NEW YORK: With rough, work-thickened hands, unruly hair and a steady gaze, Anselme Selosse looks the image of the French vigneron, a man more comfortable tending vines and working in his cellar than he is in a New York restaurant talking to sommeliers and wine writers.
But there he was last week, at Eleven Madison Park, leading a tasting of his wines, speaking smoothly in French, gesturing with long arms that seemed as if they would be a lot more comfortable sprung from the confines of his rumpled blazer.
Selosse, 54, is not the usual emissary from Champagne, a smooth guy in a suit, talking about product positioning, luxury brands and lifestyles. To hear them tell it, Champagne pops into this world like a genie from a lamp, ready to make magic.
But to Selosse, the magic occurs long before there is a wine. It takes place deep underneath Champagne's chalky soil, where the roots of the vines take hold of what Selosse calls the essence of the earth.
Because, as superb, striking and idiosyncratic as the Selosse Champagnes can be, what Selosse represents is equally important, if not more so. Yes, he and his wife, Corinne, had taken this rare trip to New York to reintroduce their Champagnes to the wine trade, but what he had to say about Champagne was possibly more meaningful than the wines themselves.
The key word is wines. In almost every possible way, the corporate line from Champagne is the antithesis of what consumers are taught about every other important wine region in the world. Great wines, almost everyone can agree, are distinctive. They ideally reflect their terroirs and the conditions of their vintages. In short, as the rest of the wine world preaches with varying degrees of honesty, great wines are made in the vineyard.
But the dominant Champagne houses have divorced what's in the bottle from what comes from the earth. Their story of Champagne, told through decades of marketing, associates bubbles with elegance, luxury and festivity, achieved through master blenders in the cellar. Champagne does not celebrate the land and the vigneron, but the house and the event. Too often, Champagne is a commodity, not a wine.
Selosse, by his example and his Champagnes, is intent on restoring the ideas of vineyard, terroir and wine to the perception of Champagne. He is not alone by any means. He is one of a growing number of Champagne vignerons - grape growers who also make the wine and bottle it - who are intent on changing the nature of Champagne. Some of the big houses make great Champagne, and not all of the small growers are successful. But their influence has increased, and the big houses are paying attention.
Grower-producers like Larmandier-Bernier, Egly-Ouriet, Pierre Gimonnet, Pierre Moncuit and Pierre Peters are making Champagnes that are distinctive if not profound, reflecting the terroir in which the grapes are born, and forcing people to rethink their ideas about Champagne. In this company, no Champagne producer has been more influential or more original than Selosse.
He was trained in Burgundy, and has likened himself to the Cistercian monks who planted many of Burgundy's great vineyards in an effort to make the most of their terroir. "They were motivated by religion," Selosse told me once. "My religion is the vineyard."
Selosse is determined to emphasize what is singular in his wines, rather than the Champagne norm of seeking house consistency year after year. Yet he is not so Burgundian that he believes only in vintage wines. Of the eight cuvées he poured at the New York tasting and at a dinner later that evening, only one was a vintage wine, a 1999 blanc de blancs extra brut. The others are all made from multiple vintages.
Perhaps the most unusual of his Champagnes is Substance, made from a single chardonnay vineyard in Avize. It uses a solera system, similar to what is used to make sherry, in which successive vintages, back to 1987, are blended. The result is an almost ethereal Champagne, with aromas of flowers and seashells.
Rather than obscuring the terroir, Selosse asserts, the blending of his solera Champagne emphasizes the qualities of the vineyard by eliminating variables like weather.
"It takes all the different years - the good, the bad, the wet, the dry, the sunny - and neutralizes the elements to bring out the terroir," he said.
I asked him whether he would ever suggest this method to his friends in Burgundy, where it would be looked on as heretical.
"No," he said. "In Burgundy they already understand the terroir - it rises above the vintage." He looked thoughtful for a moment. "Maybe in Bordeaux."
Article written by Eric Asimov and first published: November 5, 2008 in the online edition of the International Herald Tribune.