Drinking Time Itself: The Champagnes of Anselme Selosse

The world’s greatest winemakers almost always have something in common with their wines. This would be expected, of course, as one serves as the shepherd, if not the creator, of the other. But I’m not talking about the kind of physical resemblance that can sometimes humorously be observed between dogs and their owners. Instead I am referring to the expression of something much deeper — an almost uncanny character that makes a wine, at times, feel like the reflection of a person seen briefly in a darkened antique mirror — dim, but unmistakable in its identity.

Both Anselm Selosse and his wines possess the singular quality of being lost in time, existing somewhere between eternal youth and the patina of age, but most assuredly not of this moment.

Selosse, bushy-haired with clear blue eyes and graying sideburns speaks the language common among the world’s mad-genius winemakers — a mix of poetic metaphor and incredibly detailed explanation — placing himself verbally somewhere in a mid-19th-century milieu of mystical intuition and newly-pioneered science.

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“There is a great difference between what you taste and what you imagine,” he says to me, as we begin tasting his wines in the bright light of the dusty open garage that passes for his tasting room. “When you imagine it, it is stronger than what you thought. The hypothalamus is the center of emotion. Everything you store in the brain is there.”

While Selosse’s enigmatic genius would be comfortable in many romantic eras of the past, his wines, despite their own timelessness, are very much a product of the modern era of Champagne, an era that Selosse himself may largely be responsible for creating.

Champagne Jacques Selosse began in 1959 when Anselme’s father Jacques made the switch from growing grapes, which the Selosse family had done for centuries, to bottling his own wines. Even when the elder Selosse made the switch, he did so with some hesitation, continuing to sell the vast majority of his crop to his reliable customer, Champagne Lanson. Eventually, however, his wines became commercially viable, and by the time his son Anselme went off to winemaking and viticulture school in Burgundy, the estate was bottling its entire production.

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Why Anselme Selosse, a champion competitive water skier and aspiring engineer, ended up in Beaune for winemaking school rather than one of the more local universities remains something of a mystery to me, but the ramifications of that choice, whether made by Selosse or his father, have been profound.

Selosse returned to the family estate in 1974, after school and following a stint working in Logroño (the heart of Spain’s Rioja region), thinking about Champagne very differently than when he left. He has been known to describe this point of view as a fundamentally “Latin” one, with a nod to the Roman heritage of the monks that spent centuries defining the protocols of Burgundian winemaking. Selosse contrasts this with what he calls the “Anglo Saxon” approach to winemaking, one which, instead of focusing on the terroir, focuses on the consumer and attempts to provide a consistent product every year.

“There are two concepts when working with Champagne,” he explains during my visit. “You can be Nespresso. You can make something that makes the consumer happy, and the consumer is going to give you money to get something he wants. The other concept is a Mediterranean concept. It is like ‘inshallah,’ do you know this word? It is not straight, it is crooked, and shows what nature is all about.”

This approach, combined with the intensity of vision and pride required to insist in the 1980s that, as a small grower, he could make wines that rivaled the quality and complexity of the centuries-old Grand Marques, represented an inflection point in the history of Champagne. While Selosse cannot be given the entire credit for beginning what we see today as a renaissance of “grower champagnes” made by the people who farm the grapes, he was certainly one of the first and perhaps the most prominent example. When the prestigious Gault Millau guide named him the top winemaker in all of France in 1994, the world began paying serious attention.

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“Some people buy German cars, which run very well” he says with a smile, “and some more emotional people buy Italian cars,” He gestures to the cluster of bottles that sit on the end of the rough wooden slab that is our tasting counter this morning. “These are Italian cars.”

In a modern wine culture constantly beset with conversations about terroir, typicity, and wine “being made in the vineyard,” it can be difficult to truly understand the revolutionary nature of what Selosse did in the 1980s by simply taking the Burgundian way of thinking and applying it to Champagne. But for centuries, Champagne, as a region, has perfected the art of consistency with stunning results, aiming to express not so much a specific place as much as a particular house style, filtered through the potential of the soil.

Selosse took the reigns at his family domaine and decided to elevate the specific qualities of the plots that he controlled. He quickly transitioned to an organic regimen of farming, slashing yields to sometimes less than half of what his neighbors were producing and often waiting much longer to pick. He also began fermenting all of his wines with indigenous yeasts in oak barrels, as well as preventing them from going through their secondary malolactic fermentations. Selosse keeps sulfur additions to a minimum and practices battonage, the stirring of the lees in the barrel for added complexity. Finally, he adds very little dosage, the mix of sugar and reserve wine used to top up the bottle and round out the wine before it receives its final cork.

Selosse transitioned to biodynamic viticulture for his 18.5 hectares (45.7 acres) of vines at one point, but in 2003 he stopped he majority of those practices. When I ask him why, he shrugs and says, “I am a peasant. You know, indigenous? I prefer the monks’ way. I refuse to use a tool I do not understand.”

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Beyond the use of already somewhat uncommon techniques in Champagne, Selosse’s winemaking reflects an extreme form of a long-practiced technique in the region. Adapted from the Sherry region of Spain where it is known as the solera system of winemaking, the use of reserve wines has long been part of the regimen for making non-vintage Champagnes that maintain a consistency vintage to vintage. The thinking being, of course, that by using multiple vintages of wine, the deficiencies and strengths of various vintages can balance each other out.

Selosse began reserving significant portions of each of his vintages beginning in 1986, and now some of his top wines include up to 19 different vintages blended together. Combined with an already fairly oxidative style of winemaking (in which the wine is encouraged to come into contact with air) these components of past vintages add incredible layers of patina to each wine.

“Oxygen is life,” says Selosse bluntly when I ask about just how much air his wines get. “No oxygen is death,” he says, stubbing out his cigarette seemingly for emphasis. “Oxygen is revelation, not destruction. A baby is not ‘right’ about anything. Experience and age bring wisdom. We are more like ourselves when we are more mature. A wine alive, then dies. I have not given my life to my wines to have them die. At some point they will, but first I want them to have some personality. This is what a father wants for his children. Perhaps the mother wants to protect her child, and lets it hide under her skirts to protect it. Not the father.”

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Presumably, that means quite a bit of oxygen.

In addition to its delightfully dingy state (a quality of environment, I must say, shared by most of the world’s most philosophical and enigmatic winemakers), Selosse’s cellar distinguishes itself from most others in the Champagne region with its distinct lack of steel tanks. The grapes are crushed and then the juice makes its way into oak barrels, where it first ferments, and then settles, ages, and where it will remain until bottling.

In these barrels, the wine slowly absorbs small amounts of oxygen that works to change the crisp green apples and pears of freshly picked Chardonnay and Pinot Noir into toastier, nuttier, and more savory notes. Selosse keeps his nearly 30 years of reserve wines in barrel as well, so these components of his blends also continue their slow maturation over time.

One of my favorite qualities in a great Champagne has always been the intense salinity that I associated with this kind of maturity, both in barrel and in bottle.

Selosse’s wines are among the most deliciously saline Champagnes I have ever tasted, and I was quite curious as to how important this quality was for him and where it came from in his opinion.

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What I believe to be Selosse’s Les Carelles vineyard in Le Mesnil.

“I am not responsible for the beauty of the wines,” says Selosse, “only the health of the vines. The most important influence is the water, the soil, and the roots. The roots eat calcium, this old seabed filled with magnesium and sodium. Sodium gives the saltiness, magnesium gives bitterness, Calcium gives freshness and astringency. There is a lot of calcium in these wines. They are like a fino or manzanilla Sherry.”

“And then there is time,” says Selosse. “When we speak of black tea, the leaf is fermented, and then rests for a time. When we speak of ham or cheese,” he says gesturing to the dozen or so legs of ham that hang, greenish and dusty from the rafters of his winery, “all these products ferment and then age. When grapes are young, like with cheese, you taste the primary — the sugar, the type of grape. But when the product stays for months or years the organic qualities come out. In the water there are minerals. When you burn vegetable products, all the organic materials burn, and after what do you have? Ash. These are the minerals and salts. When I put the wine in barrels or terra cotta, the wine breathes, and after a few months I taste these minerals in the mouth. Just like with Parmesan.”

While I don’t ever taste Parmesan in his wines, the crystalline, nutty saltiness of an aged Reggiano certainly has a lot in common with Selosse’s wines in their layered richness.

In recent years Selosse has evolved his lineup of wines to better focus on the expression of the particular sites he farms. He now sells a set of his top six wines under the name Lieux-Dit (the French expression for the smallest demarcated portion of an appellation, either a parcel or vineyard), each bottle representing one of his specific vineyard sites. In addition to these wines, Selosse makes several other bottlings that represent broader expressions of his unique vision of Champagne (these, thankfully, are made in slightly higher quantities than his single vineyard wines). In total, Selosse produces around 59,000 bottles of wine each year, or slightly less than 5000 cases.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Selosse’s wines are among the most sought after (and hence, expensive) Champagnes in the world. So much so that in 2013, thieves broke into his winery and stole 300 cases of wine, worth nearly $350,000. Perhaps more disturbingly, they also stole rolls of labels. This fact, combined with the sophisticated techniques the thieves used to cover their tracks (which purportedly included alcohol aerosols and solvents to remove DNA and fingerprint traces), suggests a professional operation, and one with designs on faking bottles in the future.

If you’re going to splash out for a bottle of Selosse, make sure you do so through legitimate, mainstream channels, be wary of big discounts, and look for the extremely dark, almost black glass, which is a special signature of the domaine. A fear of fakes shouldn’t keep you from buying a bottle, though, if you can afford it. I encourage everyone who enjoys Champagne to splurge on Selosse at some point.

“Wine does not have to please” said Selosse in one of the most emphatic statements he made during my recent visit, “it has to be interesting.”

Presumably Selosse takes some pride in the fact that his wines represent some of the world’s greatest examples of of both qualities.

TASTING NOTES:

NV Jacques Selosse “Initial” Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Champagne, France
A light surprisingly rich yellow-gold in color with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of intense lemon and apple aromas with layers of candied citrus peel and deep marzipan layered in. In the mouth, lemon curd, candied lemon peel, and wet stones flavors are borne aloft of a very soft mousse that fades quickly. The bubbles are faint, and give way to lengthy meditations on candied lemon peel and wet stones. Disgorged in October of 2014. A blend of 100% Chardonnay from the 2007, 2006, and 2005 vintages. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $175. click to buy.

NV Jacques Selosse “Version Originale” Extra Brut Blanc De Blancs Grand Cru Champagne France
Pale yellow gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of wet stones, marzipan, and lemon curd and candied lemon peel. In the mouth, a velvety mouse froths with gorgeously lemon-bright acidity. Fantastically tart lemon flavors have a vibrating and intense mineral quality. Phenomenal finish. 100% Chardonnay from a steeper slope, and Selosse suggests the better drainage makes for a drier impression on the palate. A blend of 2007, 2006, and 2005 vintages. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $230. click to buy.

NV Jacques Selosse “Lieux-dit Les Carelles” Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Champagne, Le Mesnil-Sur-Oger, France
Pale gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of smoky lemon peel, creme brûlée, and wet stones. In the mouth, the velvety mousse delivers enigmatically smoky flavors through which bright lemon peel and wet stones ring clear as a chime. Add to these more crystalline qualities a fantastically yeasty, saline quality and you have a mouthwatering wine that is nearly impossible not to swallow. Sexy and smoky on the finish. Yowza. A blend of vintages between 2003 and 2007. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $395. click to buy.

NV Jacques Selosse “Substance” Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Champagne, France
A medium yellow gold in the glass with faint bubbles, this wine smells of candied lemon peel and smoky marzipan mixed with crushed nuts. In the mouth, the wine is gorgeously layered, with a nice lightly tannic structure that builds a skeleton of flavor and texture beneath a very soft, velvety mousse. Through the soft clouds, fantastic lemon pith and yellow garden herbs emerge to shine like pastel colored suns in a gorgeous summer sky. Remarkable and unique. A blend of 19 different vintages of reserve wine, beginning in 1986 and ending in 2005. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $340. click to buy.

NV Jacques Selosse “Lieu-Dit Chemin des Châlons” Extra Brut Blanc de Noirs Grand Cru Champagne, Cramant, France
Light yellow-gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine has a kill-me-now aroma of lemon curd, seawater, wet chalkboard and melted butter. My mouth starts watering from a whiff of the stuff, and then once in the mouth, the wine offers swoon-worthy flavors of gorgeous saline lemon, bergamot, and crushed stones. Impeccably balanced with a stunning length and exquisite fine mousse, this wine is absolutely jaw-dropping, and a contender for the best current release Champagne I’ve ever tasted. A blend of the 2002 through 2007 vintages. 600 bottles made. Score: a perfect 10. Cost: $395. click to buy.

NV Jacques Selosse “Lieux-Dit La Cote Faron” Brut Blanc de Noirs Grand Cru Champagne, Ambonnay, France
Light gold in color with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of marzipan and dried tropical fruits. In the mouth, a velvety soft mousse delivers incredibly saline flavors of bright candied lemon, dried apple, wet stones, and a touch of honeycomb. Really remarkably saline, and all the more mouthwatering for it, with phenomenal length. Labeled with the name “Contrast” in previous years, this current wine is a blend of every vintage from 1994 to 2007. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $395. click to buy.

NV Jacques Selosse “Lieux-Dit Le Bout du Clos” Brut Blanc de Noirs, Grand Cru Champagne, Ambonnay, France
Light to medium gold with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of lemon curd, apples, and a wonderfully sappy quality that makes for mouthwatering anticipation of what’s to come in the glass. In the mouth, the wine has a remarkably ethereal and velvety mousse that coalesces like a cloud that then floats about the palate showering the tastebuds with faintly salty rainwater, crushed stones, and white flowers. Phenomenally ethereal and deeply mineral, this is a wine of astonishing purity and balance. Taste this and it’s hard not to believe that you’re communing with the chalk itself (though ironically, this wine comes from a site that has the highest clay content of any of Selosse’s vineyards). A blend of the vintages 2002 through 2007. Score: a perfect 10. Cost: $399. click to buy.

NV Jacques Selosse “Lieux-Dit Sous le Mont” Brut Blanc de Noirs Grand Cru Champagne, Mareuil-Sur-Aÿ, France
Medium gold with a slightly orange cast and extremely fine bubbles, this wine smells of marzipan, burnt orange peel, and wet stones. In the mouth, the wine is unlike any other Champagne I’ve had. A weightless velvety mousse delivers a set of ethereal flavors that seem like ghosts of sensation rather than the flavors themselves. Through a soft prickly fog emerge flavors of chamomile, kelp, and potato ash. Wet chalkboard minerality thrums somewhere in the foggy distance. Stunning and utterly distinctive, not to mention mouthwateringly delicious. A blend of the 2004 through 2007 vintages. Score: a perfect 10. Cost: $395.

NV Jacques Selosse “Exquise” Blanc de Blancs Demi-Sec, Grand Cru Champagne, Le Mesnil-Sur-Oger, France
Medium gold in the glass, this wine smells of slightly sweet vanilla and bright lemon curd. In the mouth, the wine is weightless and cloud like, with a silky mousse that seems to fill the entire mouth. Flavors of lemon marzipan, and gorgeous wet stone minerality pervade the deliciously crystalline quality that washes over the palate. Quite wonderful, and despite having 24 g/l dosage, almost no sensation of sweetness exists other than the faint sweetness on the nose. Would technically be classified as a demi-sec style of Champagne, but for Selosse, it’s just named like it tastes. Exquisite. A blend of 2005, 2006, and 2007 vintages. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $225. click to buy.

NV Jacques Selosse “Il était une fois” Ratafia de Champagne Liqueur, Champagne, France
Medium amber in the glass, this wine smells of marzipan, roasted almonds and dark honey. In the mouth you’d swear you were drinking sherry. The wine is both salty and slightly sweet, and delivers flavors of honey roasted nuts and burnt garden herbs. Contains 152 g/l of sugar, and is fortified with Brandy up to 18.5%, and is then fermented down to its final alcohol of 15.2% alcohol. A blend of vintages between 1995 and 1999 that sits in barrels outside the winery in all weather and is never topped up as it evaporates. Appropriately named, “once upon a time.” Score: around 9. Cost: $??