Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Terroir of Mailly-Champagne

Finally, a post that’s actually about champagne! I spent yesterday morning in the village of Mailly, tasting vins clairs with Hervé Dantan, chef de cave of Mailly Grand Cru. (It’s potentially confusing—Mailly, or Mailly-Champagne, as it’s officially known, is the name of the village, while Mailly Grand Cru is the name of a producer.) Mailly lies on the northern side of the Montagne de Reims, and like its famous neighbors Verzenay and Verzy it’s primarily known for pinot noir, although since 1972 its chardonnay has also been classified as grand cru.

In a lineup of about 15 vins clairs, the most intriguing portion was a series of 2007 pinot noirs from four different lieux-dits in Mailly. Les Chalois, on the border with Verzenay, shows classic notes of spicy black cherry and iron-like minerality typical of the northern Montagne de Reims. Adjacent to Les Chalois, Les Côtes is unusual for this area in that its slope faces south, creating a wine of round, ample ripeness and richly fruity depth. Les Monts de Gélus, from a steep, north-facing slope on the western side of the village, is the opposite in character: all about structure and acidity, with a steely vivacity and zero body fat. Finally, Les Godats is the most lithe and overtly minerally of all of these, coming from the northern sector of the village where the soil is poor and chalky.

Naturally, all of these will be blended into various cuvées, and we won’t see any of them as finished champagnes. So what’s the point of tasting these? Well, beyond merely satisfying my curiosity, I think that it serves to demonstrate how hazardous it is to generalize about village character in Champagne. What is the character of Mailly? Is it Monts de Gélus? Or Les Côtes? One can draw commonalities between the various sectors, but at the same time, it’s a myth that the village is the lowest common denominator in Champagne. What many people forget is that even a so-called mono-cru champagne is the product of a blend.


David McDuff said...

Insightful post, Peter. Could you frame your closing comments in the context of something like a single vineyard, vintage blanc de blancs? I know it's not exactly an everyday thing, but inquiring minds want to know.

Peter Liem said...

Well, a single-vineyard champagne and a single-cru champagne are different things. To use some famous examples, Salon is a mono-cru champagne, blended from various vineyards in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, while Krug Clos du Mesnil is a single-vineyard champagne from the vineyard of that name. Being a single-vineyard wine doesn't make Clos du Mesnil better or worse than Salon, but the two are different items in terms of expression of terroir.

My point about village vs. vineyard is just that most people tend to think of village in Champagne, and forget that each village is composed of many different vineyards, just as in Burgundy.