Thursday, October 18, 2007

Jacques Selosse champagne: a four-alarm fire for the senses

Rather than shun champagne, the only solution, of course, is to embrace it even more!

Yesterday at the crack of dawn, I jumped in the TGV, and 45 minutes later, I was in Reims. Fellow wine fanatics Michaël and Guillaume picked me up - in a rented Mercedes big enough to hold cases and cases of wine, which is always reassuring.

In the early afternoon, after a morning visit to Raymond Boulard (to be described soon here; stay tuned), the three of us drove down to taste Jacques Selosse champagne in Avize.

Anselme Selosse is absolutely fascinating; he just holds you in some kind of cusp with his presence, with his bright blue eyes, and with a very imaged way of talking about things. He's got a kind of visionary/idealist streak, but isn't at all dogmatic. Just impassioned, and completely, utterly persuasive. And then, his wines speak for themselves, directly and unabashedly above-and-beyond.

He's also simple, down-to-earth. Wears jeans and a polar fleece jacket. He used a comparison for the soul of his wines, which he says is in the nature of the vines: "If I changed my clothing, it wouldn't change who I am."

After talking for some time, we moved deeper into the vast barn that is his chai. Bottles from all around the world lined the top of one wall (those were empty) and a long trestle table (there, they were unopened). My friends had brought a bottle of Donhöff German riesling, which was cradled for a while in Selosse’s arms while we discussed it, then set down with the unopened bottles on the table. There were the bottles, too, of Jacques Selosse to be tasted from.

So, he poured some of his champagnes for us. We took our time, talking in depth - but here, I'll jump the gun: each one was more unreal than the previous. These are wild champagnes. Aside from the cuvée Contraste and the rosé, they're all blanc de blancs. None have more than 2g/l of dosage, making them pretty much all extra-brut. If I were shooting off to a distant planet, I would pack my spaceship full of Jacques Selosse...

Brut 1998 - He started us with the vintage Brut 1998, which was astoundingly rich, walnutty and buttery. He raises everything en barrique - apparently with barrels he gets from the Domaine Leflaive after they have used them for a few years. The 1998 was exceptional; very mature, and with great depth to it.

Brut 1990 - Next, he opened a bottle of vintage Brut 1990, which was fascinating to taste, because it was made before he switched to his "oxidative" style. It was a pure, refined champagne, very young seeming, with great balance and acidity, but not at all "Selosse." I asked him when he started to work in the oxidative style and he said in 1995, after being inspired by winemakers like Overnoy in the Jura.

- the blanc de noirs is called Contraste, and was also one of those times where you didn't think it could get better than the 1998, but it did, this was an amazing champagne - rocking, on fire. Its beautiful, biscuitty notes and lush mouthfeel were overwhelming. It was long and full of walnut, biscut, and ripe fruit tastes. It seemed to go on forever, just taking over the palate.

Substance - this is his top-end wine, which is made in the Portuguese "solera" method of having two enormous barriques stacked atop each other, and each year the juice from those vines (an old vine parcel in Avize on the Côte des Blancs) is put in the top barrique along with the rest, and the pressure sends a mixture down; the wines are drawn progressively from the bottom barrique - so that the cuvée is a perpetually evolving product of many different years.

Selosse himself is fabulous, brilliant and swift with a metaphor. It was interesting to hear him describe that even though in Champagne, vintage champagne is considered the top of the line, that is only like a snapshot of a given year with its climatic variation, and that is not what interests him most in winemaking. What he would rather do is give a portrait of the earth, the rootstock, more "essential" things to those particular vines that come through in the Substance cuvée.

And that wine is just unbelievable. I felt this surge of hilarity rising in me, it was just so unfathomably, improbably good. I couldn't believe it. Immensely layered, as its creation suggests, it goes through a full, round phase in the mouth, with toast and hazelnut notes, and then you think it's gone. About a quarter of a second later, a note of orange zest suddenly hits your palate, and then the finish comes sweeping in, and lasts forever. This made me burst out laughing.

Brut Rosé
- I didn't know how we could go anywhere else after that. We hung around in the chai talking with Anselme. He told us about his upcoming single-parcel wine which will be a rosé de saignée, but not labeled a rosé, bottled in a dark green bottle, and we tasted it from the fût. Then, he looked around and wondered what else we could taste. He went for the non-vintage rosé. A first bottle he opened was a recent bottling (10 days before); it was disjointed, but fine for a nice rosé, for which I don't have high expectations in general. But he wasn't happy with its stage, so he went and got one that had been disgorged in June. It was a completely different drink. Utterly, suavely harmonious - like no other rosé I have ever had. Almost like a white wine but with some extra layers to it, though the whole thing was beautifully harmonious.

I have to say, this was one of my most incredible tasting experiences ever.

One of us asked Selosse if he thought of himself as an artist. He said absolutely not; he was if anything like an orchestra conductor working with an unruly group of self-centered musicians. It was his job to bring them all together, making some become more disciplined and others loosen up, making the flashy ones mesh better into the group, coaxing out the shy ones, so that in the end, the performance would go well. "But I'm not the composer," he said.

Well, that's what he says.


seasontotaste said...

This post made me really thirsty. My husband and I are headed to Paris in a week and plan to spend a day in Reims, hopefully with a stop in Avize to visit Selosse.

Would you mind sharing how you reached him to schedule the appointment? And how long a drive it was from Reims?

Sharon said...

Yikes, that will be a tough one. I was able to visit because I was with friends of mine who have been going to see him yearly for about ten years; this was their yearly visit. He is notoriously hard to get to see.

Avize is about 45min by car from Reims. There are a number of other great producers there (and in the other villages along the Côte des Blancs), of course, too.

seasontotaste said...

Thanks for the info. We are working a few different angles so fingers crossed!