true believers in the transcendental quality of fine Champagne,
we are constantly astounded by the reluctance of many sophisticated
American connoisseurs to embrace the Bubbly as a worthy rival
to the finest Burgundies and Bordeaux. The "paradox
of Champagne" is that it is the most highly marketed
and culturally ingrained of wines in the United States; yet
it is, at the same time, one of the least savored by epicures.
JOHN WINTHROP here offers his thoughts on why Champagne is
more often honored on the lips than on the palette. He also
shares his enthusiasm for the quintessential CLOS DES GOISSES.
most highly marketed wines in the United States are Champagnes.
Unique among fine wines, the major producers have invested
tens of millions of dollars to establish the Grandes Marques
that are readily known to the public. Films, television
and glossy lifestyle magazines all abound with glittering
images of French bubbly. Champagnes are, moreover, almost
a cultural cliché at baptisms, weddings, anniversaries,
ship launchings and New Year's galas. Why, then, do fine
restaurants across the country generally report only very
modest demand for the stuff, especially from their most
part, this "paradox of Champagne" derives from
its success. Imitation may sometimes be a sincere form
of flattery, but don't mention this aphorism to bubble
producers. Years ago, American firms expropriated the name
Champagne with scarcely a "by your leave." For
decades, to the disdain and anger of the French, American
companies produced and sold carbonated, sickly sweet, insipid
white wine under the false flag of Champagne. Unfortunate
generations of Americans unwisely consumed this horror
at weddings and other celebrations, only to revive the
next morning with little in their aching heads other than
a firm resolve never to drink "Champagne" again.
Even today, when American law as well as political correctness
foreclose further abuse of the word "Champagne," the
domestic sparklers continue to cast their shadows.
second explanation for the paradox arises from the manner
in which most Champagnes, even the prestige cuvées,
are made. In this regard, it may not be too much of exaggeration
to suggest that the production of the Grandes Marques
is mostly a function of marketing. Due largely to the
perceived or real, to create a consistent "house style,"
grapes of the three permitted varietals are bought in
from several different sources and vineyards, vinified
in bulk, and then blended together, often with the addition
of older, aged wine. While the marketing story includes
limestone caves excavated by Romans, and tonsured monks
tending oak casks by candlelight, the reality consists
of well-lit modern facilities staffed with lab-coated
technicians checking the gauges on stainless steel tanks.
produced is exactly what Marcel-in-Marketing calls for:
consistently fresh and sparkling, with a uniform and
appealing, slightly sweet fruitiness. What is lacking
is the pure
expression of terroir for which the wine connoisseur
there are still a handful of Champagnes that clearly reflect
their terroir, and that articulate honestly the nuances
of their constituent grape varietals. Krug's Clos du Mesnil
has taken the lead in marketing the concept of single vineyard
Champagne. Bollinger's Vieilles Vignes Françaises,
made entirely from old vine Pinot Noir, is even more noteworthy.
Significantly lesser known, particularly in the United
States, but of preeminent quality, is another one of Champagne's
few walled vineyards, Clos des Goisses.
Clos des Goisses Champagne is produced from a five and one-half hectare
vineyard situated in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, adjacent to the Marne River.
Enclosed by a wall, and blessed with its own microclimate, the main portion
of the vineyard is extraordinarily steep and faces directly south on the
river. This is a huge advantage in sun-starved years (more the rule than
the exception in Champagne), since the sun hits the slope all day and the
waters below serve to hold in the heat. During warm years, when the bright
sun on the south slope elevates the sugar level and can even bake the grapes
into raisins, the vines on the more level portion can be used to raise
the acidity, and thereby to balance out the wine.
vineyard is covered with rich, sandy-loam topsoil, averaging
about 50 cm in depth, under which lies a subsoil of Belemnite
limestone. It is planted with both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay
in proportions that approximate the 70%-30% final blend
in Clos des Goisses. The average age of the vines, which
are planted at a spacing of one meter, exceeds twenty years,
with many over forty years old. The Pinot Noir is trained
with the Cordon de Royat system; the Chablis method is
used for the Chardonnay. Since natural viticulture is invariably
the rule at Clos des Goisses, only organic fertilizers
harvest generally begins one hundred days after the vines
start flowering. The Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes are
separately picked and sorted by hand, with the damaged
fruit scrupulously removed. This work is so painstaking
at the ultra-steep vineyard that the laborers, in a Gallic
jeu de mots, have renamed it "Clos d'Angoisses" (Clos
of Agony). Of singular interest, at least to those who
enjoy etymology, the word "gois," from which
the vineyard derives its name, meant "a painful or
difficult task" in the medieval Champenois dialect.
berries are carefully carried to the nearby presshouse
where a traditional, vertical coquard press is employed
to extract only the first run (separately, of course, from
each varietal). This is the richest and most intense juice
and possesses the greatest depth of flavor. Impurities
are then removed through débourbage, the established
method by which gravity separates the unwanted solids.
The pure must from the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay is then
transferred to separate wooden vats (some stainless ones,
also, to achieve balance) where proprietary cultured yeasts
are added to induce alcoholic fermentation. Among the many
distinctive features of Clos des Goisses, its natural alcohol
level often attains 12.8%. This anomaly arises from the
high level of fruit sugar reached in the grapes ripening
on the sun-soaked slope. Most other Champagnes, which do
not enjoy the microclimate of Clos des Goisses, need to
be chaptalized, often increasing the alcohol level by up-to
2%. To the extent that Clos des Goisses does not chaptalize,
it can offer greater depth of ripe fruit flavor. In addition,
the higher absolute level of alcohol achieved naturally
by Clos des Goisses contributes substantially to its capacity
to age gracefully in balance.
all of the sugar has converted into alcohol, wine from
each of the two grapes is put into separate barrels. While
the wine remains on its lees for about four months, temperatures
and purity are meticulously monitored to prevent malolactic
fermentation. After each wine has achieved the qualities
sought by the winemaker, it is removed from its barrels
and blended together at 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay.
the second alcoholic fermentation in the bottle, Clos des
Goisses reposes sur lattes for an additional six years
within the deep limestone caves of the chai. After remuage,
the bottles spend approximately six more months sur lattes.
Exceptionally, for the creation of Clos des Goisses most
extraordinary wine, its justly-famed "Specially Disgorged
Vieux Millésimes," the nascent Champagne is
permitted to rest sur lattes for many more years. Many
connoisseurs have long contended that allowing Champagne
to bottle-age more extensively while still on its lees
(i.e., sur lattes) is an ideal manner to impart richness
and complexity while preserving freshness.
Clos des Goisses, disgorgement is performed with the rarely
used but more traditional method (à la volée)
by which the bottles are manually and expertly uncorked
and righted in one swift, smooth motion.
discreet presence of Clos des Goisses," writes Serena
Sutcliffe, "can be felt in some of the classiest
'watering hole' in France and abroad." Tom
Stevenson, among today's noted Champagne critics, rates
Clos des Goisses
at the very pinnacle of his scale, and, perhaps more
significantly, includes it among his personal favorites.
It is, quite
tellingly, frequently touted by the chef sommelier at
the region's three-star crown jewel, Gérard Boyer's "Les
Crayères," in Reims.
all is said, a properly aged Clos des Goisses remains
among the world's more special wines: a Pinot-dominated
that exhibits remarkable sensual richness and depth of
flavor, along with a crisp, nutty acidity perfectly balanced
with nuanced layers of delicate fruit. To many palates,
it is the most sublime expression of Champagne.
if Clos des Goisses is so great, one might well ask, why
has practically no one ever heard of it?
simple answer is "quantity." And the more complex
answer is also "quantity." Dom Pérignon,
for example, markets over 200,000 cases annually, while
even the "boutique" Krug sells over 40,000.
des Goisses, in contrast, produces as few as 300 cases
in some years but never over 2,500 cases. Mere scarcity,
as result, accounts for a good part of its obscurity.
In addition, this tiny output precludes the massive, multimillion
dollar marketing effort that can, for example, thrust
Cristal or La Grande Dame into the public fancy. A final
reason why Clos des Goisses is unlikely to achieve celebrity
among the masses is that, even after bottling, ten to
twenty years of patient bottle aging is required for the
to show its potential. The charm, for connoisseurs at
least, is that this obscurity confers two distinct advantages:
the cost of Clos des Goisses remains well within the
price category as its lesser competitors, and Clos des
Goisses will continue to be one of those recherché wines
that can be passionately but discreetly embraced.