Fizz & Chips: Salon lunching

(by peter)

Simplicity, goes the quote attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, is the ultimate sophistication.

There is something in this. Sometimes less is more – like the famous exam response to the A-level question, ‘What is bravery?’ which read: ‘This.’

And so it was with Salon and fish and chips.

Salon is a name often mentioned with reverence by wine lovers. It’s a champagne made in very limited quantity – rarely more than 60,000 bottles per year (contrast its sister house Delamotte, which makes around ten times this much). It’s made from a single variety – Chardonnay – from a single site – Le Mesnil, in the Côte des Blancs. Only 37 vintages were made in the 20th century, making it one of the most parsimonious vintage producers of all.

I remember the first time I tried it.

I was working at wine merchants Justerini & Brooks at the time. Every Friday, a very nice customer of ours used to come in, bringing with him bottles from his cellar together with some cheese and smoked salmon from Paxton & Whitfield.

Once he brought Salon 1988. I remember being duly impressed by the awe in which this gentleman of very refined taste clearly held this wine. It was austere but intriguing; not a champagne for wine trade newbies like I was.

So I was fascinated, several years on in 2007, to be able to visit Salon with Susie.

It was an unimpressive property. There was nothing flashy about it, nothing to compare to the drama of Roederer’s big oak reserve wine vats, or Bollinger’s barrel house, or Pommery’s cavernous chalk crayère cellars.

But, like the wines, the houses of Delamotte and Salon are ones that reward patience and close scrutiny. Theirs is not the art of the obvious.

I will freely confess that I tend to prefer champagnes made with a healthy proportion of Pinot Noir – a naturally sturdier, richer style. Susie, by contrast, has a preference for Chardonnay-dominant fizz, citing its natural austerity, minerality and savouriness for her predilection.

During the visit in 2007, we tasted Salon and Delamotte champagnes, all blanc de blancs, including Salon 1996 and a run of older vintages (1995, 1988 and 1982) which were disgorged for us in the cellar and then tasted, without dosage, there and then.

It was only with the softening influence of age that these taut, elegant wines really started to come into their own. Even 1988 was still notably young; the 1982 was the only one with that wonderfully mushroomy and brioche character, incredibly savoury and with a laser-like focus on the palate. Even then, still with a vibrancy and great ability to age.

So it should perhaps come as no surprise that the 1999 vintage – officially launched today for the first time in Europe – was very young.

Even after a good decade of slow maturation, this is a baby of a wine.

Lemon-hued with a greenish flicker, the aromas are restrained and youthful – herb-tinged and mineral, with a touch of florality, citric bite and hints of fresh tobacco. It’s incredibly refined on the palate, with a super fine mousse, a beautifully persistent citric acidity at its core, and a silky savoury body. Hard to believe it’s already 11 years old; it seems like its life is only just starting.

It’s not as shouty as some styles or vintages – some houses’ 1996s spring to mind – but you get the sense that this wine will age supremely well, for a very long time. In this sense it contrasts slightly with the 1997 vintage, which we tasted in March 2010, and which, while delicious, didn’t seem to have the staying power of this 1999. One indication of this was the way the wine kept getting better with time in the glass as it opened up, becoming more rounded and beguiling.

Salon 1999 – our rating: 9/10, to drink from 2020.

In this sense, it was instructive to make the comparison with the Delamotte Blanc de Blancs non-vintage which was also served at this event.

The Delamotte, which is largely based on the 2005 vintage (with 10% of reserve wines from 2000 and 2002), was showing far richer and more engaging than the Salon 1999, with a deeper colour and a winning brioche- and nutty-richness to it.

(Apparently this NV isn’t always so rich; some batches can be tighter but very quickly evolve in bottle to take on this richness. I think this was the case with the bottle with which we wet our baby Thomas’ head when he was born in July 2010 – and rated at 7-7.5/10 – the wine seems to have grown in body and stature since then.)

Delamotte Blanc de Blancs NV – our rating: 8/10 (good value), drink now.

As a result of this richness, the Delamotte went far better with the fish and chips, matching effortlessly well with the fulness of the batter, the earthiness of the chips and the tang of the capers in the tartare sauce.

The Salon, by contrast, tasted dense and unyielding with the fish and chips. Still a wonderful food pairing – its taut acidity cut through the fish beautifully – but it was hard not to feel that, had we been drinking the 1988, or the 1982, it would have been an entirely different and more sensational proposition.

(As a general note, it was proposed that the more elegant blanc de blancs champagnes go better with food than the fuller, heavier Pinot-dominated blends. I think that’s a tasting for us to do in the future…)

Apparently, the team at Delamotte characterised the Salon 1996 as Cary Grant, while the 1997 was more Audrey Hepburn.

And the 1999? Salon President Didier Depond sees it as an ‘adolescent’, albeit a ‘sophisticated’ one. One taster at our table said it was, ‘like Ralph Fiennes in The Constant Gardener: pained, somehow out of sorts, but compelling all the same’.

And us?

We’ve tried to characterise it, without much success. We found it refined, challenging, cerebral – self-contained and slightly ethereal yet with a sense of power at its core. Like a cross between the characters of Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett in The Lord of the Rings…

But before we get carried away, we need to focus on the really important things – like the fact it ain’t half bad with fish and chips.

Note: Delamotte and Salon are available from Corney & Barrow wine merchants. Delamotte Blanc de Blancs NV costs £34.99 per bottle duty paid. Salon 1999 is priced at £950 per case of six bottles under bond.


A note on the 1999 vintage:

The highest-yielding vintage in Champagne’s history to that point, paradoxically 1999 also turned out some fine vintage wines.

It was a warm summer so the wines didn’t typically have the high acidity that marked a vintage like 1996. Rainfall at harvest time was a serious problem for many growers, bringing quality levels down, but those who picked early managed to avoid dilution.

In general, the wines can be described as pleasant drinking, in a soft, rich style. (Clearly Salon doesn’t pay much heed to vintage generalisations…)

Overall a good if not great vintage, in the same league as 2004 and 2005, perhaps a level below the likes of 1996 and 2002.