Without fail, one of the highlights of my year is tasting Cramant in barrel with Jacques Diebolt of Champagne Diebolt-Vallois. At the risk of appearing gluttonous and over-privileged, I’ll admit that I’ve already been fortunate to do so twice with the 2008s, even though it’s still early in the vin clair season (they usually get bottled in early April). The majority of Diebolt’s wines are fermented in enameled or stainless steel tank, and naturally those are a joy to taste as well, but he also makes a selection from his finest parcels in the village of Cramant, planted with vines from 40 to 60 years old, to vinify in barrel for his prestige cuvée, the Fleur de Passion.
The Fleur de Passion is fermented in old, 205-liter pièces, without malolactic, and bottled without fining or filtration. In most cases (as with the 2008) it is also unchaptalized, and fermented with natural yeasts. Although the final wine is blended from several different parcels of Cramant, the various lots are kept separate throughout the fermentation and aging. They aren’t always exactly single-parcel selections, as some of the parcels are too small to fill up a standard 4,000-kilogram press, but each marc (the Champenois term for a pressing made from 4,000 kilograms of grapes) yields ten barrels of wine, which are all kept separated until the final blending, just before bottling. The result is that these selections from different marcs offer an extraordinary opportunity to taste across the Cramant hillside, comparing wine from some of the village’s top parcels, made exclusively from old vines by one of Champagne’s greatest grower-producers. For the terroir-obsessed, I do not believe that there is currently a finer method of studying the terroir of Cramant.
Although I’ve been doing this with Diebolt for a number of years, I’ve never really written about it, as the experience is largely valuable only in terms of personal edification—once you buy a bottle of the finished Fleur de Passion, all of the component parts have long since been amalgamated together, and are no longer worth talking about except as purely theoretical discourse. But I suppose that a discussion such as this serves to accentuate how different the various sectors of the village really are. In Champagne, most people tend to think in terms of village rather than of vineyard, but in truth, a village covers a relatively large area, and the terroir is rarely consistent from one side to the other. Certainly each of the component wines for the Fleur de Passion has its own personality and distinctiveness, even though they are all from the village of Cramant. These wines represent the very top lots of the vintage for Diebolt, and thus are always wonderful to taste every year, but the 2008s are exceptionally pure and finely expressive, demonstrating the outstanding potential of this vintage. Below are notes for each of the six wines that will be considered for the 2008 Fleur de Passion; in Diebolt’s cellar, the number of the marc is written on the barrel, and so that is how they are referred to.
#18: This combines the vineyards of Pimonts, Rouillées and Gros Monts in roughly equal proportions, although the percentage of Pimonts is slightly larger. Pimonts is located towards the western side of the village’s viticultural area, in the great amphitheater of vines below the village itself. Les Rouillées is also located in this sector, on an unusually steep, south-facing slope just under the village, while Gros Monts is on the eastern side, below the Butte de Saran. Of all of these marcs, this #18 seems to be the most classical in feel, contrasting the subtly rich depth of Gros Monts with sleekly citrusy acidity and a flowery, delicate length. “This is very typical of Fleur de Passion,” says Diebolt. “I think that the final blend will appear very close to this.”
#20: Diebolt experimented with putting Les Bauves into barrel for the first time in 2008. Bauves is a vineyard farther away from the village, in the direction of Oiry: “It’s not on the plain,” says Diebolt, “but it’s on the last coteau before the plain.” The chalk here is closer to the surface than in many other places, under only about 25 centimeters of topsoil, and you feel it in this wine, expressed as an austere, racy energy. It doesn’t have the gras or the expansiveness and complexity of aroma that some of the other lots show, but it’s very soil-driven and vivacious. Still, Diebolt doesn’t think it’s really what he’s looking for in this cuvée, and he’s unsure whether he’ll use it in the final blend. “At the moment,” he says, “I think it will go into the Cuvée Prestige, not the Fleur de Passion.”
#21: The south- to southeast-facing vineyard of Buzons, on the flanks of the Butte de Saran, is home to some of Diebolt’s most prized holdings, and together with Les Pimonts, it’s the inspiration for the creation of this special cuvée. Marc #21 is pure Buzons, from vines planted in 1951—as soon as you put your nose into the glass, you know you’re in the presence of something grand. Buzons is only about 200 meters away from Les Bauves, higher on the slope and closer to the Butte, but the topsoil here is deeper and the character of the wine more complete, with a resonant depth and a rich, sleekly muscular build. Tasting this in December, it seemed as if it was less overtly minerally than some of the other wines, due to it’s ample richness of fruit, but upon tasting it again last week, I noticed a pure, almost crystalline chalkiness emerging from underneath the fruity girth, anchoring the flavors and adding a greater sense of completeness and depth. The finish shows the multi-dimensional fragrance and regal bearing that I always associate with this site, persisting in finely detailed length—if this were bottled as Coteaux Champenois blanc, I would happily purchase it. It will undoubtedly make an even greater champagne, though.
#22: Three-quarters Buzons and one-quarter Gros Monts. This is highly instructive, as the majority of it is virtually the same wine as #21. The difference between the two wines is incredibly striking, however. The vineyards of Gros Monts and Buzons aren’t too far away from each other, but as I’ve come to acquaint myself with their respective personalities over the years, I’ve found them to make wines of markedly different characters. Buzons is rich, complex, but also very fine and detailed—when people talk about Cramant as being a rich terroir, it’s vineyards like Buzons that they’re thinking of. There’s a seamless combination of strength and finesse, and a sense of grand cru depth and expansiveness on the finish. Gros Monts has a richness of body typical for this side of the village, but within that context it emphasizes its sense of finesse, with a pronounced chalkiness and a lithe, airy raciness. Diebolt’s vines here are 40 years old, so there’s no lack of gravitas, but the overall impression is one of elegance rather than power. Here, you’d expect Buzons to dominate, but it’s actually the reverse—in both my December and January tastings, I felt that it was the racy, flowery character of Gros Monts that put itself into the foreground, and overall this feels more kinetic and less overtly rich than the pure Buzons.
#24: This is two-thirds Pimonts, which faces east-southeast, and one-third Fromattes, which is the vineyard on the hillside directly across from it—the soil is virtually identical in character, but Fromattes faces west. In contrast to the previous two wines, this is quiet up front, feeling deceptively delicate in body but building slowly on the palate towards an expansively aromatic, subtly complex and chalk-driven finish. The sense of verticality on the back end is tremendous, a poignant expression of a regal terroir.
#26: As a counterpart to #21, this is pure Pimonts, and Jacques Diebolt’s pick as his personal favorite of the 2008 wines. According to Diebolt, the name Pimonts is derived from “petits monts”, in reference to the gentle rise on which this site lies, and it’s one of the oldest-known terroirs in Cramant: “Vines have probably been planted here for over a thousand years,” he says. The character of the wine from Pimonts is quieter and more introspective than that of Buzons, and it seems to me to consistently be the most refined and most complete wine from year to year—if any of these were to be made as a separate, single vineyard champagne (a distinctly unlikely possibility, so don’t get your hopes up), I would imagine it to be Pimonts. Like the previous wine, from Pimonts and the neighboring Fromattes, this builds with a slow, unhurried grace and an aristocratic sense of elegance. It’s extremely minerally, almost steely in its chalky intensity, yet it doesn’t feel at all aggressive, its minerality deftly integrated into a larger array of components. On the superbly expressive finish it’s the longest of all of these, demonstrating a subtle, nuanced complexity and going on and on in airy, finely detailed fragrance.