Last month, Champagne Salon released its 1997 Blanc de Blancs, only the 36th vintage in the history of the house. This morning I went down to Le Mesnil-sur-Oger to taste it with Jean-Baptiste Cristini, export manager for Champagne Salon and its sister company, Champagne Delamotte.
It’s difficult to follow a vintage as highly regarded and as powerful in presence as 1996, but in truth, the 1997 vintage was capable of terrifically fine wines in the Côte des Blancs. (One only has to think of wines like Diebolt-Vallois 1997 Fleur de Passion or Pierre Peters 1997 Cuvée Spéciale for reference.) While many people tend to think of 1997 as a vintage driven by its ripeness of fruit, the best wines demonstrate a firm sense of structure as well. “The acidity levels were between 8.9 and 9.1, the same as in ’95, and the sugar was higher than ’96, averaging about 10.3 to 10.5,” says Cristini. “So I like the idea of looking at this wine as being as acidic as ’95 but with more fruit than ’96.” Cristini notes that Salon’s high sugar levels in 1997 were not the result of excessive ripeness, but rather of concentration through dehydration late in the growing season, which allowed the sugar levels to rise without a correspondingly steep drop in acidity.
The 1997 Salon is, in a word, magnificent. The nose is full and creamy in aroma, with notes of hazelnut and lemon peel, and despite its richness it feels elegantly balanced and discreetly composed. With its bold depth of fruit, one might expect it to be very ample and plush on the palate, but in fact it is surprisingly restrained, demonstrating a marvelous clarity of fragrance and a keenly focused, incisively pure minerality. It’s more approachable than the 1996 was at the same stage, although it’s hardly a forward wine: after the initial burst of fruit on the front of the palate, the minerality comes very much to the foreground, and the fruit retracts coyly into its shell. Yet as usual with Salon, the finish is a picture of finesse, harmony and grace. Tasting this wine with lunch over the next two hours allowed the fruit to re-emerge and develop more complexity and nuance, but over that time the minerality grew even more pronounced, dominating the wine with its pungent and inimitably chalky grip.
Overall, this feels like a very classical vintage of Salon to me, more so than either the 1995 or 1996, which were more muscular and powerful. If I had to compare it with a previous vintage I might say the 1988, but with a bit more overt fruitiness (and just as much chalky minerality). It’s thrilling now for its mineral expression, but as with any vintage of Salon, it really needs another decade (or two) in the cellar to show its best.
Champagne Salon and Champagne Delamotte are imported into the United States by Wilson Daniels, St. Helena, CA.