Plunge into the chalky, salty, frothy depths of Champagne’s finest terroir for chardonnay. Champagne expert and importer, David Donald, digs a little deeper into chardonnay’s spiritual homeland, the Côte des Blancs.
Demand for chardonnay has seen it become the most sought-after varietal out of the three main ones permitted in Champagne. Some houses, such as Ruinart and Bruno Paillard, have commented that sourcing premium chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs has become increasingly difficult due to strong demand and scarce supply, resulting in a disequilibrium in the market for grapes.
Chardonnay arrived relatively late to the Champagne region; the first planting occurred toward the end of the 19th Century. Today, it is the least planted variety in Champagne with just 30 percent of total cultivations. One of chardonnay’s complications is that it requires specific growing conditions to be successful. It performs best on hillside locations – which provide good drainage and sun exposure – and favours cooler climates. Because it blossoms quite early, chardonnay is much more susceptible to frost damage than other varietals. Consequently, it has a natural affinity with the free-draining, chalky slopes of the Côte des Blancs.
The Côte des Blancs runs south of Epernay, for about 20kms, and is chardonnay’s spiritual home in the region. It is not clear whether the ‘Côte des Blancs’ owes its name to its illuminating, white chalky hillsides or because more than 95 percent of vines planted there are chardonnay. Several key geographic features make this area truly unique. The eastern facing slopes give perfect sunlight exposure whilst protecting the vines from bitter, westerly winds. The topsoil is meagre, allowing the vines to penetrate deeply and freely into the belemnite chalk below.
Running the length of the Côte de Blancs, chalk consists of the fossilised remains of belemnites (an extinct cuttlefish) and other micro-organisms, remnants of the cretaceous inland sea. Its high limestone content aids photosynthesis whilst reflecting and storing heat, increases acidities and retains moisture. The soil produces the finest blanc de blancs, full of minerality, sapidity and acidity.
The Côte des Blancs is not a large area but, as you travel from the northern village of Chouilly to the southern village of Vertus, the variations in characteristics are remarkable. Six of Champagne’s seventeen grand crus can be found there, each prized for its superior and unique character. To further understand the personality of each village, there are fine examples that can be sought out from the best grower-producers of the region.
Here are my suggestions.
Roundness and flesh with mineral acidity. Vazart-Coquart and Roland Champion are both fine exponents of 100 percent Chouilly cuvées.
Creamy, silky textured, regal and majestic. Top producers include Philippe Glavier, Diebolt-Vallois and Lilbert-Fils.
Power and structure. Top producers include Le Brun Servenay, Agrapart and Jacques Selosse.
Minerality and fruit richness. Try Claude Cazals (although based in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, they lay claim to ‘Clos Cazals’ a 3.7ha walled-in vineyard in the heart of Oger).
Minerality and saline acidity. Top producers include Pierre Péters, Guy Charlemagne and Launois Père et Fils.
Freshness and floral notes. Try Larmandier-Bernier, Veuve Fourny & Fils and Barons de Rothschild.
Read more in ISSUE NO. 3 of VINE & BUBBLE Magazine.
Words by David Donald
Photography by Victor Pugatschew and Frerejean Frères