonnay style of Charles Heidsieck, but at a more friendly level than Blanc des Millénaires,’ he explains. ‘So we use Chardonnay from the Montagne de Reims – Villers-Marmery, Trépail – and Montgueux to add flesh and body to the wines. When you go out of the Côte des Blancs, you have wines that tend to be able to age much faster, even with similar technical acidity. They can be just as aggressive when young, but will evolve faster.’
They’re elegant, ethereal and age well. If you want that style of champagne, then I think Chardonnay is the way to go
The rise and rise of blanc de blancs is creating a broader range of more diverse styles within the blanc de blancs segment. And that, according to Rudina Arapi, head sommelier at Galvin at Windows, means that a restaurant wanting to make the most of it needs to do its homework.
‘It’s important to have a range of styles to match food, but also as an aperitif,’ Arapi says. ‘It’s important for the wine buyer or head sommelier to have a clear vision of blanc de blancs in different styles, from lighter to heavier and structured styles to match the richer foods.’
On the list, off the list
Top somms on what to list and how to sell it
‘We have regular guests in Hakkasan having whole meals with some fine examples like Ruinart, Jacquesson Avize or S de Salon.
These wines work extremely well with seafood, French snails, spicy Cantonese food, and sushi and sashimi thanks to their backbone and versatility.’
‘At The Connaught we have a few from big names such as Deutz, Ruinart and Henriot, to not-so-big names such as Ulysse Collin, Pierre Peters and Cédric Bouchard Roses de Jeanne.
You need to list quite a few if you want to sell. From my point of view, the reason some places don’t sell is because they don’t have enough to choose from.’
‘I would be looking 50/50 [between] grower and grandes marques, and about a third blanc de blancs – some in the younger, fresher style, some with a bit more bottle age.
Salon makes a very aged, unique style. For smaller producers, I like Pierre Peters and Egly-Ouriet. They just make blanc de blancs in a very clean, taut way – very focused, very precise.’
‘On a list, sometimes one is enough. On a big list, maybe 10 split between houses and growers.
There’s R&L Legras, AR Lenoble, Palmer; Pol Roger vintage, Roederer vintage. I’m a big fan of Ruinart… Bruno Paillard, Gosset. I could list a lot more.’
‘I have regulars who come just to have Ruinart or Bruno Paillard blanc de blancs.
There are a few guests who have champagne for the whole dinner, but it’s only going to be the minority.’