It was Christophe Constant, winemaker and oenologist at Champagne J.-L. Vergnon, who first told me to smell the mousse just after pouring a glass of his champagne. Bubbling up in the flute as mousse is prone to do, it was all frothy and white—I was patiently waiting for it to die down, but he said, “Smell it. Usually the mousse smells green and neutral, but if the fruit is truly ripe, you will get the aroma here.” I’d never really thought about this before, but it turned out to be quite revealing. Constant harvests his grapes very ripe, generally over 11 degrees of natural potential alcohol, and in his champagnes the mousse is as fruity and aromatic as the actual wine is.
This holds true for other champagnes that are made from genuinely ripe fruit. The Ulysse Collin Extra Brut 2004 that I drank the other day has a deliciously fragrant mousse, with notes of white flowers and sweet tropical citrus that quickly turn to deeper, more autolytic aromas as the bubbles die down. A similar experience is found in Jérôme Prévost’s new 2006 Les Béguines, where the mousse smells sweet and floral, like pear candy; as it dies down, the yeastiness of the wine emerges and the fruit aromas of the wine completely change. David Léclapart’s 2005 L’Amateur, another naturally ripe, unchaptalized champagne, is youthful and awkward right now, revealing little of the depth that it surely conceals, yet the mousse is fragrant and fruity: whatever this wine is suffering from at the moment, it isn’t lack of ripeness.
Other champagnes, as you can well imagine, have a mousse that smells distinctly less appealing. What’s curious is that the nose itself is quite generously forgiving—even in a champagne that’s not terribly ripe, the fruit aromas can be forthcoming enough on the nose to make up for it, and I imagine that a high degree of chaptalization probably helps to amplify this as well. The long lees aging gives richness and substance to what is otherwise rather neutral fruit, deemphasizing the green, herbaceous aromas that would be present if it were merely a still white wine. But one place where the true character of the fruit can be found is in the mousse.