Why Champagne May Be Getting Even Better

Small producers make their marks with vintage products
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AVIZE, France -- Anselme Selosse makes no ordinary bubbly.

The 53-year-old Selosse treats his vineyards the way a gardener deals with rose fields. He reinvigorates the soil through careful tending and slashes yields to increase the quality of the remaining grapes. While the vast majority of even the most prestigious champagnes are produced using industrial yeasts in stainless steel, Selosse, who learned winemaking in Burgundy, prefers natural yeast and small Burgundian oak barrels.

"Every grape that enters my cellar has been cultivated with my own hands," he says with pride, holding up his well-worn hands. Most champagne makers wear jacket and tie and greet visitors in Belle Epoque mansions. Selosse appears in pure farmer dress: jeans and a Polarfleece jacket.

In Champagne, the Selosse approach represents a real revolution.

Unlike regular wines, which are harvested in a single year and most often from a single plot of land, most champagnes are a blend of grapes from several years' harvests. Grapes from good vineyards are mixed with fruit from lesser ones to create the world's most famed festive drink.

The result, particularly compared with other French wines, is reliability. All the major brands, including Moët & Chandon, Veuve Cliquot, Perrier-Jouet and Piper-Heidsieck, are

good bets for this holiday season -- clean, crisp wines that sparkle for celebrations. At the same time, the mixing and mashing that brings a welcome consistency sometimes removes the brilliance that characterizes other great wines.

Beneath the fizz of regular champagne, however, an earthy, satisfying undercurrent is bubbling up. A few innovative Champagne growers and merchants are producing more "wine-like" sparklers with delicate, complex flavors of ginger, pear and even candied lemon that make them taste like great white Burgundy.

Instead of producing ordinary brut made from grapes from different years, many champagne makers produce vintage bubblies from a single harvest. These aren't made every year, just in particularly good ones. They usually have a price premium of 30% or more above the regular bottles. There's also a trend toward rose champagnes, with the pink color offering a welcome, new sensation.

But in the manner of Selosse, one of the biggest trends is to focus on champagnes made from grapes from a specific vineyard.

"Everyone's talking about single-vineyard champagnes," acknowledges Vivien de Nazelle, a manager at the venerable Veuve Cliquot, which is part of the region's largest producer, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.

The downside of this popularity is scarcity -- and inconsistency. Some 2,700 or so grower-makers exist in the Champagne region. Instead of selling all their grapes to the big brand merchants, they bottle their own wine -- much of which is, to put it charitably, undistinguished and often has a harsh aftertaste.

True pioneers such as Selosse produce only small amounts and are difficult to source. Selosse farms a little more than 37 acres of vines and produces only about 50,000 bottles a year, which are sold under the Jacques Selosse label, after his father Jacques. Champagne's biggest producer Moët makes almost 30 million bottles a year.

Selosse took over his parents' champagne business in 1980. He had just earned an oenology degree in the Burgundy winemaking center of Beaune, and he often compares himself to the Cistercian monks who were the first great Burgundian vintners, the only medieval winemakers who had the time and energy and passion to pursue excellence. He is a lover of fine wines, and his cellar has a room full of such standouts and fellow travelers as Zind-Humbrecht from Alsace, Granges des Pères from the Languedoc, and Coche-Dury from Burgundy.

After Selosse had a falling out with his former importer, his champagnes have been difficult to find in the U.S. in the past few years, though

Wine-Searcher.com shows bottles available at stores in many major U.S. cities, for upwards of $125 a bottle. Even in these days of the weak dollar, that represents a big markup over the European price. But Selosse recently signed up with The Rare Wine Co., an importer in Sonoma, Calif. Most of the initial shipments -- "microscopic" this year, he says -- probably will be earmarked for fine restaurants. Selosse says he will increase the quantities for the U.S. next year.

The good news is that Selosse's techniques are spreading as he encourages growers to emulate his efforts. Other small growers whose wines are worth searching out include Egly-Ouriet, Henri Billiot and Jean Milan. Interestingly, even giant Moët & Chandon recently has released a series of champagnes issued from single vineyards. They run $100 or more a bottle, and while production is only a few thousand bottles each, Moët claims it shows the company's interest in terroir.

These champagnes are not meant as aperitifs. They are best sipped while enjoying a festive meal. Don't serve them chillingly cold. They are meant to be served only cool, in order to allow their full flavors to flourish.

At their best, though, these wine-like bubblies offer a refreshing new take on the old holiday favorite. They come with a welcome complexity of flavors; in Selosse's case, delightful notes of dried fruits, caramel and coffee with a longer-lasting, pleasant aftertaste spiced with vanilla and honey. Selosse is proof that Champagne isn't just a great holiday wine. It's a great wine.

William Echikson is a correspondent for

breakingviews.com, based in Brussels. He is the author of three books, most recently Noble Rot: A Bordeaux Wine Revolution.