On the northernmost limit of vine growing regions, where the average daily temperature is only 50°F, vintage variation is more pronounced in Champagne than in most other French wine appellations and as result, the technique of blending together several vintages to iron out the variants developed. Each domain evolved a dependably homogenous style synonymous with the name on the label. These house-style cuvées are non-vintage and represent a recognizable benchmark for each producer; they are based on a number of factors including winemaking decisions, dosage, and the grape varieties used in the blend.
A pioneering effort to swing the pendulum in a different direction comes from one of the oldest producers in Champagne, Jacquesson. Under the Midas touch of brothers Jean-Hervé and Laurent Chiquet (whose family bought the estate in 1978), a new meaning to ‘house style’ has emerged, stressing expression over consistency. With the 2000 vintage, Jacquesson announced that its 150-year-old non-vintage ‘Perfection Brut’ label would be retired and replaced with a numbered, vintage-based cuvée. The first was ‘728’, and each year since then, a new, subsequently-numbered-cuvée has been released representing the individual vintage on which it is based, but containing a different assemblage from reserve wines.
Critics have raved, including Antonio Galloni of Vinous Media, who maintains, “The 7-series wines are some of the best in Champagne and there is little doubt Jacquesson is now one of the elites.”
Krug is an old Champagne House, but Jacquesson is even older: Johann-Joseph Krug worked as Jacquesson’s accountant before leaving to start his eponymous winery. In the two hundred-plus years since its 1798 founding, Jacquesson has blazed many trails, beginning with Adolphe Jacquesson’s pioneering work alongside Dr. Guyot in training vine rows. He also established a base level of sugar in bottles, substantially reducing the problem of bottle explosion, and he was the first to patent the wire basket ‘muselet’ still used today to hold sparkling wine corks in place.
Into this tradition of innovation comes Jean-Hervé and Laurent Chiquet. Jean-Hervé, once the cellar master, now runs the commercial aspects of the business while his younger brother Laurent runs the production side in the role of chef de cave. The two work closely with their vineyard manager, Mathilde Prier who, in a given year, farms between 69 and 76 acres (acres vary based on annual contracts) in the Grand Cru villages of Aÿ, Avize, and Oiry, and in the Premier Cru villages of Hautvillers, Dizy, and Mareuil-sur-Aÿ.
Jacquesson has a small production facility in Dizy, where only juice from the first two pressings is used (the rest, the ‘taille’, is sold to négociants). All grapes come from either Grand or Premier Cru vineyards and perhaps most importantly, Jacquesson averages 7,000 bottles per hectare (2.47 acres) whereas the norm in Champagne is 10,000.
Earlier this year, Artémis Domaines, the holding company of François Pinault and owner of Bordeaux first growth Château Latour, acquired a minority shareholding in Jacquesson.
“Never exactly the same nor completely different. Why aim for average when you can achieve excellence?” – Jean-Hervé Chiquet
Champagne Jacquesson was founded during the French Revolution and the revolution remains alive and well with the Brothers Chiquet’s redefinition of non-vintage Champagne.
Philosophically, they have embarked on a mission to make Champagne as fine wine first and this has evolved into a twofold approach: First, a fundamental reconsideration of non-vintage wine and then, a move toward single-vineyard wines in a deep-dive into specific terroirs. Like most Houses, Jacquesson’s classic vintage Champagne was only made in the best years and was intended to be the best blended wine that the domain released to represent those years. But Jean-Hervé and Laurent decided to revamp the concept through their ‘7-series’ releases, intended to demonstrate Jacquesson’s best blended wine. 2002’s ‘Millésimés’ was to be Jacquesson’s final ‘vintage’ bottling; going forward, vintage wines would be limited to the four single-vineyard wines made only in stellar years and in very limited numbers, while the domain’s single blend would be the 7-series.
The three-digits numbering system of these wines has its origin in 1898, when the House revamped its administration and began keeping new records of every wine it made, beginning with Cuvée 1. Cuvée 728 represents, logically, the 728th cuvée the House has made.
Today, the 7-series represents roughly 95% of Jacquesson’s production. The vineyard sources have essentially remained the same since the advent of this experiment: Parcels in the Marne Valley and along the Côte des Blancs growing in the Grand and Premier Cru communes of Aÿ, Dizy, Hautvillers, Avize, and Oiry.
The assemblage is shifting in a specific direction driven, in part, by global warming. For many years, the base varietal had been Chardonnay with roughly 20-25% each of Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir. Gradually the percentage of Pinot Meunier is decreasing while Pinot Noir is increasing, so that today Meunier represents around 20% while Pinot Noir has increased to nearly 30%.
Single-vineyard releases represent around 5% of Jacquesson production and include the lieu-dit Corne Bautray in Dizy; two southwest-facing acres of vines planted in 1960 on clay soil capped by millstone over Campanian chalk. Also in Dizy, Terre Rouge is a three-acre plot consisting of 12,000 Pinot Noir vines planted in 1993. Champ Caïn in Avize is a lieu-dit located at the bottom of the slope in with a due south exposition where Jacquesson owns three acres of vines planted in 1962. The lieu-dit Vauzelle Terme is one of the most famous in the village of Aÿ with extremely chalky soils. The Chiquet brothers own ¾ acre of Pinot Noir vines planted in 1980, sitting midway up a south-facing slope.
“Because patience is always rewarded, each harvest has the chance to live two lives, with two different periods of aging,” says chef de cave Laurent Chiquet. Cuvée 7-series wines are first allowed a period of five years élevage, then the process of maturing continues another five for ten years in total; a process known as Dégorgement Tardif.
“It’s the ties that bind the present to the past. The ties that bind the roots to the earth. The ties that bind the vines to the sky and the ties that bind men to the land allowing them to follow their dreams and their convictions. It is also a constant quest, year on year, to seek to reveal the full expression of their terroirs, to make the best wine that each vintage allows.” – Jean-Hervé Chiquet
This is the force that animates the vine philosophy of Jacquesson and drives the women and men who tend them. Under vineyard manager Mathilde Prier, sustainable practices have become the Jacquesson norm, and one-third of Jacquesson’s vineyards are certified organic. No herbicide is used, and two-thirds of the vines are tilled while one-third is sown with cover crops. When fertilizers are used, they are entirely organic. Pruning is severe for low yields; there are no green harvests; canopy management is stressed to ensure minimal mildew and odium pressure, thus holding fungicide sprays to two per year.
After harvest, the Chiquet brothers use century-old vertical presses rather than more abusive horizontal presses, whereupon the juice flows by gravity into steel tanks for 24 hours of settling, after which it is transferred to large neutral wood casks for several months to undergo alcoholic and malolactic fermentations. The initial fermentation is normally spontaneous while subsequent malolactic ferments are sometimes inoculated with neutral Champagne yeast that originally came from Cramant and Chouilly. The lees are stirred twice monthly to enrich the wine, a practice that has the additional benefit of providing a naturally reductive environment, keeping the need for SO2 additions to a minimum–one at pressing and another at disgorgement. The first racking normally occurs in April or May.
Malolactic fermentation is never blocked because doing so would require sulfur dioxide and because low acidity is not a concern on the 49th parallel. Starting with the 2016 vintage, élevage has lasted twelve months; the wine is put into bottle to age ‘sur latte’ after the next harvest. Since the fruit that makes the wine always attains an optimal level of ripeness, the dosage is typically in the extra-brut range of one to six grams of sugar per liter. Bottling is done without cold stabilization or filtration and care is taken with the labels to transparently detail all relevant information about the wine without marketing flourishes. (Jacquesson helped pioneer such honest and unadorned back labels.)
Today, the house produces an average of 250,000 bottles each year, roughly a 45% decrease from its production in the early 1990s. This is due to the shedding of buying contracts and to the intentional lowering of yields.
Champagne Jacquesson Cuvée No 745, Extra Brut ($99)
Based upon grapes from the low-volume 2017 vintage, completed with top reserve wines. 43% Chardonnay, 30% Meunier and 27% Pinot Noir with 66% of the harvest coming from Aÿ, Dizy and Hautvillers and 34% from Avize and Oiry. The winter and spring were exceptionally dry in this vintage, but in April, destructive frosts ravaged the vineyards, especially in the Côte des Blancs. Temperatures then rose and the weather remained good until July when rains set in, ending the growing season hot and very wet. Harvest ran from September 4 to September 13.
The nose shows spring flower blossoms, candied ginger and brioche, remaining elegant on the palate with light oak and mineral on the finish. A fine, complex and tense champagne profile.
Disgorgement: December 2021. Dosage: 0.75 gram/liter. 205,164 bottles produced.
Among the many reasons that magnums make spectacular vessels for Champagne, the fact that they are showy as hell and make great Instagram shots may be tops.
Although on a purely practical level, wine in a magnum is proportionately more expensive than single bottles, since it contains twice the wine and is typically more than twice the price. Not only that, but according to Moët & Chandon cellar-master Benoît Gouez, a magnum (despite containing twice the volume of a standard bottle) will always have the same neck size, meaning that each bottle’s air content is the same. As a result, the Champagne matures more slowly and over a longer period of time, resulting in a more complex and harmonious evolution. And at twelve glasses per magnum, it is a more convenient size for larger gatherings.
The following Champagnes are all 1.5 liter, magnums.
Champagne Jacquesson Cuvée No 745, Extra Brut ($248)
Grande Vallée de la Marne (66%): Grand Cru Aÿ, Premier Cru Dizy and Premier Cru Hautvillers. Northern Côte des Blancs (34%): Grand Cru Avize and Grand Cru Oiry.
Disgorgement: December 2021. Dosage: 0.75 gram/liter. 8,082 magnums produced.
Champagne Jacquesson Cuvée No 744, Extra Brut ($248)
Constructed around the 2016 vintage, the harvest draw was balanced at 55% from Aÿ, Dizy and Hautvillers and 45% from Avize and Oiry. The vintage began with a wet winter and spring with some serious frosts in late April. Spring finished sunny but cool, followed by a summer which was very hot and very dry. Picking began on September 19 and finished on October 6.
The wine shows aromas of pears, blanched almonds, freshly baked bread and mandarin; it is willowy and precise with a pinpoint mousse and a long chalky finish.
Grande Vallée de la Marne (55%): Grand Cru Aÿ, Premier Cru Dizy and Premier Cru Hautvillers. Northern Côte des Blancs (45%): Grand Cru Avize and Grand Cru Oiry.
Disgorgement: January 2021. Dosage: 0.75 gram/liter. 9,905 magnums produced.
Champagne Jacquesson Cuvée No 743, Extra Brut ($232)
Representing 2015, the harvest from Aÿ, Dizy and Hautvillers was 60% while Avize and Oiry was 40%. Winter and a large part of the spring were mild and wet; there followed a period of dry weather with spells of high temperatures which lasted until mid-August. The growing season ended with alternating periods of cool humidity and dry heat. Picking ran from September 10 through the end of the month. The harvest was very homogenous and produced perfectly ripe and healthy grapes in reasonable quantities with a sufficient level of acidity.
The wine boasts an elegant and toasty bouquet of pear, dried flowers and white fruit followed by ripe yellow plum, salted almond, candied ginger and buttered toast on the palate.
Grande Vallée de la Marne (60%): Grand Cru Aÿ, Premier Cru Dizy and Premier Cru Hautvillers. Northern Côte des Blancs (40%): Grand Cru Avize and Grand Cru Oiry.
Disgorgement: February 2020. Dosage: Zero. 10,013 magnums produced.
Champagne Jacquesson Cuvée No 742, Extra Brut ($209)
From 2014’s harvest, 59% Aÿ, Dizy and Hautvillers and from 41% from Avize & Oiry (41%). The winter was rainy and exceptionally mild, spring was hot and very dry, while July and August were cool and very wet, but a hot, dry and sunny September saved the year. The balance of alcohol and acidity was excellent and the health of the grapes was generally good. However, after picking, rigorous sorting of some parcels affected by small sources of acid rot was necessary. As a result, the Chardonnays were superb, as were the Meuniers, but above all, the Pinot Noirs delivered in fine style.
The wine offers up a bouquet of peach, apple, macadamia nuts over a beautiful base of chalk with a bit of buttery oak and a smoky top-note. On the palate the wine is deep and focused with impeccable balance, a refined mousse and a very long, complex and open finish.
Grande Vallée de la Marne (59%): Grand Cru Aÿ, Premier Cru Dizy and Premier Cru Hautvillers. Northern Côte des Blancs (41%): Grand Cru Avize and Grand Cru Oiry.
Disgorgement: November 2018. Dosage: 1.5 gram/liter. 9,902 magnums produced.
Champagne Jacquesson Cuvée No 741, Extra Brut ($209)
Disgorged in June 2018 with 2.5 grams per liter dosage, Cuvée No. 741 is built around the 2013 vintage. Both the winter and spring were cold and wet, delaying both budburst and flowering. When flowering did happen, grapes suffered from millerandage and coulure due to cool temperatures, significantly cutting yields. However, the reduced crops tended to ripen more easily during what would transpire to be a long, cool growing season. Conditions remained fairly consistent, and a warm, sunny September gave just enough warmth to rescue both the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Many producers chose to pick later than usual to take advantage of the late good weather.
The wine unfurls in the glass with aromas of white flowers, fresh nectarine and peach, complemented by hints of warm biscuits and walnut oil. Vinous and concentrated, with a textural attack and a lively, focused core that’s underpinned by a bright spine of acidity and a long, sapid finish.
Grande Vallée de la Marne (66%): Grand Cru Aÿ, Premier Cru Dizy and Premier Cru Hautvillers. Northern Côte des Blancs (34%): Grand Cru Avize and Grand Cru Oiry.
Disgorgement: December 2017. Dosage: 2.5 gram/liter. 8,806 magnums produced.
Champagne Jacquesson Cuvée No 740, Extra Brut ($219)
From the 2012 harvest from Aÿ, Dizy, Hautvillers, Avize and Oiry. The winter was long and cold; spring and early summer were very wet and there were severe attacks of mildew. However, a superb end to the growing season produced a small crop of remarkable quality. The Cuvée is completed with several reserve wines from previous 700 Cuvées.
The Champagne is nervy and poised from the first sip, expanding on the palate and unfolding into layers of lime zest and lemon curd, green apple and brioche. Intense waves of finely- minerality coat the tongue with contrasting, prickly acidity.
Disgorgement: January 2017. Dosage: 1.5 gram/liter. 7,696 magnums produced.
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.’ Four main growing areas (Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne, the Côte des Blancs and the Côte des Bar) encompass nearly 280,000 individual plots of vines, each measuring a little over one thousand square feet.
Beyond the overview lies 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.
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.