In cold Sweden, the last of April is the date when the arrival of spring is traditionally celebrated. It happens in a similar way as the Germans celebrate their Easter and the Finns their midsummer. That is, with large fires that spread fragrance and warmth around the country and kingdom. The dead and rotten must be set on fire and make room for the new budding life. Usually it is really cold and the winter struggles into the last. Two years ago, a good friend and I sat defying the cold in the drizzle and drank walpurgis-blanc de blancs from Roederer and Count Dampierre, chewing horrible amounts of German asparagus with hollandaise sauce. Last year, the bar was raised and we gathered our families and brought in a chef who used the same German delicacy as a starting point while I picked up 16 fantastically caring-scented blanc de blancs from my cellar. A tradition was created!
This year, the same beautiful gangs gathered around the same theme. After another inspiring look in the cellar, the level of ambition grew and the end result was that we came to taste no less than the 42 top blanc de blancs that exist today, without any gaps. The eight gaps in the cellar was aided by the champagne houses to fill willingly. Our little private tradition became one of the most comprehensive and complete blind tastings of its kind that the world has seen. The vintages varied a bit, but the focus was naturally on younger accessible wines. No house was allowed to have more than one wine represented and all wines came recently or completely directly from the cellars of the houses in the so-called vinothéque version. Some historical names such as Pol Roger Grauves, Venoge Des Princes and Laurent-Perrier Millésime Rare were thus missing because they are no longer produced. I also took the opportunity to invite the master photographer Pål Allan who photographed the strange exercise for my new book ‘A scent of Champagne’ where I evaluate as many as 8,000 different champagnes.
Blanc de blancs as a concept is much younger than you might think, despite the fact that Chardonnay has been grown since the Romans established the first vineyards in the area about 2000 years ago. 1911 Salon was successful at Maxim in Paris in the twenties and this particular monocru from Le Mesnil was for a long time the only known name in the category. During the twenties, many wonderful blanc de blancs were created with Salon as a model for growers in the Côte des Blancs without the outside world knowing which diamond was hidden. It was not until the fifties that the blanc de blancs broke through with greats such as the 1952 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, the 1959 Pol Roger Blanc de Chardonnay and the 1959 Dom Ruinart.
Today, most large champagne houses have a blanc de blancs and the ultra-elegant style fits the modern kitchen and our time like a glove. It is difficult to imagine a grape and growing place that can provide greater variety than Chardonnay in Champagne. The grape’s fantastic ability to reflect terroir is unique and in addition it responds well and compliantly to vinification methods without losing its buttery and citrus-scented elegance. I have noticed that winemakers who try to compete outside the Marne, in Sézanne and Aube mainly, have to use organic methods and oak barrels. In order to maintain the life-preserving acid, it is further recommended that the wines do not undergo malolactic fermentation if they are made in these regions.
Growers in the Côte des Blancs have it easier on that point and can easily choose which method they want as long as they are careful with their terroir and have a low yield from their oldest vines. The styles are many and it is extremely fascinating to see that the peaks can be so individual even though the vineyards are right next to each other. For example, we had a flight with the three main wines from the premier cruby Vertus where none of us placed the champagnes in the same village. 2002 Doyard-Mahé was creamy and lemon-scented with floral overtones and Clos Notre Dame from the same year was tough and intensely ascetic with a licorice-spicy style while 2000 Cuvée Céleste was a dream of coconut, vanilla, hazelnut and honey. Another memorable flight was wines made north of the Côte des Blancs where in 2002 the Léclapart Cuvée Apôtre from Trèpail stood out like a savage and divided the group into two camps. Some had a very hard time with the notes of beer, dried lake plants and banana while others fell head over heels for its oriental spiciness and dense structure. 2002 Lassalle Blanc de Blancs appeared on the contrary to be somewhat uncomplicated, but magically good in its butter charcoal-draped and honey-dripping style. It was also very clear that Cramant, Avize and Le Mesnil have the strongest terroir character and that which one prefers more is a question of the producer, the occasion and the purpose.
Another fascinating and increasingly important style is the polished monocruch champagne of the big houses. For example, it is much easier to point out the 1998 Mumm de Cramant and the 2002 Belle Epoque Blanc de Blancs as major prestige champagnes from the top houses than to trace them to the Cramant. These two stood next to the mbest grower champagne Diebolt-Vallois Fleur de Passion and certainly did not have its concentrated power, but instead a floral, lightly roasted and creamy elegance that the cultivator can not match. Chouilly may be similar to Cramant at times, but our wonderful tasting wine in 1983 Legras Saint Vincent was at a completely different age than any other wine in the tasting which made such a comparison impossible. The ’83 was very youthful, but had a chocolate-scented uniform bouquet that differed too much from the rest. In Avize, Agrapart Cuvée Venus is currently the purest and most village-typical cultivar wine, but is still beaten by Jacquesson’s Champ Caïn, which combines the small Dizy house’s gingerbread spicy house style with a floral summer scent and burgundy depth. Selosse has its very own character that is often criticized, but in our tasting group we were in agreement that the ’98 was one of the very best champagnes in all categories. In Le Mesnil, Salon was a big disappointment this time and all the tasters held the star of growers in 2002 Pierre Peters Les Chètillons before Salon. However, we all fell head over heels for the beauty of the 2000 Krug Clos du Mesnil. Someone reacted that the acidity was a little too prominent, but most of us shone like suns as soon as we put our noses in the glass. Here it was! The most complex and deliciously fragrant of the world’s Chardonnay wines. So typical of the village and at the same time so much Krug. How do they do?
As an interlude, I brought out two favorite rosés where Krug Rosé this time was beaten by an increasingly fragrant and explosive Selosse Rosé. The finale with more or less ripe champagnes from the big houses made from grapes from several villages showed how harmonious multicrucuvées can be created on Chardonnay. 1996 Pol Roger Blanc de Chardonnay was wonderful, but too young. 1998 Comtes de Champagne proved to be at the top even though the vintage does not really belong to the more famous and 1995 Charles Heidsieck Blanc de Millénaires was perhaps most difficult to spot of all with his dessert-like bouquet of vanilla ice cream, honey, coffee and nougat. 1990 Dom Ruinart is always a winner and the density blew away once and for all all doubts about the greatness of the vintage. My biggest personal surprise was the 2002 Amour de Deutz which for the first time really was the superior prestige wine it was painted as. Here was an essential nutty richness combined with the most lovely and romantic summer garden.
Have I forgotten anyone? Yes, I missed telling you how delicious 2000 Guy Charlemagne Mesniléssime was. I have not said that the tropical 2002 Roederer Blanc de Blancs danced on a par with the monumental 2002 Amour de Deutz. I also missed mentioning that Gosset Célebris Blanc de Blancs shone so beautifully that one of the tasters shouted his joy spontaneously around the quiet table. How anyone can still claim that Riesling is a better grape than Chardonnay transcends my francophile understanding.