March 8, 2011

The prestige cuvées of Champagne’s Grande Marques are prized for their complexity and harmony. Sourced from the houses’ finest crus, the fruit can be selected from a dizzying number of growers and villages.

In 1971, a group of the best small growers in Champagne banded together to create their own version of the prestige cuvée, and they took a very different approach. While they didn't have the big houses' blending possibilities, they did have something else: perfectly tended vines in some of Champagne's finest individual terroirs. To make the most of this, they formed the Club de Viticulteurs Champenois, an exclusive club resolved to making the highest quality possible from their own vines and then releasing it in specially designed and labeled bottles, vintage-dated only. 

The Special Club

The standards that the group adopted are so demanding that there are currently only about two dozen members out of the approximately 5000 growers in the appellation. Yet most of today's members have been so for decades, demonstrating a commitment to quality second to none. That commitment results in stunning Champagnes. Swedish Champagne guru Richard Juhlin states that, “All the wines produced and sold in this unique bottle share the attributes of being creamy, concentrated and rich … a unique way in which one can contemplate the diversity of Champagne and the character of the territory when vinification is optimal.”

The Best of the Best

The fantastic old-vine fruit from these terroirs is the foundation, but it is the unusually high winemaking standards imposed by the club that transform the raw material into exceptional Champagne. To qualify, a grower may bottle no more than 20% of their production as vintage, ensuring a strict selection. Vins clairsare submitted for tasting by the group members for approval before going into the Special Club bottle for the second fermentation.

Aging is for a minimum of 3 years en tirage before disgorgement. Then, the wine is tasted again, to ensure that the quality is high enough to wear the Special Club label. And, because the members are determined that these Champagnes represent the best of what they're capable of, typical production is about 2000 bottles (167 cases) per wine. By way of comparison, this is a fraction of the Dom Pérignon or Cristal released in a typical vintage.

Terroir Expressions

The wines are not only rare and consistently of the highest quality; they are also unique expressions of each grower's signature terroir. For example, Paul Bara's Special Club is a soaring example of the remarkably elegant Pinot Noir-based Champagnes they make from their old vines in Bouzy's best crus.

Gaston Chiquet, growers since the 1740s, make their stunningly pure and complex Chardonnay-dominated Special Club from their holdings in Äy and Mareuil-sur-Äy. And Pierre Gimonnet, blanc de blancs specialists in Cramant, uses the rich and concentrated fruit from their century-old vines, leavened by bright, citrussy Cuis fruit, to make their heroic Special Club.

Simply stated, these are unique Champagnes, true to their terroirs and the Club's uncompromising standards.

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