Champagne Jacques Selosse – A Profile

Anselme Selosse is a legend. For Champagne, and champagne, he is as Jim Morrison’s contribution to rock, maybe Picasso to art. And for some Selosse is number one frontman for the world’s most successful wine. No other champagne producer commands such an intriguing combination of shock, awe, devotion, jealousy, sotto voce critical doubt and reservations as he does.

But step back from the babble if not the bubbles of champagne and you have to admit Selosse’s wines, influence and personality, are beset with yawning paradoxes. For all his success and charisma, the average drinker of champagne worldwide has not heard of him. He is not a champagne ‘house’ like the big grandes marques, but a single domaine producer, called ‘grower champagne’ by many, a term we think a shame as it implies a ‘farmer-peasant’ image the best single estates certainly should not have. Let alone Selosse.

The price of all the bottlings of Selosse wine significantly exceeds the average price of any bottle in the range of big brand houses save for a few starry de luxe cuvées. While for some he is the serious pioneer who has brought a revolution to the concept of what champagne can be and how it is made, there are times when he seems happy to be the swashbuckling poster savant of Champagne chic. And other moments when he can seem convincingly reflective and shy. He will only speak French.

Just recently we have been reminded he knows a thing or two about smart business initiatives too, with the opening of a new boutique Hotel Les Avisés on the Côte des Blancs in his HQ home village of Avize. It hums quietly with cool thirtysomething Parisians, New Yorkers and Japanese you would normally see in capitals or Pacific resorts than in a near-deserted village on the Côte des Blancs. Your room keys are in the picture. While the hotel sports a website, the wine domaine does not.

Most discussions of this estate focus on Selosse himself, more so than on personalities when looking at the bigger champagne houses, even in these days when Chefs de Caves are stars to the wine enthusiast public. This is probably not his fault. One man bands lend themselves to this celebrity and in the end wine journalists choose what to write. Selosse has carved out an important niche singelhanded in Champagne. Quite what the niche is needs a closer look.

In Champagne terms, this producer is rather a newcomer. Anselme’s baker father Jacques bought some vineyard land in grand cru Avize in 1949 but made little wine, selling nearly all the fruit to Lanson. By the mid-sixties he was making his own wine and in the early 70s his son went to Burgundy to qualify in oenology from Beaune, serendipitous, as he could so easily have studied in Avize, the local Côte des Blancs wine school. In Beaune he learnt the classic Burgundian method of still white winemaking with Chardonnay – barrel fermentation and long lees contact, including bâtonnage - stirring up the fine lees in barrel. He would also have understood the Burgundian belief that tiny lieu-dit parcels of wines are capable of expressing individual character, not at all a mainstream practice in Champagne. He first made the family’s wine in 1973 and from 1976 started to use methods in grape growing and winemaking which were to make the estate’s wines hugely distinctive alongside mainstream champagne. Present production is some 65,000 bottles per annum, from 7.5ha with 90% exported. Some 47 parcels are cultivated, not an unusual number for this extent of land, with about 4ha in Avize, significant holdings in Oger, Cramant and Le Mesnil (all Chardonnay) and nearly 1ha of Pinot Noir in Aÿ, Ambonnay and Mareuil-sur-Aÿ on the Montagne de Reims. All of it is grand cru except Mareuil which is premier cru.

Selosse’s methods are often presented as making Burgundy, albeit fizz, in Champagne. Each parcel is vinified separately. Everything is vinified in mainly small oak, around 15% of them new each year but on average 5-10 years old. A number of barrel sizes are used: 400l, 600l, 228l. He uses five coopers and a mix of different oak origins and age. The wines are lees-stirred and held on fine lees for 8-10 months, much longer than most vins clairs, before bottling without filtration. Missed by some commentators who see a ‘hands-off’ natural approach, is a distinctive concern for precision and hygiene in his winemaking, which he stessed to us in discussion and is clear in the winery. There is scrupulous cleanliness – sterile filtration of winery water, a silicon plate and stainless steel press to avoid wood contact with must from a traditional press. Dosages are generally low and malolactic is left pragmatically to the development of each barrel.

It’s important to record Selosse’s use of indiginous yeasts for both fermentations. Since the sixties Champagne has used selected dried yeasts from laboratories such as Lallemand and Lanvin, often isolated initially by Champagne’s labs and aimed at consistent wines in the difficult high pressure and low temperature environment of the second fermentation in bottle. Yeasts for the second fermentation in bottle also need to flocculate well (drop to the horizontal of the bottle) and agglomerate -stick together- so that remuage (riddling) is easy. These dry yeasts are reconstituted and the assemblage (the bulk blend for bottling) inoculated prior to bottling. Some houses, such as Moët, inject each bottle. It’s not uncommon for hip organic/ biodynamic small estates to use indiginous yeast fermentations for the vins clairs. But it is very rare and difficult to carry out the second fermentation with your own yeasts. Anselme told us he uses unique ambient indigenous yeasts isolated and made up as cultures from early picked musts as ‘Levures Selosses’ under contract by a local ‘Station Oenotechnique’. The yeasts were selected for their ability to aggolomerate and for taste character and are in use for both fermentations. These yeasts were indiginous the year they were selected and have been lab-cultivated since. Selosse says they are ‘the key to (his) cellar’ and are better at settling impurities than commercial champagne yeasts, both before assemblage and during ageing on lees in bottle after tirage. It also avoids the need for standard elaborate cold stabilisation procedures and filtration of tartrate crystals.

There are a very few other producers experimenting with natural yeast second fermentations. Francis Boulard et Fille have been working with freezing musts and thawing them come bottling to drive the second fermenation. But it is a very difficult and risky method. Champagne Pascal Agrapart have also bottled their cuvée ‘Expérience ’07′ using fermenting must and sealing the bottle immediately under cork for ageing with no disgorgement to follow. There are no apparent lees deposited in the bottle!

We have discussed aspects of winemaking first before work in the vineyard quite deliberately. Selosse himself and many devoted commentators stress a familiar rhetoric about viticulture being paramount and the decisive contribution Selosse makes to ‘new wave’ small domaine champagne. Terroir is a vital element. Anselme Selosse talks endlessy about the mission to ensure the wines reflect their origins. But it is important to notice the very sophisticated oenology and technical operation in winemaking that is going on here too.

When it comes to viticulture, there is no question the Selosse vineyards are scrupulously tended. A tenet is lowish yields (for Champagne) roughly 70% of the bumper crop pumped out of the vines by the big brands. Soil consultancy has come from Claude and Lydia Bourguignon, the leading champions of soil organics. Cultivation is the norm, no herbicide or pesticide is used and minimal SO2 sprays. Selosse has dabbled with biodynamics but while he says he ‘works with the moon’ he rejects dogmatism and is not certified for either organics or biodynamics. Significantly the entry for Selosse in Monty Waldin’s first edition of his book ‘Biodynamic Wines’ (2004) was easily the longest for any champagne producer but in the fat ‘Biodynamic Wines 2011′ edition there is now no entry for Selosse. In conversation with Selosse you hear a constant slightly touchy-feely anthropomorphism of vines, a discussion as if they were children and family members with characters and needs. The metaphor is not rubbish of course but I suspect it slightly fogs some very hard farming graft. There is a general tendency for his talk to be peppered with recondite conceptual plays and polarisations, rivalling any French post-structuralist, but one of which – l’inné et l’acquis – (nature and nurture) is admittedly an apposite model for many winemaking dilemmas. One gets the impression, as in the winemaking, that the default Selosse setting is to smartly move places once any pigeonholing begins to define him too clearly among Champagne’s journalistic and connoisseur chattering classes. He may have a devoted following but he follows no one and remains a relative iconoclast in Champagne.

While the estate is relatively new, Anselme Selosse, now in his late fifties and winemaking over 35 years, was not completely alone amongst Champagne’s post-war small domaines. Jacques Diebolt-Vallois in Cramant was using similar techniques of barrel fermentation through the 70s and 80s and was made Champagne Maker of the Year by Gauilt-Millau in 1992, two years before Selossse was named Best Winemaker in France in 1994 by the same publication. Champagnes Tarlant and Egly-Ouriet too have used barrel fermentation for a long period before it became the rage among many small domaines today. But none have quite had the attention and intensity of Selosse’s work. Nor the list of former stagiaires with Selosse who are now feted in their own right: Chartogne-Taillet (Merfy), Prévost (Gueux) and Ulysse Collin (Sézannais).

And the wines? Distinctive is certainly the word but I have no qualms calling them ‘oaky’ which for many commentators seems to be a taboo word and they prefer a range of vaguer terms such as ‘depth’, ‘complexity and ‘richness’ or ‘oxidative style’. They are all of these things and the wines are outstanding for their arresting tang and vinosity combined with what I can only call a gorgeous finesse of mousse – the intensity but delicacy of the mouthfeel from the bubbles. But their key feature is the degree to which their wood regime marks them with a spice and burnished character that is pretty much unique in Champagne. This is not to say the wood is unintegrated; in general the concentration of the wine can certainly stand up to the wood. And the wood character is not sweetly new and cloying or chic and ‘high char’. But it is very obvious. Given the rhetoric of this estate is devoted to the naked revelation of ‘terroir’ I have to say what most of the wines reveal most in taste, is the winemaking and barrel regime. There can be huge complexity and interest with age. And there’s the rub – these wines need at least ten years from being made to first drinking but I suspect many bottles do not get that. I have never disliked the wines, because they are more or less unique in Champagne and stand out against what can often be oceans of insipid fizz. The mature cuvées are borderline profound and even the young ones are arresting and particularly good matches with quite big savoury dishes. I would not suggest they somehow deviate too far from what might be assumed is a champagne norm as some do. UK champagne expert Tom Stevenson has openly criticised Selosse’s wines, omitting any mention in the 1998 first edition of his ‘Christie’s World Encyclopaedia of Sparkling Wines’ and then criticising them as too oaky in the 2007 edition and recently declaring: ‘…the wines do not live up to either his abilities or his terroir.’ Far too harsh. But there is an issue here when the winemaking claims so much of our attention on tasting, but all the while we are told it is terroir.

I was accompanied on my first visit to Champagne Jacques Selosse in November 2007 by Patricia Stefanowicz MW . Parts of this profile reflect our joint discussion and notes following this and I acknowledge her contribution here.

Wines Tasted

The range is evolving but the first eight wines in this summary here have been established some time. Dosages are always minimal. Initiale might be called ‘entry level’, Chardonnay only, from three harvests with about 24-30 months on lees. Version Originale is also Blanc de Blancs, blended from three years, aged over three and a half years. Millesimé is the vintage wine made Blance de Blancs grand cru Avize from lieux-dits Le Mont de Cramant and Les Chantereines. Substance is an Avize single parcel made with a solera begun in 1986 and bottling 22% of its volume (about 3000 bottles) each year before 5-6 years on the second lees, and the solera replenished each year with the new vintage. Contraste is 100% Aÿ Pinot Noir Blanc de Noirs from lieu-dit La Côte Faron. Exquise is a demi-sec with 24g/L made Blanc de Blancs. The Rosé is made by blending Ambonnay still red with Chardonnay vins clairs. A new series of single parcel lieu-dit wines has begun. These will eventually be released, all six, each year. In Sept ’12, all six will launch together, as ’05s. 6.5 years on lees.

Pinot Noirs

Aÿ – La Côte Faron – ’03 released in Sept 2010, ’04 in Sept ’11
Mareuil-sur-Aÿ – Sous le Mont
Ambonnay – Le Bout de Clos – ’04 in Sept ’11

Chardonnays

Avize – Les Chantereines
Cramant – Chemin de Châlon
Le Mesnil-sur-Oger – Les Carelles – ’03 released in Sept 2010, ’04 in Sept ’11
Rosé Brut NV Tasted 06.06 Pale pink-copper. Lovely intensity and balance though new oak evident. Very long. Tremendous food match with marinated fish starters.
Initiale Blanc de Blancs NV Tasted 09.06. Deep colour, vanilla, velvet and vellum aromas and peppery spice hints. Full body but taught mineral and acid elements. Long. Very good in this full-flavoured style and not overly oaked.
Substance Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Tasted 01.07 with food. While markedly oaked, there was fair integration but well outside the expected model of champagne. Impressive were the complex flavours of varying oxidation, cloves, iodine, coffee. Full-blooded but rather finely wrought balancing act between minerality and texture.
Exquise Sec NV Tasted 03.07 Not overly marked by oak but the oak is there, just well-integrated. Fine balance so not cloying. This would be terrific with foie gras.
Two wines below tasted with food. 11.07
Rosé Brut NV Intense cherry orange; explosive fruit and toffee-vanillin oak influence but not raw. Very full-flavoured and rippling with taut flesh. If you like rosé big, pile in.
Substance Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs NV Aged in barrique, some new, then a ‘solera’ blend of year from ’86 on; disgorged June ’07. Deep gold with lurid orange lights; very rich and aromatic. Oxidative, oaked style with marked sherry, spice and savoury tones. (At Assiette de Champagne 11.07)
Substance Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs NV Served Blind. This d/g August ’07, so includes wines from ’86-2001. 0-4g/L. Very deep colour; amber. Cream and smoky oxidative notes. Is this Selosse? Intense wood-aging and slight sherrried notes with a leesy weight. Earth and stone. Quite raw-boned texture, will presumably iron itself out with time. Orange marmalade. Smoke and herbal finish. Very complex and concentrated but not at all a very familiar model of champagne to many.
In 04.12, Avize
Version Originale NV Very marked by recent oak and quite musty and oxidative. Poor bottle?
Initiale NV All savoury and orange peel with pastry notes and used oak. Appealing but a rather obvious style.
Millesimé ’02 Disgorged only 5 days. Very powerful and expressive. Impression of foliage, herbs and smoke. Very complex and long; superbly energetic wine. Will be released in 09.12
Champagne Jacques Selosse
22 rue Ernest Vallé
51190 Avize
0033 3 26 57 53 56
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