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The concept of terroir reigns supreme over the essence of what makes Champagne unique, and much of the discussion—as it is in Chablis, a hundred sixty miles to the south—amounts to chalk talk. Subdivided into seven distinct regions, (The Montagne de Reims, The Grand Vallée, Vallée de la Marne, The Coteaux Sud d’Epernay, The Côte des Blancs, The Coteaux du Morin, Côte de Sézanne, Vitryat & Montgueux and Côte des Bar in the Aube) these areas can be demarcated by subsoil—a subject we’ll dig into deeper. Enough to say that chalk content is a chief difference among them, and in Champagne, the chalk is formed of calcite granules built from the fragile shells of marine micro-organisms. Being highly porous, this sort of base acts as a reservoir that provides the vines with a steady supply of water even in the driest summers—which, in France, are increasingly becoming the rule. Chalk draws water upward through capillary action, and effort required to tap into this supply puts the vines under just enough stress during the growing season to achieve that delicate balance of ripeness, acidity and berry aroma that is the hallmark of all fine Champagne.
As an exemplar of terroir in Montagne de Reims, and in particular the two famously picturesque Grand Cru villages of Verzy and Verzenay, this week’s selection features the complex and expressive wine of Champagne Penet-Chardonnet. Alexandre Penet, who took over the estate in 2007, has made his mark on the region quite eloquently; among his representational innovations is his dedication to low dosage wines—all his Champagnes are Extra Brut and some are Brut Nature, with no sugar added at all. Additionally, Penet has approached single vineyard selections as a keystone of his portfolio whereas Champagne producers have tended to favor blends from several villages that supply, of course, a variety of terroirs. The focus on site expression rather than the potential synergy of a cuvée is an approach more associated with still winemakers in France—a point that Penet is happy to underscore with his mission statement: “High-quality champagne is so much more than just the bubbles,” he maintains. “Champagne should be enjoyed in the same way as a still wine.”
Between the Marne and the Vesle Rivers lies a broad and undulating headland of remarkable forest, including the world’s largest preserve of dwarf beech trees. The region offers a golden opportunity for botanists, and if you happen to be a wino, you’re also in luck: The gold can be found along the slopes of the seventy-million-year-old mountain of Reims. The landmark massif is a cross-section of chalk, sand, clay and limestone, an ideal crucible for Champagne’s trio of grapes, but especially for Pinot Noir: This is the varietal most widely planted throughout the region except in Trépail and Villers-Marmery, where the Chardonnay finds its own marvelous sanctum.
The vineyards of Montagne de Reims lie in the most northerly sector of the Champagne AOP, hugging the western and northern flanks of the mountain in a huge semicircle that extends from Louvois to Villers-Allerand. Vines carpet the limestone slopes and steep valleys and follow the contours of the mountain from Trépail to Villers-Marmer before disappearing into the folds and creases of its northern flank. The vines are planted on its slopes at varying expositions ranging between north-west to south-east, forming an arc that is open to the west. The challenge for growers in this northern outpost is avoid the morning frost and to expose the vines to a full day of sunlight to encourage as much ripening as possible.
The city of Reims is situated on this mountain of chalk and from it, the Romans built cities; the empty limestone quarries they left behind, called ‘Crayères’, provide ideal humidity and steady temperatures for the slowly maturation process required in the acidic wines that this cool northerly region tends to produce. Thus, in the Montagne de Reims, all the Champagne stars have aligned.
Champagne is the traditional celebratory beverage served at weddings, but was never more appropriate than at the 1967 marriage of Christian Penet to Marie-Louise Chardonnet, joining in matrimony 400 years of wine tradition in Champagne. With this union, the family business expanded to cover fifteen acres of Grand Cru vines—13 in Verzy and two in Verzenay—and thus, before the birth of their son Alexandre, Penet-Chardonnet was born.
As a wine region, Champagne has always had an ambiguous relationship with innovation. On one hand, the process of bottle-fermentation is so established that its name—méthode traditionelle—translates to ‘traditional’. Still, every small grower Champagne wants to increase its exposure to the world’s stage, and to stand out in a field that numbers in the thousands often requires thinking outside the wine crate. Alexandre Penet, who grew up in the cellar watching his grandfather and father make Champagne, made a conscious decision to divert from tradition: He went to college to study engineering and, after qualifying, left Champagne to work overseas in Brazil and in Africa in industries far beyond the winemaking umbrella. In addition, he managed to squeeze in an MBA from the University of Chicago Business School.
But the lure of the vine is strong, and so is the family name. By the time Alexandre had succumbed to both, he’d gained enough real-world experience to understand precisely the kind of wine he could—and should—be making. The clarity of his vision required embracing a unique approach to the sublime properties his family owned in order to coax from them the maximum potential. His most novel shifts in the Champagne paradigm are discussed in detail below, but his legacy in Montagne de Reims can be summed up more succinctly:
Alexandre Penet creates wine for true Champagne enthusiasts, in limited releases and with labels explosive with information to appeal to the nerdiest among us—the blend, blending, the duration of aging, the vinification method, the date of bottling, the date of disgorging, the dosage, and in relevant bottles, the date of harvest for a specific plot.
Site specificity is the heart and soul of the concept of terroir. Even chefs de cave who blend do so based on characteristics found in the various source wines, and these come from the vine’s location. Still, this is a technique that champions homogeneity—the goal of a House who does not want to advertise the ups and downs of vintages or vineyards, but rather, to produce wine in a consumer pre-approved style. Thus, Champagne cuvées becomes the art of the blender.
Alexandre Penet is from a different school: The art of the earth. Among his baseline commitments when he left bureaucracy for winemaking was that any wine should faithfully reflect its place of origin. With exclusively Grand Cru vineyards from which to draw, of course, he had a considerable head start.
When the lieu-dit concept enters the picture, the view through the microscope narrows. Champagne contains 17 villages that can boast Grand Cru status; this means that 100% of the grapes used in the wine come from a village so named. It’s a concept that originated in 1920 in ‘The Échelle des Crus’ (Ladder of Growth) system and it’s worth noting here that more than half of these Grand Cru villages are in Montagne de Reims. The lieu-dit, or named vineyard system is older—the field name of each lieu-dit has been documented since the creation of the land registry by Napoléon Bonaparte in 1807. In scope, therefore, a lieu-dit covers a narrower, more based upon the reasonable deduction that different bits of given appellation, or cru, perform differently.
Understanding and showcasing these differences is the goal of site-specific wines, and in Champagne, there is no greater advocate for this expression than Alexandre Penet:
“I am a true believer in letting the wines express their origins,” he says. “The winemaker’s purpose being to provide guidance and mentoring rather than imposing his own will on the wine.”
The Montagne de Reims is many things—it is storied, it is prolific, it is uniquely situated for the production of outstanding wine grapes. One thing it isn’t is monolithic. In fact, it’s not even really a mountain, but a broad plateau, the Grande Montagne, comprised of many hills and valleys encircling Reims. The Grand Crus that host Penet-Chardonnay’s vineyards lie on the northern segment. Along with the villages of Mailly, Beaumont-sur-Vesle, Puisieulx and Sillery, Verzenay and Verzy have mostly north-facing slopes, producing distinctly different wines than those from the south-facing slopes of Ambonnay, Bouzy and Louvois:
Pinot Noir blends from north-facing slopes do not display the same powerful, vinous character as those from south-facing slopes. Freshness and elegance are at the forefront of Pinot’s expression, and thus, there is less need to blend in too much Chardonnay. When slopes face north, the grapes are fairly slow to ripen, and these vines are often the last to be harvested. Even then, they contain high level of acidity and produce in wines that often requires few years to develop their full potential. In general, they tend to showcase the red berry and spice notes and as Grand Cru wines, have all the depth and complexity expected from the top of the pyramid.
Consisting mainly of north-facing slopes, Verzy’s thousand acres of vineyards are planted mostly Pinot Noir, with Chardonnay making up 22% and Pinot Meunier 12%, all classified 100% Grand Cru. The north-facing slopes means that Pinot Noir-dominated Champagnes from Verzy tend to be less commanding but more finely nuanced than those that originate from villages with south-facing slopes, such as Aÿ, Ambonnay and Bouzy.
Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, Roederer’s chef de cave, explains the differences between Verzy and nearby Verzenay: “The soils of Verzy are much whiter than Verzenay; it’s chalkier the closer yo get to Villers-Marmery. You can see it when you plow—the soil is very fine, very chalky. Across the border in Verzenay, the soils become deeper and heavier, and produce richer wine with less finesse.”
Champagne Penet-Chardonnet, Grand Cru Verzy Lieu-dit ‘Les Blanches Voies’ Blanc de Blancs 2012, Extra-Brut ($110)
100% Chardonnay. ‘Les Blanches Voies’ is located in the heart of Verzy; it is north-east oriented with an 8% grade, on soils ideal for the Chardonnay to which it is planted exclusively—the vines are now 27 years old. A rare cuvée, one of the very few Grand Crus made from a single plot and one of the very few Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Champagnes from Montagne de Reims.
(Bottled May 2013, disgorged April 2021, dosage at 5.2 grams/liter, less than 2000 bottles made.)
Champagne Penet-Chardonnet ‘Prestige Grande Réserve’, Grand Cru Verzy 2008, Extra-Brut ($99)
70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay. The grapes for this exceptional wine originate from the estate’s Verzy properties and were aged on lees from bottling up until its date of disgorgement. Very complex and powerful, it develops aromas of stewed apple, straw and doughy biscuit notes. The palate is edgy with minerality and shows spiced and subtle woody notes.
(Bottled May 2009, disgorged January 2021, dosage at 6 grams/liter, less than 5000 bottles made.)
Champagne Penet-Chardonnet, Grand Cru Verzy Lieu-dit ‘Les Epinettes’ Blanc de Noirs 2010, Extra-Brut ($120)
‘Les Epinettes’ is among the best plots in Verzy; its orientation is northwest at a 3% grade, and is planed exclusively to Pinot Noir vines, now more than 40 years old. Sharp, precise and powerful, it shows peach, apple, nectarine and candied lemon backed by a fine yeasty mousse.
(Bottled May 2011, disgorged January 2021, dosage at 3.6 grams/liter, less than 3000 bottles made.)
Champagne Penet-Chardonnet, Grand Cru Verzy Lieu-dit ‘Les Fervins’ 2009, Extra-Brut ($110)
‘Les Fervins’ occupies a prime spot in Verzy on chalky soil with a perfect south-east orientation, atop which sits the cross that is the logo of Penet-Chardonnet. 70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay, the wine shows focused aromas of apple, caramel and lemon minerals with a hint of iron-rich meatiness along with salt and spice.
(Bottled May 2010, disgorged October 2021, dosage at 4.8 grams/liter, less than 5200 bottles made.)
Verzenay is no stranger to recognition; it was one of the three original villages granted Grand Cru status along with Cramant and Aÿ. As one of Champagne’s leading terroirs, all the major Houses have a presence here; they are known as ‘vendangeoirs’, which is also the French word for the baskets that grape-pickers use.
Located in the middle of the slope on the north side of Montagne de Reims, between two protruding hills, the commune had a vineyard area of slightly more than a thousand acres, of which 86% is planted to Pinot Noir. The long-recognized quality of Verzenay grapes is more a result of elevation and exposure than any specific soil type—the vineyards provide multitude of different bases: chalk, limestone, sand, clay and more. As a result, the wines from Verzenay have great complexity which extend to somewhat masculine descriptors—dark in flavor with a distinctive gaminess and undertones of iron. As the climate warms, it is noted that the wines of Verzenay manage to retain their tautly-focused structure and small-shouldered roundness.
Champagne Penet-Chardonnet ‘Cuvée Diane Claire’, Grand Cru Verzenay 2009, Extra-Brut ($130)
There are two ‘Diane Claires’ in the extended Penet-Chardonnet family, so pick your prestige-earner (though likely it’s both). 50% Pinot Noir and 50% Chardonnay, the wine originates in the best of Penet-Chardonnet’s Verzenay parcels; it is made primarily from with wines from the exceptional 2009 harvest, aged on lees since it was bottled in 2010 until its date of disgorgement. Amber in color, the wine is exceptionally aromatic and racy with grilled, spicy and iodized notes above green apple and orange zest.
(Bottled May 2010, disgorged March 2020, dosage at 5.6 grams/liter, less than 5200 bottles made.)
Champagne Penet-Chardonnet, Grand Cru Verzenay Lieu-dit “Les Champs Saint-Martin” Blanc de Noirs 2011, Extra-Brut ($110)
‘Les Champs St Martin’, consisting of 33-year-old Pinot Noir vines, sits at the relatively flat base of the Grande Montage de Reims. 100% Pinot Noir, the wine displays aromas of key lime, orange peel, raspberry and strawberry while on the palate, notes of white cherry, wet minerality, almond and berry jam lead to a soft and exceptionally generous finish.
(Bottled April 2012, disgorged March 2020, dosage at 4.8 grams/liter, less than 2000 bottles made.)
The term ‘solera’ brings to mind Spain’s unique and rather complex system of Sherry production where a large number of casks are employed and winemakers rely on fractional blending of older vintages into new to achieve maximum quality. Barrels in a solera are arranged in different tiers called ‘criaderas’; each tier contains wine of the same age while the oldest holds wine ready to be bottled. When a fraction of the wine is extracted from a given barrel, it will be replaced with the same amount of wine from the criadera that is slightly younger and typically less complex. This, in turn, will be filled up with wine from the next criadera, and so on.
In fact, the method used in Champagne is similar, though not identical, and is more accurately referred to as a ‘perpetual cuvée.’ Under this system, still wine is stored in tanks or barrels, and at bottling time, a portion is drawn from the oldest tank and the resulting empty space is filled with younger wine from another barrel. Thus, any given tank (beside the first) contains a blend of different vintages.
Champagne Penet-Chardonnet ‘Terroir & Sens’, Grand Cru Extra Brut ($68) Base-Wine 2012
At 8000 bottles produced, this is a blockbuster for Penet-Chardonnet. 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay, the cuvée blends grapes from both Verzy and Verzenay, finding qualities in each that build and synergize. Scents of golden apples, currant, raspberry and freshly baked bread straight from the oven are alive within steady stream of pinpoint bubbles.
(Bottled May 2013, disgorged October 2021, dosage at 5.2 grams/liter, less than 8000 bottles made.)
Champagne Penet-Chardonnet ‘Terroir & Sens’, Grand Cru Rosé Extra-Brut ($81) Base-Wine 2011
Partially aged in small oak barrels without malolactic fermentation, the salmon-colored ‘Terroir & Sens” opens with a deep, intense, slightly oxidative nose and toasty, matured and vinous palate of small red fruits, pralines and brioche. 70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay, the wine is a blend made from a selection of Grand Crus parcels in Verzy and Verzenay as well as from reserve wines.
(Bottled April 2012, disgorged October 2020, dosage at 5.2 grams/liter, less than 2000 bottles made.)
Malo is short for malolactic, but it’s also Spanish for ‘bad’. And at Penet-Chardonnay, the word translates either way. It is a process by which, after the initial yeast fermentation achieves desired alcohol level, the aggressive acidity left behind (especially in the cooler-weather grapes of Champagne) a secondary fermentation occurs via bacteria either naturally present in the must or added by the winemaker. Through the process, the wine’s sharp, green-apple malic acids are transformed into creamier lactic acids, the same acid that is found in milk—hence the root word in lacto-intolerance. It’s a useful trick, but there is no question that allowing or initiating malolactic fermentation changes some of the purity of taste that remains in wines that are aged and preserved via malic acid.
And any alteration in fruit expression is something that a passionate winemaker must weigh against benefits. Alexandre Penet considers some of the milky, buttery aromas that scream ‘malo’ to be detrimental to the honest voice he strives for, and as a result, he forgoes a step that most Champagne producers embrace.
If ever a vintage snatched victory from the jaws of defeat it was 2008. What began as a disaster—a cold winter preceded a chilly spring and a dank mid-summer, but then—as if a switch was thrown—the weather did an about-face and delivered bright, dry, sunny days which pushed the grapes towards phenolic ripeness. The freezing winter had served to fully shut down the vines, so when steadier weather eventually came, the grapes were in good health to take full advantage of the idyllic conditions. The cooler than average growing season also allowed grapes to ripen slowly, preserving much-needed acidity, which in Champagne is de rigueur.
Vintage 2008 was a sublime year for Champagne; if only the world’s economy had kept pace.
The 2009 growing season was kissed by on high; a dry winter that left the water tables low was quickly put right by judicious springtime rains. Both budburst and flowering were successful and timely. A few vicious July storms affected Aÿ, but most of Champagne basked in sunshine, with August delivering warm days and cool, refreshing evenings. Dry heat helped prevent rot and disease from taking hold, and 2009 Champagnes tend to display rich, ripe orchard fruit that reflect the warm year. Acidity, though not searing, remains very much present and the wines continue to drink near the top of their game.
Sorting in the vineyard was the name of the game in 2010; the growing season itself was lackluster, with pleasant summer weather morphing into drought and mid-August deluges saving the water tables, but grapes became diluted and waterlogged. Rot and unwelcome botrytis also became a serious problem, and the wet conditions continued through to the harvest in mid-September. Few Houses declared a vintage unless they had particularly good luck in the field.
2011 was, overall, a forgettable vintage. Spring was much warmer and drier than usual with March setting a balmy stage for a hot and dry April and May. This led to a historically early flowering. As if in backlash, June and July were abnormally cool and humid and when the heat reappeared in August, it was with such a vengeance that caused some vines to shut down. By harvest, temperatures had cooled, but unpredictable rain still posed a problem. The intermittent storms tended to stall the development of grape sugars and acidity, leaving many wines lacking body. Chardonnay tended to perform better than its red counterparts, however, the wines tended to lack both structure and fruit character with little in the way of alcohol or acidity to make up for it.
That said, superbly positioned Houses like Penet-Chardonnet made acceptable wines that are probably reaching their peak now.
Although the 2012 growing season tossed out plenty of curveballs, the vintage remains very strong. A warm winter slithered into an extremely wet spring in which both frost and a particularly vicious hailstorm devastated yields. Unsurprisingly, flowering was uneven and the tough conditions also opened the vines up to disease. However, August was a godsend; warm weather and sunny skies spun the vintage around. That month brought steady heat with temperatures sometimes rising so high that vines began to overheat. However, a smooth, sunny September allowed the grapes to finish the ripening process and Pinot Noir and Meunier were both able to fully ripen while well-rounded Chardonnay retained the necessary acidity.
Having been defined and delimited by laws passed in 1927, the geography of Champagne is easily explained in a paragraph, but it may take one a lifetime to understand it.
Ninety-three miles east of Paris, Champagne’s production zone spreads across 319 villages and encompasses roughly 85,000 acres. 17 of those villages have a legal entitlement to Grand Cru ranking, while 42 may label their bottles ‘Premier Cru.’ From north to south, seven main growing areas (The Montagne de Reims, The Grand Vallée, Vallée de la Marne, The Coteaux Sud d’Epernay, The Côte des Blancs, The Coteaux du Morin, Côte de Sézanne, Vitryat & Montgueux and Côte des Bar in the Aube) encompass nearly 280,000 individual plots of vines, each measuring a little over one thousand square feet.
Although a single AOP covers all sparkling wine produced in Champagne, there are seven distinct sub-regions, each of which was originally associated with a single grape variety. Of course, geography changes throughout the area, so pockets of Champagne’s three main grape varieties (Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay) can be found in each district.
Champagne is predominantly made up of relatively flat countryside where cereal grain is the agricultural mainstay. Gently undulating hills are higher and more pronounced in the north, near the Ardennes, and in the south, an area known as the Plateau de Langres, and the most renowned vineyards lie on the chalky hills to the southwest of Reims and around the town of Epernay. Moderately steep terrain creates ideal vineyard sites by combining the superb drainage characteristic of chalky soils with excellent sun exposure, especially on south and east facing slopes.
Beyond the overview relates to a permutation of particulars; there are nearly as many micro-terroirs in Champagne as there are vineyard plots. Climate, subsoil and elevation are immutable; the talent, philosophies and techniques of the growers and producers are not. Ideally, every plot is worked according to its individual profile to establish a stamp of origin, creating unique wines that complement or contrast when final cuvées are created.