As 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.

The 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 discerning clientele?

In 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.

A 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 need, 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 separately 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. The Champagne 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 is searching.

Fortunately, 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.

The 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 are used.

The 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.

The 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.

When 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.

After 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.

At 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.

"The 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.

After all is said, a properly aged Clos des Goisses remains among the world's more special wines: a Pinot-dominated Champagne 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.

So, if Clos des Goisses is so great, one might well ask, why has practically no one ever heard of it?

The 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.

Clos 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 a 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 wine 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 same 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.

© Veritas Imports, LLC. 1999