We drove towards Philipponnat from the east, having visited Laurent-Perrier in Tours-sur-Marne earlier that morning. Travelling adjacent to the meandering Marne River, the route passes through the small village of Bisseuil and gently curves into Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. Rounding the bend, the first thing one notices is the staggeringly steep cliffside that the four-story house of Philipponnat is essentially situated against. Craning our necks, we could just about make out the blossoming vines of Clos des Goisses, the famous 45-degree sloped parcel that produces their prestige cuvée, and the region’s first, single vineyard champagne.
The house itself is light and airy with newly renovated, contemporarily designed reception rooms. We took a short tour through the cellars, much of which is storage space for their huge oak foudres, which vary in size from 15 to 30 hl (they have some 45 hl casks on order for 2020) and are on average five years old. They also keep a perpetual reserve blend (a proportion of which is aged in concrete) and are one of the few houses to still riddle most of their vintage champagnes by hand.
We departed the cellars up a gentle slope that was once an access route for horses, when equine transport was the norm for moving wine and equipment in and out of storage. The passage is nowadays more of a museum entrance, with faux bottles and riddling racks lining the sides. Cleverly, it exits into the shiny new tasting room where we were greeted by Charles Philipponnat.
For over 500 years the Philipponnat family have cultivated vines in their hometown and Charles, the sixteenth(!) generation, has been head of the house and custodian of their inimitable style since 1999. Softly spoken and highly experienced, Charles has an interesting opinion to share on all things winemaking and is, furthermore, a popular fixture on the region’s social circuit: we seem to have bumped into him at either a train station, restaurant or bar at least once during each of our visits this year.
We tasted a few variations of their non-vintage, which, in recent years, has phased out its Pinot Meunier content. “We need to update the labels”, Charles chuckled, typically laidback. They will soon be transitioning to base vintage 2015 for Royale Réserve Brut NV and its Non Dosé NV sibling (the exact same wine without dosage). Charles described 2015 as a “very ripe vintage … beautiful grapes and healthy bunches … a small 2008, linear and intense at the same time.”
The Royale Réserve Rosé NV is produced by bending white wine with around 10% concentrated red wine. The Pinot Noir red wine comes from Clos des Goisses and the berries are completely de-stemmed. “It is light in colour, not much tannins or concentration, but a definite rosé,” was Charles’ description.
Philipponnat have a strict dosage policy. The non-vintages are always given 1cl of liqueur (9 g/l) and the vintages are always given 0.5cl of liqueur (4.5 g/l). The philosophy behind this is to “let the vintage speak … adjusting dosage is an industrial way of thinking.” They are also jetting all of their champagnes, to evacuate oxygen from the bottleneck post-disgorgement and thereby reduce bottle variation. The viticulture is “95% organic … if we went for organic certification, we would have to stop using synthetics on mildew”, which, given Champagne’s wet and cold climate, is considered too risky by most producers. This balanced approach is often termed lutte raisonnée (‘reasoned struggle’).
Moving onto the vintage range, which are all produced from premier and grand crus, Charles had some interesting takes on the quality of recent vintages. He considers 2012 one of the very best: “intense, savoury, very deep … a beautiful vintage for Pinot Noir.” He believes 2008 is a better 1996 and predicts 2012 will be a better 2002 (more balanced and less forward). Charles mused over whether the improvements are due more to simple differences in nature, or the progression of the Champenois, their understanding and their winemaking methods.
We sampled two vintages of their Grand Blanc, 2008 and 2009, both years in which it was still being produced in clear glass bottles that are prone to damage from lightstrike. They changed to dark glass bottles in 2016. Apparently, lightstrike can affect some vintages more than others: “2004 was particularly fragile, whereas 2008 is strong.” Three-quarters of the Chardonnay for Grand Blanc comes from the Côte des Blancs (primarily from Vertus), with the rest coming from Trépail, Clos des Goisses, Avenay and Grauves.
The vintage Blanc de Noirs, created as Philipponnat “pride themselves on being a Pinot Noir house … so we needed a Blanc de Noirs,” is 33-50% fermented in oak as this helps prevent early oxidation (which can be a problem with Pinot Noir). The grapes come primarily from home village Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, as those from grand cru rated neighbour Aÿ are reserved for Cuvée 1522 – of which we tasted the blanc 2009 and rosé 2008. Very similar blends, Charles described the 2009 as “needing more time to open up properly … all the Pinot Noir based 2009s have been reductive” and the 2008 as “quite acidic … more integrated [than 2009] at this stage.”
|Philipponnat Royale Réserve Brut NV | 17/20
70% PN, 30% CH | Base Vintage: 2014 | Reserve Wine: 29% | Lees Ageing: 3 Years | Disgorged: September 2018 | Dosage: 8.5 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 9 Months
Lots of redcurrants, nice and fresh and very structured. Lots of lemon richness and bright red fruits like red cherry and redcurrant and a hint of bitter on the finish. Shows well. Charles stopped using PM as it ages faster and then sits awkwardly in the blend.
|Philipponnat Royale Réserve Non Dosé NV | 16.5/20
70% PN, 30% CH | Base Vintage: 2014 | Reserve Wine: 29% | Lees Ageing: 2 Years | Disgorged: November 2018 | Dosage: 0 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 7 Months
No dosage, same blend as above. Always interesting to taste the same champagne with and without dosage, as with no dosage the ripeness of the fruit seems more prominent. I still find no dosage champagnes to be something I tire of after a couple of glasses.
|Philipponnat Royale Réserve Non Dosé NV | 17+/20
70% PN, 30% CH | Base Vintage: 2015 | Reserve Wine: 35% | Lees Ageing: 3 Years | Disgorged: March 2019 | Dosage: 0 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 3 Months
Very forward fruit, loads of that ripe tropical passion fruit, pineapple and bright black cherry. Very nice round texture, lees character and a twist of bitter on the finish.
|Philipponnat Royale Réserve Rosé NV | 17.5/20
75% PN, 20% CH, 5% PM | Red Wine: 10% | Base Vintage: 2014 | Reserve Wine: 30% | Lees Ageing: 3 Years | Disgorged: September 2018 | Dosage: 9 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 9 Months
Distinct spicy cherry with some blackcurrant and loads of peaches, apricots and a light hint of tannins. Great texture and bright minerality keeping it fresh.
|Philipponnat Grand Blanc 2008 | 17.5+/20
100% CH | Lees Ageing: 9 Years | Disgorged: September 2018 | Dosage: 4.5 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 9 Months
Quite forward and energetic on the nose. Has loads of ripe and pure fruit, lemon, grapefruit, apricot and peach. The 2008 bright acidity lifts it all on the palate with a hint of salinity.
|Philipponnat Grand Blanc 2009 | 17.5+/20
100% CH | Lees Ageing: 9 Years | Disgorged: March 2019 | Dosage: 4.5 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 3 Months
Yellow plums and tropical notes with banana and grapefruit. This is quite generous, giving a rich and round texture. Drinking well now.
|Philipponnat Blanc de Noirs 2012 | 17.5+/20
100% PN | Lees Ageing: 9 Years | Disgorged: September 2018 | Dosage: 4.5 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 9 Months
Has a fresh redcurrant nose. About 50% aged in oak casks, which prevents early oxidation and protects from premature oxidation. Has freshness and redcurrants, raspberry and spice, and really has that crunch you want in PN. Grapes from Mailly give a rounder and fleshier mouthfeel.
|Philipponnat Cuvée 1522 2009 | 18/20
69% PN, 31% CH | Lees Ageing: 9 Years | Disgorged: March 2019 | Dosage: 4.5 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 3 Months
A little bit of reduction; so that smokey character. Has a lot of freshness and has some malic, so has a grip to it yet has great length. Quite punchy, fresh and elegant.
|Philipponnat Cuvée 1522 Rosé 2008 | 18.5/20
72% PN, 28% CH | Red Wine: 10% | Lees Ageing: 9 Years | Disgorged: March 2019 | Dosage: 4.5 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 3 Months
The red wine has papaya and some hints of chili spice and ginger spice. Some added texture comes from the red wine and the hints of chalk from Aÿ gives you those footprints of minerality. Has a salinity that lifts up the champagne on the finish. A lot happening on the palate!
We finished with a range of wines from Clos des Goisses, the single vineyard next door and by far Philiponnat’s most well-known cuvée. First produced in 1935 (then named ‘Vin des Goisses’), they aim to make it very year, even in such difficult vintages as 2001 (one exception however, was 1984, which proved simply too challenging even for this special plot). Typically a 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay blend, malolactic fermentation is always blocked in Clos des Goisses wines, and they are routinely aged under cork rather than crown cap closure.
As a little experiment, Charles showed us two bottles of Clos des Goisses 2009, one opened during our appointment and the other the day before. The bottle opened 24 hours previously had been refrigerated at quite a cold temperature, which “accelerates the oxidation because cold liquids dissolve more gas,” Charles explained. The warmer, just opened bottle was therefore marginally preferred.
The latest vintage, Clos des Goisses 2010, will be released this year. A short crop, Charles found it “difficult to blend everything … some elements were a bit heavy and forward.” Half of the wines were fermented in oak and it has a real vanilla and cream personality – characteristics one would expect from a Chardonnay dominant blend, which is apparently the vintage showing through.
In 2006, Philipponnat began making three single-parcel Pinot Noirs, from Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, Aÿ, and Clos des Goisses. We were shown the latter, Les Cintres, produced from grapes of the steepest, southernmost-facing slope of Clos des Goisses. Fully fermented in oak, with malolactic fermentation blocked, the potential alcohol level here is often over 12%.
|Philipponnat Clos des Goisses 2009 | 17.5+/20
61% CH, 39% PN | Lees Ageing: 8 Years | Disgorged: March 2018 | Dosage: 4.5 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 1 Year
Has lots of savoury and ripe tropical fruits. Lots of lemon, grapefruits, peach and racy acidity. Not my favourite CdG vintage at present, will be interesting to taste again in a year or two.
|Philipponnat Clos des Goisses 2010 | 18/20
71% PN, 29% CH | Lees Ageing: 8 Years | Disgorged: March 2019 | Dosage: 4.5 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 3 Months
The Chardonnay seems to dominate at present and has some herbaceous character. Lots of peaches, black cherry, honey and some white floral notes with a hint of spicy lychees.
|Philipponnat Les Cintres 2009 | 18+/20
100% PN | Lees Ageing: 8 Years | Disgorged: March 2019 | Dosage: 4.5 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 3 Months
Very rich and powerful tropical notes. Pineapple, roasted nuts and a creamy and full textural palate. Finishes well. This shows well and can only imagine would go so well with some food.
|Philipponnat Clos des Goisses Juste Rosé 2008 | 19/20
58% PN, 42% CH | Lees Ageing: 10 Years | Disgorged: March 2019 | Dosage: 4.5 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 3 Months
Has some spices like hints of ginger and power of fruit. The lees texture and freshness ends really light considering its intensity. Great example of minerality and purity, powerful yet delicate. Drink 2022 to 2030.
|Philipponnat Clos des Goisses L.V. 1993 | 19/20
67% PN, 33% CH | Lees Ageing: 24 Years | Disgorged: July 2018 | Dosage: 4.5 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 11 Months
Has some incredible power and lovely white pepper spice. All that lees time has produced a champagne that still shows energy, youthfulness, and the lees roundness on the palate. Some hints of dark fruits almost reminiscent of a meaty character like charcuterie. Very enjoyable and I confess I drank this one!