I happen to love all types of Champagne, but if I had to choose a favorite, it would probably be Blanc de Blancs. Among Champagne lovers, this is a very controversial statement, because many believe that Pinot Noir, not Chardonnay (which alone makes Blanc de Blancs), is the region’s most prestigious grape variety. Or that a blend of both varieties, with or without the third permissible variety, Pinot Meunier, makes the best Champagnes.
The last time I saw Richard Geoffroy, the Chef de Caves of Champagne Dom Pérignon, I discussed the fact that many of the important houses, such as Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Laurent-Perrier, and Bollinger don’t even make a Blanc de Blancs Champagne, which I find amazing.
Geoffroy’s chief argument against Blanc de Blancs is that he does not find them balanced in the way he envisions Champagne to be. Also, he pointed out that good Chardonnay grapes are the scarcest commodity in Champagne, and he would prefer to use Chardonnay to blend with his Dom Pérignon rather than to make a Blanc de Blancs.
Who am I to argue with Richard Geoffroy, to me one of the finest minds in the wine world, but I respectfully disagree with him regarding his views on Blanc de Blancs Champagnes. Of course I recognize that some of the great Champagnes--such as Dom Pérignon and Louis Roederer’s magnificent Cristal--are blends of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, usually about 50 percent of each variety. Some of my other personal favorites, such as the sublime Philipponnat Clos des Goisses, Pol Roger’s Sir Winston Churchill, and all of Bollinger’s Champagnes are in fact dominated by Pinot Noir. And many Champagne lovers’ favorite, Krug, uses all three varieties in its Vintage Brut and Grandé Cuvée.
On the other hand, some of the world’s best Champagnes--make that the world’s best wines--are Blanc de Blancs Champagnes. Allow me to offer just two pieces of evidence:
• Krug Clos du Mesnil
In my view, these two Champagnes (along with Cristal), are the finest in the world today. They exhibit tremendous complexity of flavor, concentration, and extremely long finishes. And like all great Champagnes, they are long-lasting and improve with age. I personally enjoy these Champagnes with 20 to 30 years of aging.
When I taste a reasonably mature Clos du Mesnil or Salon (I would strongly suggest that it be at least 15 years old), I just shake my head and wonder, “How can anything be this good?” The 1996 Krug Clos du Mesnil is the finest Champagne that I have tasted in my lifetime, or at least it’s tied with my previous favorite, the 1928 Krug. A fellow-Champagne lover voted for the 1996 Salon as his favorite; for me, ’96 Salon is still just too young to drink now, but it will be sensational. (While I’m on the subject of 1996 Champagnes, for me clearly the most outstanding vintage in Champagne since 1964, the 1996 Cristal is awesome. It disappeared from the market so quickly that I was able to purchase just one bottle.)
Many of you reading this might be saying, “Sure, these are all great Champagnes, but they’re so expensive; who can afford them?” And you’re right. I certainly can’t afford Krug Clos du Mesnil; the average price for its current release, 1998, is $870 (1996 Krug Clos du Mesnil’s average price is over $1500!) The average price for Salon’s current releases is over $300.
Of course, costliness is no argument against excellence; quite the contrary in fact. And, thankfully, there are some wonderful Blanc de Blancs Champagnes sold for far less money than the likes of Krug Clos du Mesnil or Salon.
So, why do I enjoy Blanc de Blanc Champagnes so much? One reason is that I believe that the Chardonnay variety reaches its greatest heights in the Champagne region. Chardonnay really shines only in very cool climates, and Champagne is about the coolest region where it can grow. With its chalky, limestone soil, Champagne provides the ideal environment for this often-maligned variety, allowing it to exhibit concentration and minerality that it does not show in warmer regions. Only Chablis and Côte d’Or Burgundy come close to Champagne in producing great Chardonnay wines, and then only in cooler vintages, such as the recent wonderful 2008 vintage.
Another reason I enjoy Blanc de Blancs is that I drink much of my Champagne as apéritifs, and most Blanc de Blancs Champagnes, usually lighter and more elegant than other styles, are ideal before-dinner wines. For those of you who love caviar, Blanc de Blancs Champagnes are perfect, never too heavy to obscure the delicate flavor of the fish eggs. Sushi lovers: Blanc de Blancs Champagnes again are the ideal match.
The Côte des Blancs, situated around the town of Epernay, is clearly the greatest area for growing Chardonnay in Champagne. The soil of the Côte des Blancs is certainly the chalkiest in the region. No less than six Grand Cru villages (Avize, Chouilly, Cramant, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Oger, and Oiry) are located on the Côte des Blancs.
Besides Krug Clos du Mesnil and Salon, I have a group of favorite Blanc de Blancs Champagnes. My list of twenty-one Blanc de Blancs favorites includes six Grower Champagne producers. Many growers own vineyards on the Côte des Blancs, one of the main reasons that there are so many excellent Blanc de Blancs Grower Champagnes. In alphabetical order, here are my favorites, with a few comments about each, and their average retail price:
Ayala Blanc de Blancs: Light-bodied; very dry, low-dosage; a perfect apéritif Champagne. About $70. Look for the 2002, a top Ayala vintage.
Billecart-Salmon Vintage Blanc de Blancs: Long one of my favorite Blanc de Blancs. It really defines the greatness of the category. The only problem: It has gotten quite expensive (the 1999 is $130-$135). But Billecart-Salmon now also has a very good non-vintage Blanc de Blancs in the $70-$80 range, including one with zero dosage. Billecart-Salmon’s Vintage Blanc de Blancs always have great longevity; its 1988 can still use a little more time.
Guy Charlemagne Vintage and non-vintage Blanc de Blancs: A Grower-producer making excellent, reasonably priced Blanc de Blancs from its Le Mesnil Grand Cru vineyard. Its non-vintage sells in the $40 to $44 range, but I would recommend its Vintage Blanc de Blancs for $50.
Gaston Chicquet Blanc de Blancs d’Aÿ: Gaston Chicquet is one of the larger Grower Champagne producers, located in the village of Dizy (Marne Valley, north of Epernay). The most unusual aspect of this Blanc de Blancs is that it comes from a vineyard in Aÿ, renowned for Pinot Noir. This is a big, gutsy Blanc de Blancs, with lots of character. Two versions: a non-vintage that sells for $45 to $50, and the even better Vintage; current 2002 around $60. Highly recommended.
Delamotte Vintage Blanc de Blancs: Delamotte is the sister-house of the famed Salon, and shares grapes with Salon’s vineyard in Le Mesnil. One of the great values; should be better-known. Delamotte produces a good non-vintage Blanc de Blancs (about $44), but its 1999, in the $70 to $80 range, is truly outstanding. Both have spicy, lemony flavors. Delicious.
Deutz Blanc de Blancs: I’m a big fan of Deutz Champagnes, and I especially love its Blanc de Blancs, another Champagne with tasty lemony flavors. The 2002 and 2004 are both very good ($65 to $80). However, I am not a fan of Deutz’s expensive ($190) premium Blanc de Blancs, Amour de Deutz; too big, with pronounced oaky flavors.
Diebolt-Vallois Blanc de Blancs: An outstanding, small Grower Producer with an old-vine vineyard in the Grand Cru village of Cramant. If you want to experience the complex, elegant, creamy style of Cramant Champagnes, this is the Champagne for you. I recommend Diebolt-Vallois’s premium non-vintage, “Prestige,” a great Blanc de Blancs at $60 to $65. Its 2004 Vintage Fleur de Passion is in the $150-$160 range.
Pierre Gimmonet, Cuis 1er Cru, Blanc de Blancs: Another rather large Grower Producer whose wines are generally available in the U.S. Gimonnet’s NV 1er Cru is a great buy at $45-$50, made with 40 year-old vines. Gimonnet also has a Vintage Grand Cru (Cramant and Chouilly) for $65 to $70 and its best Champagne, “Special Club,” made from 80-year-old vines, for $85 to $90.
Gosset Extra Brut Célébris Blanc de Blancs: Gosset, one of my very favorite producers, recently began making its first Blanc de Blancs, in its prestige cuvée Célébris series, a non-vintage version. Unfortunately, it’s produced in small quantities, and so it might be difficult to find. Gosset’s Extra Brut Célébris Blanc de Blancs is very dry, medium-to-full-bodied, very concentrated, with complex flavors. It needs time to develop. Very impressive! ($190 to $200).
Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires: For those of us who write for Wine Review Online and take part in the annual Critics Challenge judging, Charles Heidsieck’s prestige cuvée, Blanc des Millénaires, is an old friend. Its 1995 won “Best in Show” wine two years in a row. Complexly flavored, with a very long finish. The 1995 is still available ($165 to $175), a good value for a great, mature prestige cuvée.
Henriot Blanc de Blancs: Henriot is a superb, small Champagne house that is all about elegance, and its Blanc de Blancs are as good as anybody’s. Formerly called Blanc Souverain, Henriot’s Blanc de Blancs exhibits lemon zest and other citrus flavors, along with definite minerality on the palate. Always clean and fresh. This is an insider’s Champagne; all who know of Henriot love this house. The current 1998 Henriot Blanc de Blancs retails for about $70.
Jacquesson Blanc de Blancs: Another small house that specializes in Blanc de Blancs Champagnes made from the Grand Cru village of Avize. Always very dry, finesseful, and elegant, Jacquesson’s Blanc de Blancs retail in the $70 price range.
Larmandier-Bernier Grand Cru Vieilles Vignes Blanc de Blancs: A Grower Producer in Vertus, on the southern end of the Côte des Blancs, specializing in Blanc de Blancs Champagnes. Its Grand Cru Vieilles Vignes (old vines) de Cramant is one of the great Blanc de Blancs Champagnes being made today. Its 2005 Vieilles Vignes is available for about $65, an astounding value for a Champagne of this quality.
Mumm de Cramant Blanc de Blancs: The venerable house of G. H. Mumm has long made its non-vintage Blanc de Blancs from Grand Cru Cramant in the crémant style (gentler effervesence). A Champagne that’s ideal as an apéritif. Generally available, and well priced ($55 to $60).
Bruno Paillard Grand Cru Réserve Privée: Another gem of a small house in Reims that produces very dry, light-bodied, elegant Champagnes. Made from Grand Cru grapes, this Blanc de Blancs, in my view, is the flagship Champagne of this excellent house ($80 to $85).
Perrier-Jouët Fleur de Champagne Blanc de Blancs: Perrier-Jouët only started making a Blanc de Blancs Champagne recently, and started at the top with a small quantity of it in its prestige cuvée line, Fleur de Champagne (called Belle Epoque outside the U.S.). This is an imposing, well-structured Champagne that can last for decades. The only problem is the price, about $300. Look for the 2002 or 1999; skip the too-warm 2000 vintage.
Pierre Peters Blanc de Blancs: Pierre Peters is a Grower Producer located in the prime Grand Cru village of Les Mesnil-sur-Oger. Peters makes stunning Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs from the great vineyards of Les Mesnil. A few critics believe that Peters’ Les Mesnil Blanc de Blancs rivals Krug’s Clos du Mesnil and Salon, but at a much lower cost ($110).
Philipponnat Grand Blanc Brut: An excellent small house that produces one of Champagne’s greatest wines, the prestige cuvée Clos des Goisses. I recently drank Philipponnat’s 1988 Grand Blanc, and it was amazingly fresh and vibrant. Both the 1999 and 2004 Grand Blancs are currently selling for about $70. Outstanding house.
Pol Roger Blanc de Blancs: Pol Roger makes an excellent Blanc de Blancs (formerly called Blanc de Chardonnay), my favorite Champagne of this superb house, along with its prestige cuvée, Sir Winston Churchill. Aged in very cold cellars, Pol Roger’s Champagnes demonstrate great longevity. Its currently available 1999 sells in the $100 to $115 range.
Ruinart, Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs: Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs prestige cuvée is a renowned Champagne, the flagship wine of this very old house. It can age amazingly well, 50 years or more. Its 1998 is the current vintage, but you can still find the 1996 for about $160.
Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs: Taittinger really put Blanc de Blancs Champagnes on the wine world map when it released its first Comtes de Champagne, vintage 1952, in 1958. It became so popular that other houses started scrambling to produce their own Blanc de Blancs Champagnes. Comtes de Champagne is a medium-to full-bodied, dry, complex Champagne with an incredible record for longevity. Look for the outstanding 1998 Comtes (about $150 to $160), or the long-lived 1996 ($200).
I conclude with my great-value Blanc de Blancs recommendation from the co-operative, Nicolas Feuillatte, one of the largest-selling Champagnes in the U.S. Its Blanc de Blancs, a particular favorite of mine, can be purchased for about $40.