Two of the world’s greatest Champagnes come from one village: Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. The wines are both 100% Chardonnay blanc de blancs from the chalk slope known as the Côte des Blancs. Both share the minerality that the ancient seabed imparts, and both are vintage Champagnes that have the enviable ability to age.
Salon Le Mesnil is a blend, partly of Chardonnay grapes from Le Jardin du Salon, but also from 19 other vineyards. Meanwhile, Clos du Mesnil, produced by Krug, is a single-vineyard Champagne. The way that the difference affects the taste of these two superb wines provides fascination.
Salon Champagne’s winery is nothing if not discreet, located off a side street next door to its partner Champagne house, Delamotte. (Both are owned by Laurent-Perrier.) The tasting room décor—all white with white curtains—adds to the mystique.
Salon Le Mesnil is produced only when director Didier Depond thinks the year is right. Since the first vintage in 1905, there have been 40 Salon vintage released. The latest was the 2006 vintage.
The secret is the terroir of le Mesnil-sur-Oger. According to Mathieu Pouchan, American sales manager for Salon, it provides wines with more acidity and concentration than other Chardonnay villages in the Côte des Blancs.
“When we taste the new wine, it is almost unbearably acidic,” says Pouchan. “The Champagne needs to soften, which is why we wait at least 10 years before release.”
That acidity and the associated austerity allow Salon to age so well. The recently re-released 1997 vintage is still as crisp, austere and structured as the original release in 2008. What has changed is that the Champagne has added richness.
This great ability to age is what also distinguishes Krug’s Clos du Mesnil. The Clos is a small, walled vineyard in the center of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, undistinguished except by a set of rather stylish gates.
Inside the walls, it looks more like somebody’s back garden that just happens to be planted with vines. All Chardonnay, it’s Blanc de Blancs in all but name, though Krug doesn’t like that description. It prefers to call Clos du Mesnil a single-vineyard wine.
I met Olivier Krug, sixth-generation director of the House of Krug, in the smart surroundings of the tasting room at the Krug mansion in Reims. This former family home has been converted into a series of entertaining spaces, surrounded on two sides by a calming garden oasis. Krug said the 3.7 acre vineyard was purchased by the winery in 1971 because it was already the source of great fruit for the Grande Cuvée bottling.
Like Salon, Clos du Mesnil is not released every vintage. The decision is made after tasting.
“We are looking for the most intense expression of Chardonnay,” says Krug. “Intensity and acidity are the keywords.” If these characteristics materialize, the wine is bottled. It’s tasted again 11 years later before a decision is made to release it.
The 1999 Clos du Mesnil was one vintage where the decision was made to not release.
“I tasted the 1999 reserve wines we had kept to blend into Grand Cuvée, and I wasn’t happy with them,” says cellarmaster Eric Lebel. “So we decided that the 1999 Clos du Mesnil we had already made and bottled should be kept in the cellar here and not released.”
The wine had aged too quickly. It lacked the austerity and potential that this great Champagne should have, unlike the perfect 2002 or the equally grand 1998. Both vintages, still in their infancy, have the intensity, purity, structure and steely edge that will allow them to age for decades.
Two legendary Champagnes. Two great expressions of Chardonnay. Different in philosophy, maybe, but united in their ability to age. As Olivier Krug said of Clos du Mesnil, “I have never found a vintage yet of this wine that is too old.”