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Gosset Grand Millésime 1996

More on Champagne this week, as I continue to pull bottles from the cellar to inform my writing for my new Champagne guide, which I began very recently. I've already written on a few bottles, including the old-label non-vintage Grande Cuvée from Krug, the 1996 Belle Epoque from Perrier-Jouët and the 1993 Winston Churchill from Pol Roger, in each case focusing on the cuvée in question and the story it told. With this week's wine, however, I would like to take a little look at something slightly different, and that is the issue of regionality in Champagne.

Gosset Grand Millésime 1996Regionality in Champagne is something I have grappled with for some time, and it is not a subject entirely new to these pages; I touched briefly on the issue, and how it relates to the Champagne PR machine, in association with my note on Pol Roger's non-vintage Extra Cuvée de Réserve back in 2007. As far as the grandes marques are concerned, regionality does not seem to be regarded as a useful selling point; wines are marketed and sold on brand name, reputation or vintage, but rarely vineyard or terroir. There are exceptions of course; there are identified-vineyard (not always single-vineyard) cuvées available from Krug, Bollinger, Philipponnat and several other houses too, and of course many smaller growers rely on their origin and terroir as a unique selling point. But this is not generally true of the grande marques. Nevertheless, having visited the region it is clear that locally at least, regionality is hugely important to the grande marques, at least to the blender or chef de cave if no-one else. This is because only through understanding the different characteristics of the plots in question, and the fruit they provide, can a blender begin to sculpt the finished wine.

Perhaps the most obvious embodiment of regionality in the region is Champagne's long-established classification of its villages, the best being grand cru, the next best premier cru. Little of the detail of this tends to come through onto the label though; although it is quite common for a producer to declare a wine as premier cru or grand cru, an intended declaration of the origin and thus quality of the fruit they use, this is a very coarse level of information. Nevertheless, the detail of this classification is of considerable significance to the growers who intend selling their fruit to the major houses, as the classification - or échelle des crus as it is known - dictates their price. The grands crus carry an échelle of 100%, whereas the premiers crus range from 90% up to 99%, and the unclassified villages are rated at 80%. These percentages relate directly to price; when the price of one kilo of grand cru grapes is set each year by the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne, those working lesser sites must sell their fruit at a proportionally lower price, according to the percentage value attached to their land.

There are 17 grand cru villages in the whole of Champagne, the number having been increased from 12 in 1985. Of the 17 there are just two in the Vallée de la Marne, which lies between the Montagne de Reims to the north, and the Côte des Blancs to the south. The first is Tours-sur-Marne, a riverside town associated with a small collection of vineyards which are situated higher up the slope away from the alluvial soils that lie around the Marne, the region's principal river. There are around 50 hectares of vines, about two-thirds Pinot Noir, and it is not a highly regarded grand cru. Just a little further downstream, however, is Aÿ (or Aÿ-Champagne), an important grand cru both in terms of its vineyards and also in playing host to the offices and facilities of a number of leading Champagne houses - and it is here that Gosset are located. The Aÿ vines account for about 350 hectares, so this is a sizeable vineyard, and are dominated by Pinot Noir, which account for around 80%. They run east, back up the riverside above Mareuil-sur-Aÿ towards Mutigny and Avenay-Val-d'Or, and also to the west, towards Dizy (fear not, my guide will have some maps!). The aspect is superb, much of the vines enjoying a south and south-west facing position, including the Côte aux Enfants, a lieu-dit in the centre owned by Bollinger which is used as a source of Pinot Noir for blending but, as with Bouzy, can also be found as a still red wine.

More of this sort of detail in my coming guide. But for the moment, we should come back to the wine, the 1996 Grand Millésime from Gosset. I have noted some concern about oxidation and longevity with this cuvée from other Champagne drinkers, so I was eager to open this one - and it is my last bottle too. The cork is very compact and clearly from a bottle with some maturity, although there is a reassuring (if rather gentle) phhut of gas when opened, and happily there was no loss of sparkle evident once in the glass. The colour has a fine, golden tinge. The nose opens and evolves quite strongly, showing deep and characterful aromas, of toast with honey, grilled Brazil nuts with a oxidative streak of oiled wood. Quite well polished on entry, but also quite rich, broad and well-rounded and in fact a rather creamy texture. There are appealing flavours of orange peel, toast and a little mushroom. Certainly no overt oxidation, although as indicated there is an oxidative edge to the style, and it is certainly mature, broad and a touch fat. The mousse is gentle but fine, crisp and there is a good, fine acidity too. Nice, lengthy finish. Overall a very good wine which is fine for drinking now; I think whether you rush to it depends on your preferred style rather than any great concern with oxidation. 17.5/20 (15/2/10)

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