The corporate changes that have swept through Champagne in recent years seem sure to rob many old houses of their connection to the past. But one small jewel of a house is moving ever closer to its roots: Philipponnat.
It is one of the last houses to be run by a member of its founding family. And Charles Philipponnat is a true Champenois, descended from winemakers, cellarmasters and growers dating back nearly 600 years.
Champagne is in Charles’ blood, and this helps to explain Philipponnat’s recent resurgence. Twenty years ago, the house was known largely for its iconic Clos des Goisses—the majestic tête de cuvée made from Champagne’s single greatest vineyard.
But under Charles, Philipponnat is gaining reverence for its entire portfolio of richly expressive Champagnes.
Charles was born to make Champagne. His family grew grapes here as early as 1522, and his father René was chef de caves at Moët from 1949 to 1977—responsible for 1961 Dom Pérignon among other legends.
Since taking over in 1999, Charles has returned Philipponnat to its last Golden Age, 1913-1962, when Louis Boland was chef de caves. Boland’s wines were the essence of Pinot Noir from the house’s vineyards in the Montagne de Reims. Charles’ Champagnes also fully exploit these prized vineyards, and the resulting wines revel in their Pinot-infused glory.
Under Charles, Philipponnat’s wines aren’t just more intense, they’re also fresher (due to using only first-pressing Chardonnay). And to the traditional tank and foudre fermentation, Charles has added smaller neutral barrels for more depth and complexity. To maximize their character, the non-vintage wines age for 3 years en tirage, while the vintage cuvées spend from 5 to 10 years on the lees.
Through great vision, technical skill and perfectionist attention to detail–and the pride of five centuries of tradition–Charles has created a range of Champagnes with few peers for quality and character. This ranges from the towering Clos des Goisses to the superb Royale Réserve and Reserve Rosé, two of the finest non-vintage brut Champagnes on the market today.
Until Krug’s Clos des Mesnil was first made in 1979, Clos des Goisses was the region’s only great single-vineyard wine. From its first vintage in 1935, it was not only unchallenged as the beacon of terroir in Champagne. It was the sole argument that great Champagne could be made from a single site, rather than a blend of vineyards has had been done for centuries in the region.
Even today, the respected American Champagne writer Peter Liem calls Clos des Goisses “arguably the greatest vineyard site in all of Champagne.” British Champagne expert Tom Stevenson says that “there can be no doubt that Clos des Goisses boasts the most climatically distinct, naturally occurring and expressive terroir in Champagne.” No other Champagne vineyard can match its gifts: an unbroken 30 to 45 degree, fully south facing slope of pure chalk backed by a small plateau directly above the Marne River. In warm years the plateau assures balance; in cool years the steep southern slope guarantees ripeness.
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