Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Champagne Jacques Selosse: Terroir expression or market misdirection?

In an article titled Alternative Champagne 2 (The World of Fine Wine, Issue 35, 2012), Walters describes "Champagne de Terroir," a wine which "maximizes the expression of the vineyard and removes the influence of the winemaker."  These Champagnes de Terroir are, according to Walters, "only produced successfully by a handfull of the finest growers." In Issue 36 of TWoFW, Walters  characterizes the methods of these "Superior Grower Producers" and that characterization is captured graphically below.

One of the leading lights in the production of this style of champagne is Domaine Jacques Selosse which, according to Walters, is ... "one of the most revered producers in Champagne." Walters sees the "grower revolution" beginning with Anselme Selosse and his philosophy that "... authentic wines were wines of terroir and that the only way to make wines rich in terroir was to encourage a living soil and balanced yields and to use winemaking techniques that allowed the terroir to speak as clearly as possible." Selosse's practices vis a vis Walters' methods for producing Champagnes de Terroir are illustrated below.

In interview after interview, Selosse stresses the importance of terroir to the quality of his wines. Much is made of the fact that he studied his craft in Burgundy (rather than in Champagne), first at Lycée Viticole de Beaune and then working at Burgundy properties such as Coche, Lafon and Leflaive. It is this experience, it is said, which informs his practices. Tomas's wine blog (Jacquesson versus Selosse -- a duel in vineyard champagnes, winetomas.wordpress.com, 9/16/2012) captures this succinctly: "It is quite obvious that the new generation of small producers in Champagne look to some extent at Burgundy rather than large Champagne houses for inspiration" in that they are focused on the wine rather than the bubbles. Selosse's focus on terroir is illustrated in the number of lieux-dits offerings -- six of which were recently launched - that are included in his portfolio.

The harshest and most persistent Selosse critic has been Tom Stevenson, identified by Simon Field MW -- champagne buyer of BBR -- as the champagne expert with the greatest depth of knowledge (Patrick Schmitt, Points take on greater importance for Prestige Cuvées, The Drinks Business, 6/20/2012). Writing in The World of Fine Wine (Champagne Selosse: The House that Jacques Built, Issue 21, 2008), Stevenson said that Selosse's wines "do not live up to Anselme's abilities or his terroir." He found the wines to be "too oxidative," "too aldehydic," and "too oaky." The oxidative character was caused, he said, by long barrel aging and a low-sulfur regime. Writing on winesearcher.com (Champagne's Overachievers & Underperformers, 12/19/2013), Stevenson identified Selosse as one of the 5 most overrated Champagne Producers." He implies that Selosse tasted blind is returned as faulty wine and characterizes Selosse's adding of SO₂ at harvest as being done at the wrong end of the winemaking process.

Tom Hall (Champagne Jacques Selosse -- A Profile, scalawine.com, 7/18/2012), thinks that Stevenson is much too harsh on the Selosse wines. He does find them oaky but also finds them to be "outstanding for their arresting tang and vinosity combined with what I can only call a gorgeous finesse of mousse ..." The wood regime masks the wines with "a spice and burnished character that is unique in Champagne." The concentrated nature of the wine allows it to stand up to the wood which is, nonetheless, obvious. According to Hall, "Given the rhetoric of this estate is devoted to the naked revelation of 'terroir,' ... what the wines reveal most in taste, is the winemaking and barrel regime."

Tomas's wine blog echoed similar sentiments after a comparative tasting of Jacquesson and Selosse single-vineyard champagnes. "Through the entire tasting, what was most obvious was the enormous stylistic difference between the Jacquesson and Selosse wines." This stylistic difference was stronger than village, varietal, or vintage-character differences. His conclusion was that the wines reflected what you would expect when a good producer makes wines with grapes from a good vineyard -- "really good wine that is marked by the producer's style in addition to the grape varieties and their origins."

Tomas views some of the Selosse practices as working against the exposition of terroir. The solera style utilized by Selosse is better-suited to evening out vintage characteristics and increasing oxidative exposure; and oxidation is not the best vehicle for revealing the underlying character of the wine. His conclusion was that Selosse wines were "Selosse-specific" rather than "terroir-specific."

In postmodern winemaking (University of California Press, 2013), Clark Smith addresses one of the issues confronting the modern winemaker: "Tragically, today's consumer environment has become hostile to an honest discussion of production winemaking. Winemakers lie low while luddite paparazzi fire live ammo over their heads. Honesty is nowhere to be found and platitudes like 'we do the maximum' are standard fare." Hall and Tomas seem to be pinning the tail on the donkey. "Anselme Selosse talks endlessly 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" (Hall). And Tomas: "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's terroir."

Is Anselme Selosse misleading us when he talks about terroir while his wine is a monument to winemaking? If we are being misled, is it benign or cynical? Benign in the sense as described by Clark Smith, almost a defensive maneuver. Cynical where the market is being manipulated and told that the character of the wine is the result of terroir while it is, according to Tom Stevenson, the result of over-ripe grapes, too much wood, and too little SO₂. Champagne Selosse does not have a web site but Anselme's associated hotel business has a very sophisticated one. Is this a part of Anselme's schtick, presenting himself as a gentleman farmer on the wine side with no time to devote to such new-fangled inventions as the internet and social media? While implementing that technology effectively on the hotel side where communicating your product and its availability is key.

I would love to hear your thoughts.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme


  1. To many, wines of terroir should be me made through winemaking methods that are completely transparent. Think German Riesling. No oak, inoculated fermentations, etc. If terroir is the winemaker's best attempt to make a unique wine from the vineyard(s) and to capture a certain personality of it, then I think Selosse is doing just fine.

    1. I also think that Selosse is doing fine. He can sell as much wine as he makes and personally buy whatever I can get my hand on. The thrust of the piece was not to question his product, or whether it was a terroir-based wine, but whether the emphasis on terroir was not giving the appropriate due to his winemaking skills. And whether that was "accidental" or deliberate.
      Thank you for taking the time to provide your input.

  2. Very interesting and courageous of you to bring up this subject, because while the quality of Anselme's champagnes is undeniable, it is also a fact that some people do not like them so much, and for the reasons you have mentioned in this article (oxidation, etc). As for whether they are products or terroir or winemaking, I don't have an answer, but I find it refreshing that someone "dares" air some of the doubts they have about the brand.

  3. Is Anselme Selosse misleading us when he talks about terroir while his wine is a monument to winemaking
    Your Place to Discover the Worlds Wines