Grand Tasting : NV Substance Blanc de Blancs Brut, NV Initial Blanc de Blancs Brut, NV Rose Brut
No champagne grower is as renowned or as influential as Anselme Selosse. Whether directly or indirectly, he has inspired an entire generation of young winegrowers in the region, and among consumers, his champagnes have become some of the most sought-after wines in the world. As with many wines that seek to push their boundaries, Selosse’s champagnes are not without controversy—some believe them to be at the pinnacle of what can be achieved in the region, while others find them incomprehensible. Regardless, it’s undeniable that these are highly original champagnes, and wines of intense personality.
Anselme’s father, Jacques, didn’t come from a family of winegrowers. He wanted to be a baker, in fact, but in 1947 he moved to Avize and acquired some vines. While he initially sold his grapes to the négoce, he began to bottle estate-grown champagnes in 1964. In 1974, Anselme returned to the family estate after studying viticulture and oenology in Beaune, and it was he who eventually established its current reputation, exploring a highly individual and iconoclastic path with a relentless sense of inquisitiveness and self-reflection. Today, Selosse’s 7.5 hectares of vines are spread over 47 parcels, all of which are vinified separately. Nearly four hectares are in Avize, allowing him to make three monocru Avize champagnes; the rest are in Cramant, Oger and Le Mesnil in the Côte des Blancs, Aÿ and Mareuil-sur-Aÿ in the Grande Vallée and Ambonnay in the Montagne de Reims.
Viticulture is certainly a cornerstone of Selosse’s philosophy, yet as with anything else that he does, his methods are not easily categorized. While he is revered by practitioners of organic and biodynamic viticulture, he refuses to adhere to either of those systems, and he is open to using non-organic treatments if he feels that they represent the best option for his vines. “I prefer using these to using an excessive amount of copper,” he says. His viticultural philosophies are rooted in a deep respect for nature, as well as a holistic belief in maintaining a harmoniously balanced ecosphere, but he rejects any systems that he perceives as being dogmatic.
As an example, Selosse is often mentioned in connection with biodynamics, yet he himself is firmly against the biodynamic movement. He did experiment with biodynamics for five years, beginning in 1996, but he stopped in 2001 in order to continue along his own path. Today he calls the biodynamic movement a sect, and in typical Selosse wordplay, says, “The word sect is at the root of sécateur (pruning shears): it cuts off and isolates itself from others.” For Selosse, biodynamics is no different from any other system, as standardized systems tend to produce standardized ideas, ultimately rendering them sterile. “I work with the sun and the moon,” he says, and that is as systematic as he is willing to be.
Above all, his vineyard work aims to cultivate a healthy overall environment for his plants to thrive in. “A terroir is a biotope, an ecosystem that supports a population of individuals,” he says. “All of this must exist in equilibrium. A more poetic definition would be a harmonious society.” The word society implies a multiplicity of inhabitants, and Selosse views the monoculture of modern vine-growing as being intrinsically unhealthy and unviable, citing instead the multi-faceted and interdependent biodiversity of a forest as his model. “Nothing is dominant, everything is in need of the other.”
While viticulture is fundamental to his work, it is not the end in itself. “It is not only viticulture for me,” he says. “After that, I make wine.” For him, bringing up a wine is not unlike bringing up a human being: “It’s a question of education, of socialization,” he says. “I have these individuals, and they’re a little savage.” Selosse sees vinification as a means of civilizing the wine, helping it to express itself in a language that we as humans can understand. At the same time, he is seeking to guide his wines rather than impose himself upon them. “Before I do anything,” he says, “I ask myself, does this wine need something to be done to it? If not, then I leave it alone.”
Fermentation is carried out with indigenous yeasts, and takes place in barrels, which are always purchased new from coopers in Burgundy and Cognac, although the percentage of new oak in a total blend is always very small. There are generally a few acacia barrels in the cellar as well: “They impart a feeling of freshness to the wines,” he says. “In a year like 1989 or 2003, they are useful.” Malolactic may or may not happen, and he does nothing to encourage it one way or the other. “I have no regard as to the malo,” he says.
The wines stay on their fine lees until bottling, which takes place sometime between May and July, depending on the year, and Selosse typically avoids bâtonnage unless the wines are particularly reduced. Sulfur is usually added only at harvest: “At the beginning, the skins are susceptible to oxidation,” he says. “Afterwards there is natural protection [from the lees].” At the same time, he is not dogmatic about his sulfur program. “I don’t have a recipe for sulfur,” he says. “If at the harvest the grapes are not perfectly healthy, they may require more. But a dose of sulfur that’s too high is like an overbearing mother.”
For the fermentation in bottle, Selosse uses indigenous yeasts as well, which he cultivates by freezing a portion of his grape musts, and the wines are typically kept on their lees for five to ten years, depending on the cuvée. Since 1991, he has used MCR (moût concentré rectifié, or concentrated and rectified grape must) for dosage, and while the dosage levels are generally very low, he does trials with each wine to find its appropriate balance, and he’s not at all reluctant to raise the dosage level if he feels that it’s warranted.
Selosse’s cellars have historically been located in the center of Avize, but in 2008 he purchased the old Avize château that formerly housed Champagne Bricout, on the road towards Cramant. The 200-year-old cellars here are built on four levels, offering him ample space and allowing him to work entirely by gravity, and he has now migrated his winemaking operations to the new location. Besides the cellar, he has constructed a hotel and restaurant in the château, called Les Avisés, which opened in the summer of 2011.