Trade in the Fur Coat for Some Bubbly: Salon and Delamotte
By Jim Clarke
I suppose a fur coat is one of those ultimate luxury gifts — if you’re not bothered by inhumane considerations for the animals, global warming, or the extravagant expense. It would be more than anachronistic to credit Eugene-Aimé Salon with anticipating those reasons, moving out of the fur biz, and taking to Champagne as an alternative luxury product. Really, he just liked the bubbly.
He was from the Champagne region, and started making Champagne for his own consumption, and as gifts he could give his clients and business associates. When he started, the typical Champagne blend relied heavily on the red grapes, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. However, Salon felt that the area’s lone white grape, Chardonnay, was where the interest and elegance lay, and focused on making a Champagne from 100% Chardonnay, inventing the blanc de blancs style.
In fact, Salon Champagne is built on exceptions — the blanc de blancs thing is only the beginning. They only produce Salon in exceptional vintages, and don’t make a non-vintage sparkler — meanwhile, almost every Champagne house out there defines itself by its non-vintage wine, and it’s generally the bulk of their production. Salon only uses grapes from one Grand Cru village, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger; most Champagnes blend grapes from many different parts of the region, so Salon is one of a handful of Champagnes that articulate the terroir of one village.
All of this would be merely interesting if the wine weren’t so good. A typical Salon is full-bodied and rich, but extremely elegant. They often show the brioche touches that come from prolonged lees (yeast fermentation) aging — ten years is about average — plus nut, floral, and fruit aromas. Of course, as a vintage Champagne, there’s plenty of room for variation on this theme.
The twentieth century saw 37 vintages of Salon, beginning in 1905; 1928 — a great vintage throughout Champagne — made the house’s reputation. The house is comparing the 1996, their current release, to ’28 for elegance, power, and complexity. It clearly has a long life ahead of it — at 11 years it’s still somewhat closed; for now, I found lots of marzipan, croissant, quince, and baked pear aromas, in the full-bodied, smooth style I’ve come to expect. The 1995 opened more quickly, with lots more fruit and softness on the palate. 1990 and 1988 are both showing in all their glory and complexity; I did come across an ’88 that seemed to be fading lately, but I believe it probably hadn’t been stored well. For the future, 1997, 1999, 2002, and 2004 are in the works so far, but have yet to be released.
When I first heard about Delamotte and Salon, I thought there was a bit of a scam here. Salon gets a lot of hype for the fact that it’s only made in the best years; on off years, its grapes go to Delamotte, which makes a more usual range of wines. So Salon is to Delamotte’s Tête de Cuvée as Dom Perignon is to Moët & Chandon?
As it turns out, that’s not the case. First of all, Delamotte and Salon only became sister houses in 1988, well after either of them had been established — the former dates back to 1760. Delamotte also has plenty of its own vineyards that have nothing to do with Salon, including some of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. They make their own vintage wines, sometimes in years when Salon makes a wine as well, sometimes not — depends on the vintage, depends on the vineyards.
Delamotte tends to have a similarly dry, full style, but their wines are softer and less powerful than the Salon (and much less expensive). The Brut NV shows marzipan, pear, and lemon curd notes, whereas the Blanc de Blancs NV shows a lot more minerality and chalkiness. The latter is unfortunately not available in the U.S.; but that’s okay, because you can get the vintage, 1999 blanc de blancs, which tends toward brioche, almond, and walnut aromas — a different style, but very good nonetheless.
Recommended Current Releases from both houses (prices are retail, and approximate):
- Salon Brut 1996 ($230)
- Delamotte Brut Blanc de Blancs 1999 ($80)
- Delamotte Brut Blanc de Blancs NV (not available in the U.S.)
- Delamotte Brut NV ($30)