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France’s Greatest Wine?

Thumbnail image for Selosse.jpgAt a wine tasting I attended many years go, France’s most respected critic, Michel Bettane, was asked to name the country’s finest wine region. “Burgundy,” he answered quickly, but then he paused, “if it isn’t Champagne.” Happily, there’s no need to choose one over the other, but at least Burgundy has in place a set of regulations that obliges winemakers to emphasize the terroir origin and vintage of their wine.

No such rules exist in Champagne, other than that grapes are grown in approved Champagne vineyards. When you buy a bottle of brut from one of the big houses (les Grandes Marques), the juice in it may have come from 500 different vineyards and a dozen different vintages, and most of the grapes will have been produced by contract growers. The result is a consistent product that too often lacks character and charm.

Selosse VO.jpgBut that state of affairs is changing, primarily due to the work of Anselme Selosse, whose vineyards are in the village of Avize in Champagne. As in so many areas of endeavor, one man has broken free from the standard procedure, in this case, poor viticultural and winemaking practices (pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, high yields per vine, too early harvesting, harsh pressing, excessive dosage), and begun to make wine with the same care as seen in other areas of France. The result is far from the acidic fizz that too often passes for Champagne. By showing what can be done with low yields of lovingly tended, ripe grapes from a single village in a single year, Selosse has inspired a generation of young champenois to stop selling their grapes to the big houses only to see them disappear into the blend; now small, conscientious growers are producing wines of complexity and variety. Here’s to that change. Quality Champagne marries beautifully with almost all food (except red meat), and we often drink a bottle throughout a meal.

Addendum: The Champagne region is about 90 minutes from Paris, and most little growers are happy to invite you into their home to taste their different cuvées. No charge, of course, but they are nonetheless happy to sell you what is still one of the best wine bargains in France. Regrettably, that hospitaity is no longer true for Anselme Selosse. He could sell his wine ten times over, and if he were to allow visits, he would spend his whole day guiding a stream of the faithful through his cellars.

Addendum: In a column in the WSJ, Jay McInerney describes a visit chez Selosse and the revolution taking place in Champagne. In an uncharacterisitc move, Jay posits a gustative equivalency between the big houses and the little growers. That’s clearly a political cop-out. Other than their top-of-the-line wines, the big guys’ products don’t come close to the little makers’ Champagnes.

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