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Anne Krebiehl gains admittance to Salon Champagne's inner circle

Published:  30 November, 2012

Sometimes you sample wines you know you will probably never taste again. Wednesday's tasting of Salon Champagne was a case in point. Sometimes you sample wines you know you will probably never taste again. Wednesday's tasting of Salon Champagne was a case in point.

Invited by the Institute of Masters of Wine, Didier Depond, president of the Champagne Houses Delamotte and Salon, was in London to present vintages from both houses. The surroundings of Trinity House were suitably grand - after all, Salon exclusively makes Blanc de Blancs vintage Champagnes and only released 37 vintages in the 20th century. No other releases, no other wines. Such is its uncompromising stance.

"Salon is quite special," explained Depond, "it is the first Blanc de Blancs created in Champagne. Monsieur Salon decided to make it just for himself and his friends. He decided to use Chardonnay only, and only from one village, Mesnil-sur-Oger. The heart of Champagne is to blend. He decided to do the opposite. He also decided to keep the wine for at least ten years before disgorgement."

Mark Bingley MW, chairing the tasting, spoke of a "historic moment." Considering that Salon's annual production is around 50,000 bottles and the currently available releases of Salon, 1999 and 1997, retail somewhere between £170 and £220 per bottle while older vintages easily reach the stratosphere, the tasting had drawn numerous vinous luminaries. It is in the February following the harvest that the decision is made to produce a vintage for Salon - if the year is not judged sufficiently superior, the wines will go into Delamotte - both houses are now owned by Laurent Perrier.  While Salon is only ever from Mesnil-sur-Oger Chardonnay, Delamotte draws on Chardonnay from Mesnil, Avize and Cramant which prompted a little outburst from Depond: "I love the village of Cramant - it's a good balance, it's like adding crème fraiche."

For Depond, Mesnil-sur-Oger provides mainly minerality - as slippery as the term may be. All the Delamotte wines undergo malolactic fermentation while Salon never does (or as we will see, unintentionally). However, both houses always have a rather restrained dosage of between 6 and 7 g/l.

"I love dosage," said Depond, "but small dosage. It's like make-up for a woman - beautiful eyes with a touch of make-up." One wonders what the equivalent on a man would be...
Salon is made exclusively in stainless steel. Wood use was stopped in 1971 and the 1976 vintage was the first vintage released completely without wood ageing of the base wines.

Marketing both brands together - Delamotte and Salon - is commercial expediency as there is so little of Salon, constrained further by increasing demand from "Russia, Dubai, Singapore, Macao," according to Depond, who also remarked that in such markets, he believes, Salon is drunk "not for its quality, just for show." "Hong Kong and Singapore are very big markets for us," he said, "the new market is of course China." Depond also remarked on the increased demand for magnum sizes. 10% of Salon's production is now in magnum whereas ten years ago only 2% were bottled in this special format.  "With this kind of quality, the same wine in magnum is always better," Depond stated.

The tasting bore out the immense seriousness and ageability of Salon which of course prompted the question for the ideal drinking occasion. "It's quite easy to match Salon with food," so Depond. "Salon is from one grape, from one vintage, from one village, so the best pairing is with one product: lobster, scallops, aged Parmigiano or old Comté, or risotto with white truffles." Salon suggests serving the Champagne at 13 - 15?C - warmer than the usual 8-10?C  usually recommended, but the wines' development and intricate aromatics demand  slightly more warmth. Equally, Depond is right to demand a "proper glass, not a stupid flute" so that the wines are done justice.

One fact became clear:  the secret is evidently to drink Salon when it's fully mature.

Delamotte Blanc de Blanc NV - nose of bruised apple and yeast, palate slender and creamy, very zesty, recalling a tart lemon meringue pie.

Delamotte Blanc de Blancs 2002 - strong autolysis on nose with hints of development: acacia honey. Very creamy mousse, very clean-cut, but possibly still too young and not yet as expressive as other 2002 wines.

Delamotte Blanc de Blancs 1996 (served from magnum) - nose of savoury sourdough rye bread, on the palate lovely acidity balancing the developed rounded richness beautifully. Has the customary slenderness of Blanc de Blancs but with the depth of age. Very persistent but clean-cut.

Delamotte Blanc de Blancs 1985 - rich nose of dried apricots, honey and sultana with some lift. Concentrated palate reminiscent of fruit and patisserie and baked apples. If 1996 recalled the symmetric lines of the Renaissance, this 1985 was high Baroque. Real fun.

Salon 1999 - brisk lemony freshness and a touch of honey on nose. Palate is tight, austere and whistle-clean. Delamotte called this a "teenager". It reminded me of a stoned size zero model. Exquisitely poised but not saying much at present.

Salon 1997 - lovely earthy notes, like the bloom on Camembert on the nose with chalk and honey. Zesty lemon and graceful, slender body with striking depth and chalky length. This starts to show signs of development and the intensity of lemon oil, but in many ways is a perfect counterpoint to richer, rounder and breadier vintage Champagnes. Full marks for elegance.

Salon 1988 - at first a whiff of Dutch gingerbread, then lemon zest before more and more savouriness opens up. On the palate this is almost full-blown soy - all-out umami with an almost salty tang. This was worth waiting for and shows what only time and patience can do. Supreme elegance, intensity and persistence. Exceptionally, half of this underwent malolactic fermentation - unintentionally and inexplicably. But it may explain this unusual savouriness.

Salon 1983 (served from magnum) - a very different beast from a difficult harvest - very subtle but delicious hints of mandarin peel and some florality; supremely slender on palate but with a soft and enticing mineral depth. An amazing vintage portrait and altogether cooler but temptingly elusive.

Salon 1976 (served from magnum, disgorged à la volée ) - very complex nose of yeast, ripe apricots and some champignon. Acidity is still piercing but length and aftertaste defy description. There is something statuesque about this wine, like gentle, sinuous shapes etched into limestone. Profound rather than loud and very, very long with echoing, chalky hints.