It’s nearly impossible to speak about Blanc de Blancs champagne without mentioning the Côte des Blancs. The most famous white coast of Champagne is one of the four major wine-growing sub-regions of Champagne, besides the Vallée de la Marne, Montagne de Reims, and Côte des Bar.
The gentle slopes of the Côte des Blancs vineyards stretch out over roughly 20 kilometers from the south of Épernay all the way to Vertus and Bergères-les-Vertus. Ten wine-growing villages belong to the sub-region, and despite their small size, many of these villages have reached world-wide fame through iconic champagne producers like Champagne Selosse and Champagne Apart in Avize, or Champagne Salon in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger.
What stands out most in the Côte des Blancs is the white chalky vineyard soil – said to be most likely the origin of its name (while other theories suggest different origins, such as the majority of white-skinned grapes, etc.). Here, the soils are so poor in top-soil that the shining white bedrock of the chalky limestone from the Cretaceous era peeks through in many plots. These eroded slopes create the most ideal growing conditions for one grape varietal: Chardonnay.
3,190 hectares of vines are planted in the delimited zone of the Côte des Blancs, spread out over 10 viticultural villages. Among those villages, there are six grands crus – Avize, Cramant, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Oger, Chouilly, and Oiry – and four premier crus: Cuis, Grauves, Vertus, and Bergères-les-Vertus.
Chardonnay covers 97,22% of the vineyard surface of the Côte des Blancs, and only 1,99% of Pinot Noir and 0,75% of Meunier decorate some parcels. (Source: Union de Maisons de Champagne)
Although the Côte des Blancs has been known for high-quality Chardonnay through most of Champagne’s history, Pinot Noir used to be much more present in the last century, especially in the southern villages Vertus and Bergères-les-Vertus. But when the appetite for refreshing Blanc de Blancs champagne became a trend in mid-century, and prices for the white grape started skyrocketing, more and more winegrowers set out to replace their vineyards with Chardonnay.
At the highest peaks of Avize’s slopes, the coast reaches an altitude of 248 meters, however most of the slopes reach altitudes between 100 and 200 meters. Forest covers most tops of the slopes with a generous layer of clay-rich topsoil, whereas the bottom of the slopes often has so little topsoil that you can find white spots exposing the bare chalky bedrock. The sought-after balance between these two extremes usually meets in the middle slope sections, which bring out grapes with full expression.
The overall typicity of Côte de Blancs champagne is best described as lively champagne with crisp acidity and racy minerality. As the far-traveling blends of the big champagne houses made the name Blanc de Blancs popular all over the globe, this definition has become so emblematic for the entire Blanc de Blancs category that many consumers expect the same style in all Chardonnay-based champagne, no matter where the grapes are sourced from.
More initiated champagne lovers, however, will always argue that the Côte des Blancs has much more to offer than just lively champagne with crisp acidity and racy minerality, and that each village deserves its own recognition. And they’re absolutely right indeed. There’s a wide field of distinct expressions in the base wines, varying from village to village and slope to slope!
When asked about their wines’ unique character, champagne growers and winemakers from the Côte de Blancs quickly get lost in philosophical and highly appreciative discussions about their terroirs’ distinctions. One of their most philosophical representatives is Anselme Selosse of Domaine Jacques Selosse in Avize, who was among the first pioneers who promoted terroir distinction in Champagne when most producers were still convinced that blending wines was their only unique selling point.
Nowadays, the cellar masters of the most famous champagne houses select specific crus or even plots for distinct qualities to create their precise blends, choosing selected profiles of aromatic expression, acidity levels, or body.
Avize terroirs, for example, bring out medium-bodied wines with an upright tension, raciness, lots of yellow to orange citrus fruit from ripe grapefruit to mandarin notes, and a strict graphite minerality that often ends in a salty finish. In the neighboring village Cramant, on the other side, the vines grow on chalk soils with a tad more clay. This leads to vibrant wines that are more voluminous in body and grounded in structure, and possess a vibrant acidity along with a broader aromatic dimension.
Just a few kilometers away, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger – the village that Eugène-Aimé Salon chose for its distinct terroir expression as he founded Champagne Salon – is known for its complex wines with an exceptional finesse, tingling chalky tension, and remarkable depth which tend to be very austere during their youth and need time to age and transform into shining examples of powerful tension and precise refinement. And once again, the borders to the next village, Oger, completely change the character of the wines. Oger presents the most charming Chardonnay of the Côte des Blancs: full-bodied and well-rounded, with a bold backbone of balancing, firm acidity, and ample aromatic expression of floral notes and generous, ripe fruitiness.
Of course, this terroir diversity continues as you hop from village to village; not only within the limits of the Côte des Blancs, but in the entire region of Champagne. The most delightful and exciting way to explore these differences is to taste your way through the mouth-watering panel of extraordinary champagnes the Côte des Blancs offers.
In case you are currently dreaming of your future Champagne trip, or if you’re already planning your scheduled trip, we highly recommend adding a visit to the Côte des Blancs on your list. Along the Route Touristique du Champagne, a scenic route through the most prestigious villages, you can discover the listed crus and see the variations of soils and topography yourself. Although drinking champagne is always the greatest pleasure, visiting and understanding these tiny villages’ importance in the bigger picture is a key to appreciating your next glass of champagne even more.