17 Champagne Grands Crus under scrutiny
By Alain Echalier - Photographs : Courtesy of the estates - © Pascal Maillet-Contoz, posted on 20 February 2023
What credit should be given to the Grand Cru statement in Champagne? And where does it stem from? We will be revealing all about its history, definition and the nuances between these 17 jewels in Champagne’s crown, featuring interviews of ten producers located in the relevant villages.
A melodic linnet singing in the vineyards at Champagne Paul Déthune.
What does the word ‘Cru’ mean in the wine sphere? This is a question I am often asked by my friends when they visit France. The dictionary defines it as “a group of land considered from the perspective of the specific crop grown there”. And the first example given is not for wine, but for “French butter from Normandy or Brittany”, which has a distinctive flavour, due to its ‘cru’ or growth. The concept therefore goes well beyond wine and refers to the original birthplace of any product linked to gastronomy. In fact, its etymology alludes to ‘growth’. So, any product from a good ‘growth’ or ‘cru’ is one that grows on a renowned ‘terroir’ and, by extension, offers good quality.
In Champagne, a ‘Cru’ is actually a village
For wine, the finest growths, or Grands Crus, have varying definitions depending on the wine region itself. In 1855, Bordeaux chose to classify its chateaux – Château Latour, for instance, is a Premier Grand Cru Classé. Burgundy favoured a more vineyard-centric approach, calling them ‘climats’ – Musigny is thus a Grand Cru in the Côte de Nuits. For Champagne, this official hierarchy came later, in 1911, and it revolves around villages – Verzy, for example, is a Grand Cru on the Montagne de Reims.
A vineyards block in Aÿ Champagne by Champagne Collet.
A classification to pacify growers
The supply end of the Champagne wine market differs from others in that it is divided between grape growers and the prominent Champagne houses – brands like Gosset, Moët & Chandon and Pommery – which buy the grapes. Some grape growers also produce their own Champagnes or are members of co-operatives. There are therefore several types of stakeholders, whose interests can sometimes be very different.
The lack of grapes caused by phylloxera at the turn of the 20th century led to a serious crisis, compounded by storms and frost in 1907 and 1910, which produced poor crops. Rather than have to increase the price of scarce grapes, some Champagne houses chose to source fruit outside the appellation area of the time. This gave rise to riots and ‘punitive demonstrations’ targeting certain negociants.
To restore peace, the production market was reorganised and so it was that a growth scale, which was already being used by some, became widespread. The scale classifies all villages within the Champagne appellation area, rating them at percentages ranging from 80 to 100%. The rating reflects the share of the price of a kilo of grapes every year that the negociants are obliged to pay the grape growers. Some villages were awarded a score of 100% – these are Champagne’s Grands Crus. Initially, there were very few of them but over the years, the scale was reviewed on several occasions and there are now 17 villages classified as Grands Crus.
Chardonnay Dom Legras Frapart.
Is the classification based on sub-soils?
The history of the Champagne Crus shows that the criteria used to award these percentages were fairly variable. Depending on the crops and the abundance or not of grapes, but also sometimes on negotiations between grape growers and the Champagne houses on a village by village basis – some growers occasionally have vineyards in several villages – the scale changed many times. The ratings changed, there were sometimes different ratings for white and black grapes, and villages were incorporated into the appellation area. So, what really are the criteria?
In Champagne, there is widespread agreement that the quality of the fruit stems from the chalky sub-soils. In fact, of the 17 Grands Crus, 11 are villages on the Montagne de Reims and 6 are in the Côte des Blancs. None of them are in the Marne Valley or in Aube, nor even in the Côte des Bar. Both the Montagne de Reims and the Côte des Blancs have sub-soils where chalk sometimes forms outcrops and is extremely deep. So, it is fair to assume that if the scale was approved among industry members, it is primarily due to the sub-soils, but probably also to local micro-climates and sometimes to cyclical balances of power.
EU law, which outlaws price fixing, led to the demise of the remuneration system based on the growth scale with the 2004 harvest, reinstating a free pricing regime. But the Grands Crus villages were allowed to retain this now historic designation.
The sun shines over Ambonnay.
The Champagne houses versus the winegrowers
Very few of the prestige Champagnes produced by the prominent houses – the likes of Celebris, Dom Pérignon, Cristal, La Grande Dame, Comtes de Champagne and Dom Ruinart – state ‘Grand Cru’ on their labels.
The reason for this is that although most of the fruit in the blends generally comes from the 17 villages entitled to the designation, regulations make it mandatory for all of the fruit to come from them if companies want to use the Grand Cru statement. The problem is that production in these villages is insufficient for the required volumes. The houses therefore blend them with grapes from other growths which lend the Champagnes complementary qualities.
However, the winegrowers who produce their own Champagnes and are fortunate enough to own vineyards in Grands Crus villages often use the statement. Some of them also sell some of their Grands Crus grapes to the Champagne houses, which are always sold at a premium compared with fruit from other villages. Nobody now denies the superior quality of some vineyard sites, but only a few producers publicise those sites. The villages ranking at the pinnacle of the quality pyramid are Ambonnay, Aÿ, Beaumont sur Vesle, Bouzy, Louvois, Mailly-Champagne, Puisieulx, Sillery, Tours-sur-Marne, Verzenay, Verzy, Avize, Chouilly, Cramant, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Oger and Oiry. That’s for the definition part, now let’s head off on our road trip to visit Champagne’s elite producers.
Edouard, Sylvie and Michel at Champagne Lancelot-Royer.
Cramant – Champagne P. Lancelot-Royer
Michel Chauvet, Sylvie Lancelot’s husband, introduces us to this Champagne house located in the village of Cramant, in the Côte des Blancs. Both of them are fifth-generation winegrowers and their son Edouard Chauvet will take over from them. They farm 5.3 hectares of vines, including 3 classified Grand Cru in Cramant, along with Avize and Oger. It stands to reason that they only produce ‘blanc de blancs’.
As a reminder, Chauvet explains that the name ‘Cramant’ comes from ‘chalk’, at the root of Grand Cru status. Although the first 50 cm is earth, the vines then put down roots deep into the chalk, which is highly beneficial as evidenced by the summer of 2022. Though hot and dry, the weather did not cause too much suffering for their Grand Cru vines – limestone is spongy and water is retained through capillarity.
Vineyards in Cramant in the Côte des Blancs.
They produce a 100% Cramant vintage Champagne which spends 7 years in their cellars. The 2015 label will be released at the start of 2023. Since Covid ended, Michel has noticed that his customers seem to be increasingly drawn to the higher-end labels. And Cramant has a superb reputation. There is demand in Denmark, the Netherlands, the United States and Japan.
The Grands Crus are highly prized, adds Chauvet, who also sells some fruit to Billecart-Salmon. By way of comparison, 1 kg of basic growth grapes fetches between 5 and 6 euros, whereas Grands Crus grapes are more in the range of 8 euros. Often, Moët et Chandon – the largest producer – sets the tempo for fruit prices, and the others follow suit.
The harvest at the Legras-Frapart estate.
Bottles with staples and cork in the cellars at Domaine Franck Bonville.
Oiry/Chouilly – Champagne Legras-Frapart
Located in Oiry, this boutique winery farms less than 2 hectares of vines, most of them situated in Chouilly. Traditionally, you need 3 hectares of vines to be able to produce your own Champagne, explains Gaylord Legras, who therefore combines winegrowing and teaching commerce at the Champagne viticulture college.
In Chouilly, his Chardonnay vines date back to 1939 and 1958 and are therefore old. They grow in two blocks 300 metres apart with the same hillside incline. Legras sells most of his grapes and produces a near-single vineyard Champagne with the remaining fruit.
A Grand Cru, he points out, is a Champagne with more identifiable typicity, particularly when it is a single varietal like his own. The Grand Cru statement is meaningful to his customers, particularly in Sweden where he sells his Champagne – his wife is Swedish.
He carries out vineyard work himself, with the help of a farm worker. He adds 20% of reserve wines from his stocks of the same two vineyard blocks to the current vintage. His Champagne is then matured for 7 years and dosage of around 6g of sugar per litre is added. After release, his wine develops aromas of toast and walnuts, but even though it is a Grand Cru it does not really benefit from being laid down for many years. He suggests that it should be drunk within a year or two. With a price tag of around twenty euros a bottle, why not?
Gaylord Legras combines winegrowing and teaching commerce.
Avize – Champagne Franck Bonville
Ferdinand Ruelle-Duelle, who works with fourth-generation winegrower Olivier Bonville, introduces us to the winery. While Ruelle-Duelle is mostly tasked with sales and some cellar work, the roles are reversed for Bonville.
The company farms 15 hectares of vines – 9 of them in Avize, 4.5 in Oger and 1.5 in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. It therefore only produces Grand Cru Champagnes and only grows Chardonnay. Asked about the present-day meaning of Grand Cru, Ruelle-Duelle stresses that whilst the trade-based growth scale is no longer in use, its implications are still very real for the fruit. Basically, he says, if you take a map and identify the areas where chalk forms outcrops with East-facing villages, that’s where you will find Champagne’s Grands Crus.
Olivier Bonville and Ferdinand Ruelle-Dudel.
Franck Bonville Champagnes produce blends of Avize and Oger. Avize wines often display abundant freshness with notes of white flowers, citrus fruits and a measure of mineral-driven salinity on the finish. Oger, on the other hand, is situated more in a dip – the soils are slightly deeper and consequently the wines are more generous and appetising. Ed: in other words, slightly less acidic and fruitier. Blending the two villages therefore makes perfect sense.
The Bonville family actually comes from Oger and originally sold its grapes to negociants. But falling demand in the 1930s, and the consequential drop in prices of land, prompted it to buy vineyards in the surrounding area, which meant Avize. At the time, everything was done by horse, so growers had to stay within a maximum radius of 2 hours on horseback. Therefore, although the family has a lot of vineyard blocks, they are all fairly close to one another.
The winery also produces single growth Champagnes – from Avize, Oger and Le Mesnil – and whilst it admits that Le Mesnil is perhaps the most prestigious of the three due to the presence of Champagne Salon and Krug’s Clos du Mesnil, it would never say a disparaging word against Oger. The Bonvilles love Oger!
The winery also belongs to the Grands Crus d’Exception association which jointly produces a Champagne from all 17 Champagne Grands Crus. The wine, called C17, is due to be released at the end of 2022 – but it has been entirely pre-sold ahead of release.
Alfred and Franck Bonville at harvest time.
Epernay – Champagne Lombard
Thomas Lombard, the current CEO of this family-run company, takes us on a tour. Although it owns 5.5 hectares of Premier Cru vines, the family also produces Champagne as a negociant – NM – sourcing grapes from 55 hectares of vines, 10 of them classified as Grand Cru. These include Avize, Cramant, Oger and Ambonnay. Lombard stresses the long-term partnership arrangements with grape growers – although contracts can be renewed on an annual basis, some of them stem from his grandfather’s era. There are no mandatory requirements but Maison Lombard takes a very proactive role. “Obviously, we buy grapes”, he points out, “and not wines. We conduct soil surveys, discuss the ripeness of the fruit and are on site during harvesting. Prices are on the increase and securing new partnerships is challenging because competition is fierce”.
Thomas Lombard presents a bottle and the vineyard sites.
Lombard believes that the essence of a Grand Cru is the consistent quality of the grapes, from one vintage to another. The vines are less prone to adverse weather, due to the chalky sub-soils. The Lombards craft every style of Grand Cru Champagne – from blends of several villages and single-growth labels from just one village to single-vineyard Champagnes. The closer you get to single-vineyard offerings, the more likely the audience will feature wine enthusiasts, sommeliers or winegrowers themselves. This paves the way for extensive maturation periods and consequently, no dosage, which produces saline and iodine-like notes on the finish. The winery has made it its mission to be transparent with its customers and its labels feature a plethora of information, from the vineyard site and harvest date to bottling and disgorgement dates and dosage in grams of sugar. There is sometimes even a map so that the vineyard blocks can be identified!
Exports account for approximately half of volumes and demand for Grands Crus Champagnes is highest in countries such as Italy, Germany, Japan, Denmark and Singapore.
A booklet explaining the vineyard sites at Champagne Lombard.
Thomas Lombard in his vineyard.
A barrel in the cellar at Champagne Lombard.
Aÿ and Epernay – Champagne Collet
The house is presented to us by sales director Carl Cercellier accompanied by product manager Elena Lapie. Champagne Collet is in fact the brand name of a very large co-operative winery – the Coopérative Générale des Vignerons, or Cogevi, which has 850 member growers farming 850 hectares of vines mostly around Aÿ and Epernay. The co-operative embraces a total 167 villages, 17 of them classified as Grand Cru. Cercellier goes back over the winery’s history: “Despite the creation of the growth scale in 1911, which made it compulsory to buy grapes grown in Champagne, the First World War – which took place here – devastated the region. A few years on and winegrowers were still struggling. So they decided to establish a co-operative, Champagne’s first, and one of the first in France. In 1928, Raoul Collet, who was a member of the winery and would go on to manage it for 30 years, lent his name to the co-operative’s brand, which became ‘Collet’.
Celebration of the centenary anniversary at Cogevi 7-8 Oct 21.
Cogevi now supplies many of the prominent houses but also continues to produce and market its own Champagne – Champagne Collet – directly. It has several labels, including Brut Art déco, a blend of 7 Grands Crus along with 13 Premiers Crus and a prestige label containing 90% Grands Crus. Only one, though, is a single-growth Grand Cru – and is labelled as such – from a single-vineyard selection of one hectare in Aÿ. “This is more Burgundy than Champagne”, jokes Cercellier, referring to Burgundy’s extreme terroir-driven approach. This tiny block, which belongs to the co-operative, produces a vintage Champagne matured for 8 years with 8g of dosage. The vintage currently available is the 2012. Here, the cellar master has remained unchanged for 28 years.
“Perhaps one day we will make a Champagne combining all 17 Grands Crus, because we do have them”, says Cercellier. “And there are other plans in the pipeline for the Grands Crus. But that does not imply that we can pull the rug from under our Art déco label!” In Champagne, the impact of every detail has to be carefully weighed.
The house Champagne at the Cogevi winery.
Ambonnay – Champagne Paul Déthune
Farther North, on the Montagne de Reims, is this house managed by Pierre Déthune, which is named after his father. It is located in Ambonnay and boasts 7 hectares under vine, all of them situated in this Grand Cru village. “Ambonnay has 200 to 300 metres’ depth of chalk, with some clay on top – it is neither too impermeable nor too absorbent”, explains Déthune. The land also faces South-South-East and therefore benefits from the morning sun which, unlike the evening sun, is not too hot. Here, rainfall is moderate compared with Marne, or even with the other side of the Montagne de Reims where summer storms can be severe. The mountain seems to protect against disasters, and the impact of hail is therefore marginal.
Sophie and Pierre Déthune.
Obviously, the favourite grape here is Pinot noir – the location is referred to as the ‘Côte des Noirs’, with a ratio of 70% versus 30% Chardonnay. The Chardonnay grapes grown here taste fruitier and less minerally than in the Côte des Blancs. Champagne Paul Déthune embraces 10 different labels, running the gamut from wines matured in stainless steel tanks to large and small barrels. “You have to provide a development in the range”, explains Déthune. When you are unfamiliar with Champagne, you generally start with stainless steel and then progress towards increasingly complex wines. His high-end label is a single-vineyard, half Pinot noir, half Chardonnay Champagne matured in barrels – even the oak for the barrels comes from the forest of Ambonnay. The bottle stopper has a cord of hemp around the cork, as a nod to techniques of a bygone era.
Déthune is also preparing an eleventh label, with no added sulphur. This requires perfectly healthy fruit, but the flavour is different and so he has therefore decided to rise to the challenge.
A closure using a hemp cord at Champagne Paul Déthune.
Ambonnay – Champagne Laurianne Lejour
Laurianne Lejour started out in 2016 when she inherited a few vineyard blocks from her grandmother in Ambonnay. As a craftsperson who studied woodwork at the Boule school in Paris, she hesitated. The 9 blocks totalling 1.5 hectares were not only of a very high standard – because of their location in Ambonnay and Bouzy – they were also close together. This passionate enthusiast of all things manual decided to grasp the nettle. Using part of a winery and equipment lent to her by a friend in Beaumont-sur-Vesle, she began producing Champagne. She does all the jobs that can be done manually in her vineyard herself – pruning and training for instance – and of course crushes her grapes separately and ferments them in her tanks.
Grands Crus, she claims, are all about how farmers observe nature. The reason Pinot noir has been grown in Ambonnay for so long is because it is a little better here than elsewhere. The quality is more consistent, and this is obvious even in the vineyards. For example, when there is a hard frost in other locations, on the hillside in Ambonnay there are only tiny patches.
A dosage session at Champagne Laurianne Lejour.
Lejour has a soft spot for tense, minimalist wines with no malolactic fermentation. Her range is already impressive. Some of her Ambonnay grapes are deliberately fermented separately because she can feel a nice, faint sourness in them that is typical of the village and she wants to preserve it. Her dosages – from 0 to 6g and often 0 – are readjusted with pinpoint precision every year. It provides her with an opportunity to gather round a few friends and colleagues and give them a tasting of all the wines where dosages have incremental sugar levels. Usually, 9 out of 10 judges choose the same thing – “everybody agrees on a good Champagne!”
Laurianne Lejour in front of the grape press.
Beaumont-sur-Vesle – Champagne Paul Sadi
Jérôme Portier, the house’s owner, is our guide. He owns 6.5 hectares himself and buys grapes from a further 2.8 hectares, though he also grows these grapes too. Arrangements in Champagne can be complex. The vineyards include 2 ha located in Beaumont-sur-Vesle and Verzy. Beaumont has always been considered a Grand Cru, “its status is long-standing”, explains Portier. The reasons for this are the aspect of this Montagne de Reims village and the proximity of a press. Although Portier obviously grows some Pinot noir, he mostly produces Chardonnay. His Chardonnay is different though – it has some faint Pinot noir characters, in other words it is more structured and fruit-forward.
Champagne Paul Sadi's cellar.
In still wines – i.e. before the secondary bottle fermentation – Portier says you can identify the Grand Cru sites. “We make single village and single vineyard Champagnes from them but we also add a little to our non-vintage Brut, to enhance it”. Champagne Paul Sadi is one of the contributors to the C17 association label, as is the afore-mentioned Champagne Franck Bonville. In this case, malolactic fermentation is blocked to retain tension in the Champagne and dosage varies from 8 to 19g. “For our long-standing customers, the Grand Cru statement on the label of the bottle is not that important, but it becomes meaningful for attracting new customers”. This sets them apart from the major negociants. However, some Premiers Crus can be more expensive than Grands Crus, depending on the winemaking techniques used, for instance the use of wood. When you taste them, it isn’t hard to understand why.
Jérôme Portier with his wife and his parents.
Bouzy – La Commanderie Diffusion
Manager Henri Beaufort introduces us to this winery, which was named La Commanderie Diffusion by his grandfather in the 1930s. The winery is located in this Montagne de Reims Grand Cru village that is famed for its Pinot noir [Ed: it was even home to a famous red Coteaux Champenois wine] although Beaufort points out that this depends on the location of the vineyards within the village. Bouzy is generally warm and suited to growing Pinot noir, except for the blocks at the bottom of the hillside which are cooler and more conducive to growing Chardonnay. In some ways, it can be likened to Coteaux Bourguignons. The Chardonnay here though is different to its Côte des Blancs alter ego in that it is less minerally. Beaufort produces a Blanc de Noirs Champagne, entirely from Pinot noir, along with a single varietal Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs. Both are matured for around a decade with Brut dosage of 7 to 9g/litre subsequently added. His rarer medium-dry Champagne has dosage of around 33g/litre. In the 1930s, Champagne was a pudding wine and this medium-dry iteration is a remnant of that era. Beaufort himself prefers Champagne as an aperitif.
Verzenay – Champagne Michel Arnould & fils
Thomas Gibelin chose to work in this family-run company with his father Thierry and his uncle Patrick Arnould. The farm boasts 12 hectares, virtually all of them in Verzenay, except for two in the neighbouring village of Verzy. All of their Champagnes – and there are a dozen labels – are therefore classified as Grand Cru. Here, no grapes are either bought or sold and everything is “home-made”. Gibelin proudly explains that the clay-limestone soils and northern location on the Montagne de Reims are at the root of Verzenay’s powerful Pinot noir. “These are the raciest in Champagne”, because they are thick and fleshy on the palate. Vines have been grown in Verzenay since 1810 and the village was already classified Grand Cru in 1950 at a time when only 9 villages were entitled to the ranking. And although the village does not boast any star winegrowers, customers do not come to Verzenay by accident.
The cooperage at Champagne Michel Arnould & Fils.
Champagnes Michel Arnould & fils welcomes them with open arms, even though strong demand prevents them from selling to any new customers. Once again, for less demanding consumers the Grand Cru designation features on labels and acts as an initial magnet. As soon as they become more demanding, however, Verzenay and sometimes even the precise location of the vineyards, become the key issue. The winery farms 52 different vineyard blocks and is gradually heading towards more single vineyard offerings. Fortunately, despite their number, the blocks are all located in 7 or 8 small localities, which means that some fruit can be harvested and fermented together. For example, the range features a ‘Mémoire de Vignes’ label made from vines that are over 60 years old. For its non-vintage Brut Chardonnay, the company swaps some Pinot noir for Chardonnay in order to add a little acidity. “But the Chardonnays come from a colleague in Le Mesnil sur Oger – we stay within the privileged realms of the Grands Crus!”
So is a Grand Cru Champagne better? Understandably, the complex winemaking and maturation techniques and extreme variety of this majestic pour means that there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Despite this, it is tempting to say that terroir speaks loudest and these Champagnes always deliver that extra spark of spirit and the richness and complexity that have carved out their reputation. The Grands Crus embody artisanal winegrowing that plays second fiddle – both in volume and awareness – to the mass-market Champagnes sold every year. Either way, they offer the assurance of a return to Champagne’s roots, the certainty of tasting the reality of Champagne’s vineyard sites in an increasingly globalised world. For this reason alone, these superlative quality Champagnes will always deserve our attention.
Thierry Gibelin, Thomas Gibelin and Patrick Arnould.
You might like these articles.