Whiter than White
Much as we admire the op art of Bridget Riley, the films of Francois Truffaut and the frocks of Mary Quant, sometimes we grow tired of black and white. Two decidedly colorful champagne styles have overstated their case for decades. Champagne labelled blanc de blancs literally means ‘’white from whites” which is to indicate the wine is a white colour made from white grapes. Actually the wines should be dubbed jaune de verts because they are pale yellow and made from green hued grapes. By law in Champagne, blanc de blancs can only be produced from chardonnay and most other sparkling wine producers around the world follow this tradition as well.
Blanc de blancs is the new kid in Champagne, having been around only about 85 years of Champagne’s three century history. The first blanc de blancs was produced in 1920 by Eugèn-Aimé Salon, the founder of the highly collectible house of Salon. Two decades later, Taittinger launched its beloved blanc de blancs, Comtes de Champagne, and the rest is history. Blanc de blancs is now produced by most of the famed Champagne houses including Billecart-Salmon, Deutz, Charles Heidsieck, Jacquesson, G.H. Mumm, Bruno Paillard, Philipponat, Pol Roger, Louis Roederer and Ruinart amongst others on the Hong Kong market. Salon and Krug (Krug Clos du Mesnil) produce full-bodied blanc de blancs, but otherwise expect blanc de blancs to be light, dry and elegant. Its ethereal character and graceful finesse makes blanc de blancs a superb aperitif and ideal partner with seafood and fish. But don’t drink these wines when young as they’ll take the enamel off your teeth. Blanc de blancs requires at least 2 fashion cycles to mature, developing admirable character and complexity about 8-10 years from their vintage date.
Producing wine from a single grape variety is a touch paradoxical in Champagne, a region where blending is a revered tradition. In fact, many Champagne houses do not produce a blanc de blancs at all. The finest come from the chalky slopes of the Côte des Blancs, which is one of the three leading districts in Champagne and the only one planted almost exclusively with chardonnay. Within this district is the village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, home to the extraordinary Krug Clos du Mesnil and Salon Le Mesnil.
Blanc de noirs, on the other hand, means “white from blacks” and is a pale gold wine made from the purple-skinned pinot noir and pinot meunier varieties. The grapes are pressed very gently and the pale juice whisked away from the dark grape skins as quickly as possible to avoid tainting the wine with colour. It’s surprising that there are so few blanc de noirs produced in Champagne when some 73% of the grape varieties planted in the region are “black.” Perhaps there is a perception that Champagne made from black grapes would be too coarse or heavy. There are no such notions in California, where blanc de noirs is fairly common.
Blanc de noirs is typically deeper hued and fatter bodied than other Champagnes, which makes it an excellent accompaniment to light main course meats, such as chicken and pork. Bollinger produces the finest blanc de noirs in Champagne, Cuvée Vieilles Vignes Francaises, a name which highlights the fact that the wine is derived from old French vines (vieilles vignes francaises). Rare and expensive, the wine is produced only in special years – a few times per decade – and even then only about 17 cases (2040 bottles). While we’re more than happy to hang onto the black and white gracing our walls and our wardrobes, the occasional bottle of blanc de blancs or blanc de noirs is a welcome exercise in extremes.