There’s a slope in Champagne that produces magic. Spanning 12 miles of chalk-rich soils, the Côte de Blancs is home to magnificent Chardonnay vineyards. The grapes grown here are used to make some of the region’s finest Champagnes. Called blanc de blancs, meaning “white of whites,” these are Champagnes made exclusively from white grapes—in this case, Chardonnay.
What makes this slope and these vines so special? Champagne is the coolest vine-growing region in France, one that sees bitterly cold winters and mild summers. Chardonnay generally loves such cool-climate conditions, but these vineyards excel particularly well thanks to chalk-heavy subsoil and the east-facing vines that capture ample warmth from the morning sun.
But it’s more than that: The chalk soil was once ancient seabed, and now it contains millions of small, fossilized creatures. The minerality and saltiness it imparts on Chardonnay translates into crisp, tight, well-balanced Champagnes with a pure and elegant aromatic intensity.
That link between terroir and taste is essential for Didier Gimonnet, the second generation of growers to direct his family winery, Pierre Gimonnet et Fils. Based in the Côte des Blancs Premier Cru village of Cuis, where the family has been growing grapes since 1750 and bottling estate wines since 1935, Gimonnet only produces blanc de blancs Champagnes.
“You can’t reduce a Champagne just to its grape variety,” says Gimonnet. “Great blanc de blancs is not just a Chardonnay Champagne, but a Champagne from a great vineyard.”
For Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, executive vice president and cellarmaster of Champagne Louis Roederer, blanc de blancs “must first carry all the flavors of a ripe Chardonnay, but, because it is a single-variety wine, it also needs to express its origin and soil.”
Roederer’s 2010 Blanc de Blancs comes from Avize. When he blends, Lecaillon says he seeks “elegance and power, a powdery texture, mineral freshness and salinity,” which come from the dry, chalky soils of that village.
The Great White Wine Villages of Champagne
There are 13 villages in the 12-mile stretch of the prestigious Côte des Blancs. Six of these are Grand Cru villages, which means, in theory, that they are the best winegrowing areas and command top prices for the grapes grown there.
The road to the south of Épernay, the second city of Champagne located about 90 miles east of Paris, rises into rolling, chalky hills that anyone who has seen England’s famed white cliffs of Dover will recognize. On the left is the wide plain of the Marne and the distant Montagne de Reims, the land of Pinot Noir. On the right, steep slopes of vines are topped at 700 feet by dense woodland and forests.
As you pass through Cuis, a Premier Cru village in the Côte de Blancs Grand Cru heartland, the pace quickens. First come the Chouilly and Oiry Grands Crus, villages on the plain that have vines on the slopes. What follows, in quick succession on the actual slope, are the Grand Cru vineyards of Cramant, Avize, Oger and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger before the end of the slope in the Premier Cru village of Vertus.
What’s on producers’ plates?
Producers love to play with food pairings for blanc de blancs Champagnes, especially during the holiday season. Blanc de blancs really shines on Christmas Eve, thanks to the popularity of fish dishes traditionally served.
Didier Depond, of Salon and Delamotte Champagne houses, goes for oven-cooked lobster or his favorite aged Parmigiano cheese.
Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, of Champagne Louis Roederer, prefers sole or turbot.
Didier Gimonnet, of Pierre Gimonnet et Fils, opts for scallops, sushi or other raw fish and shellfish.
Alice Voirin, of Champagne Voirin-Jumel, likes her vintage Champagnes with chicken in a lemon sauce or scampi.
These are tightly packed villages with slate-roofed houses. Narrow streets occasionally break into irregularly shaped squares as they extend up and down the slopes. Behind high gates, Champagne producers have their wineries and cellars.
Growers abound in the Côte des Blancs. Many bottle and sell their own Champagnes, while others continue to sell grapes to the great, large Champagne houses of Épernay and Reims.
Each Grand Cru village produces its own style of wine that expert blenders and tasters of Champagne claim to recognize.
Chouilly’s vineyards are dominated by the Butte de Saran, which juts into the plain. These vineyards produce the richest style of wines in the Côte des Blancs, less mineral in character than the other villages.
Cramant, with its creamy Champagnes, is noted for its Crémant style, formerly identified as Crémant de Cramant. These wines typically boast low carbonation and a smooth texture.
Avize produces Champagnes that are the most mineral and, initially, the most austere, of the Grand Cru villages.
Oger’s wines are a combination of the austerity and minerality found in Avize with the balance of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. While they’re found as stand-alone wines, they are more often used as a blending component.
Le Mesnil-sur-Oger has the most balanced Champagnes. Elegant and firm when young, they can mature for decades. It’s no surprise that the village is home to the two greatest Blanc de Blancs Champagnes: Krug’s Clos du Mesnil, made from a walled vineyard right in the village, and Salon, which is only produced in great vintages.
Salon 2006 Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs Bru; $617, 100 points. This new release from a great vintage for Chardonnay in Champagne is a perfect blanc de blancs, showing a wealth of intensity from the crisp, chalky, mineral tones to the perfumed apple notes. The aromas hint at developing toastiness that adds depth and complexity. The wine is still young and it will age for years. Drink from 2020. Vineyard Brands. Cellar Selection.
Krug 2002 Clos du Mesnil Blanc de Blancs Brut; $800, 99 points. Pure Chardonnay from the walled vineyard in the heart of Le Mesnil, this intense wine from a great vintage is tight and mineral, still showing hints of toast from its barrel fermentation. With its taut texture, complex acidity and crisp citrus, it’s very young, but will age indefinitely. Showing the beauty of Chardonnay in Champagne at its best, it will certainly still be impressive come 2030. Moët Hennessey USA. Cellar Selection.
Lanson 2002 Noble Cuvée Blanc de Blancs Brut; $150, 95 points. Now just approaching maturity, this floral, aromatic wine is superb. Very dry, very crisp and with delicious lemon and green-apple freshness, the wine also has a strongly mineral character that comes from the chalk soil of the Côte des Blancs. The wine is just ready, although it will age further. Lanson International Americas Ltd. Cellar Selection.
Perrier-Jouët 2004 Belle Epoque Blanc de Blancs Brut; $300, 95 points. Now at its peak, this impressive wine has moved from fruit to maturity, adding toastiness to its acidity and giving the wine richness. It’s full and ripe while keeping the taut, steely edge proper to a Chardonnay Champagne. There’s no need to age further. Drink now. Pernod Ricard. Editors’ Choice.
G.H. Mumm 2012 RSRV Maison Mumm Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Brut; $75, 94 points. Mumm has always had a special relationship with the Chardonnay village of Cramant, and this new vintage reinforces that. It brings out both richness and minerality in a fine, generous blend. It comes from grand cru vineyards, ripe in its creamy apple character and the beginnings of maturity. Drink from 2018. Pernod Ricard. Cellar Selection.
Henriet-Bazin 2012 Marie-Amélie Fleur de Vigne Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru Millésime Brut. This rich, delicious wine is still bursting with young apple and grapefruit flavors, giving it a fruity start with great long-term potential. Then the concentration and the richly mineral texture kicks in, lending the wine intensity and the possibility of aging. Drink from 2019. Charles Neal Selections. Cellar Selection.
All great Champagnes age, but blanc de blancs do so particularly well. The chalky texture, high acidity and steely character often found in the young wines provide long-term potential.
If you simply can’t wait to open a young blanc de blancs, let it sit in your glass for 10–15 minutes, just like a great red or white wine. You may lose some bubbles, but the wine will open up and taste much better.
Didier Depond, director of the Salon and Delamotte Champagne houses, characterizes a blanc de blancs as a wine “waiting to be aged…it has to be fresh, elegant, with stone fruit aromas and always a touch of austerity when it is young.
It’s expressive from adolescence through peak maturity, though it evolves and delights in different ways throughout its life.
“Gradually, as it ages, it should develop toasty flavors, jasmine and white flower aromas, and finally, after many years, it should have a nutty character.”
Gimonnet says the wine must be very enticing and mouthwatering in its youth to age properly.
“If you forget a bottle in the back of your cellar, then it will have become better Champagne,” he says.
Alice Voirin of Champagne Voirin-Jumel, a grower based in Cramant that makes dry Champagnes, says that she loves the way “the white fruits take on nutty aromas and become opulent with butter and fresh bread flavors. And the drier the Champagne, the better it will age.”
More and more Champagne producers are making a blanc de blancs. It’s lighter than Pinot Noir-dominated Champagnes, and it’s also inherently drier, says Lecaillon, because the balance point of Chardonnay demands less sugar than Pinot Noir.
Of all Champagnes, a great blanc de blancs tastes of place as well as grape. It’s expressive from adolescence through peak maturity, though it evolves and delights in different ways throughout its life. Always crisp, elegantly textured, never too fruity and perfectly balanced, it’s the epitome of great Champagne.
Lombard et Cie NV Brut Nature Le Mesnil sur Oger Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru; $80, 94 points. Here is one of a series of Champagnes from three major Chardonnay villages in the Côte des Blancs. Le Mesnil has some of the top Champagne vineyards and this wine shows the quality of the terroir with its tight minerality and intense acidity balanced by the ripe lemon and grapefruit flavors. Drink now. Fruit of the Vines Inc. Editors’ Choice.
Louis Roederer 2010 Blanc de Blancs Brut; $86, 94 points. This latest Blanc de Blancs vintage from Roederer is well poised and balanced, already offering a hint of toast, while the minerality is prominent. It is in a dry style, relying on the ripe fruit to soften the impact of the acidity. A beautiful wine, ready to drink. Maisons Marques et Domaines USA.
Roland Champion 2011 Special Club Blanc de Blancs Chouilly Grand Cru Brut; $80, 94 points. Produced from old vines in the Grand Cru vineyards of Chouilly in the Côte des Blancs, this is a beautifully crisp, ripe wine, showing taut fruit and fine, stylish acidity. As a Special Club bottling, it adheres to stringent qualitative guidelines set out by an elite group of growers. Still young, it will be best from 2019. Kysela Père et Fils.
Delamotte NV Blanc de Blancs; $79, 93 points. Produced exclusively from Grand Cru vineyards in the Côte des Blancs, this is a beautiful, dry wine. It has a chalky texture and ample acidity that frames the tight fruit. The pure line of citrus and crisp green apples goes right to the heart of this balanced, bright wine that will age well. Drink now for the forward fruit, or wait for another two to three years. Vineyard Brands. Cellar Selection.
Gosset NV Grand Blanc de Blancs Brut; $85, 93 points. This is a relatively new Champagne for Gosset, which has traditionally focused on Pinot Noir. Drawing mainly from Côte des Blancs vineyards, it’s crisply elegant with a fine mineral texture and taut character. It’s poised for further development in bottle. Drink from 2018. Wilson Daniels Ltd.
Pierre Gimonnet 2009 Cuvée Fleuron Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs Brut; $70, 93 points. This is a serious wine, with its mineral texture and tangy structure. It has plenty of apple and zingy orange flavors. But the main thrust at this stage is of a wine poised for considerable aging. Fresh and still tight, it needs several years. Drink from 2018. Skurnik Wines.
Voirin-Jumel 2010 Millésime Brut; $65, 93 points. This ripe wine is still young. It has a taut texture that’s dominated by the lively white fruit and crisp acidity. There’s a mineral streak that cuts through the wine to give a steely texture that will soften over the next year. Drink from the end of 2018. Premier Beverage. Cellar Selection