The Epicurean's Atlas: Salon Le Mesnil 1971
Region: Champagne | Variety: Chardonnay
“Salon has maintained a certain aura of confidentiality, remaining a glamorous secret for those in the know”
W hile there are many Champagne houses that could be described as boutique, Salon is unique in that it produces only one wine: a vintage-dated Blanc de Blancs from a single terroir, made only in the best vintages. Since the house’s founding, it has always been associated with luxury and exclusivity, and throughout much of its history it has maintained a certain aura of confidentiality, remaining a glamorous secret for those in the know.
Champagne Salon, in fact, wasn’t even initially conceived as a business project. Eugène-Aimé Salon was a native of the Champagne region, born in 1867 in the village of Pocancy, near Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. Having had little interest in his family’s farm, he sought his fortunes in Paris, securing a position with the furrier Chapal in Montreuil. Working his way up the ranks of the company allowed him to make a good living. It also gave him access to Parisian society and he soon became influential in the city’s circles of affluence.
It was at this time that he envisioned the possibility of creating a Champagne for himself, returning full circle to his Champenois roots. His brother-in-law Marcel Guillaume was the winemaker for a producer in Le Mesnil called Clos Tarin and, with his aid, Salon began to produce a Champagne from select parcels in Le Mesnil. This was a daringly unorthodox concept, revolutionary even, for two reasons. First, Champagne was considered to always be a blend of different grape varieties, with Pinot Noir being dominant. No Champagne house was making wine from a single variety at that time, and certainly not one of pure Chardonnay. Second, Champagne was also historically made from a blend of different terroirs, and the idea of making a wine exclusively from a single village was conspicuously atypical for the time: indeed, while it’s possible that there were other, less significant wines that have been lost to history, Salon is the first Champagne that we know of to be made from a single terroir.
According to the house’s records, the first vintage produced by Salon was the 1905. This, along with other vintages of the early century, was intended solely for his private consumption, to be served to guests while entertaining at his home. The wine was enthusiastically received, and it gained notoriety among the Parisian elite, who clamoured for more. Eventually this led Salon to expand his production and the first vintage offered for sale was the 1921. This only served to boost the wine’s reputation and it became a feature at the city’s most fashionable places, notably Maxim’s, where it was served as the house Champagne during the 1920s.
Eugène-Aimé Salon died in 1943. Twenty years later, the house was sold to Besserat de Bellefon, which was in turn purchased by Pernod-Ricard. In 1989, Salon was purchased by Laurent-Perrier, which had also acquired the neighbouring house of Delamotte a short time earlier. The two houses are located next to each other on the rue de la Brèche d’Oger in Le Mesnil, and since this time they have functioned as sister companies under the direction of Didier Depond, with both wines being made by Laurent-Perrier’s Chef de Cave Michel Fauconnet. This structure ensures that there continues to be the resources that Salon’s singularly uncompromising manner of production requires: as in the time of Eugène-Aimé, it remains a vintage-dated Champagne of pure Chardonnay, made only in the best years. The house is strict about the years that make the cut, as the character that it seeks from the terroir of Le Mesnil doesn’t always neatly correspond to conventional vintage charts. For example, Salon famously made no 1989, but there was an excellent 1997, and an outstanding 2007 as well, from a vintage that was highly successful for Chardonnay. The current release, 2013, is just the 44th vintage of Salon ever to be made, counting forward from the inaugural 1905.
Salon also continues to be a pure Le Mesnil Champagne and, indeed, it has historically been the quintessential Le Mesnil Champagne, expressing all the sleek, racy structure and saline minerality typical of the village’s wines. Salon owns one hectare of vines, located just behind the house in a parcel called Le Jardin, and this is blended with 19 other parcels within the village to make up the final blend. These are, in fact, the same parcels that Eugène-Aimé Salon selected when he created his Champagne, situated in prime locations on the mid-slope above the village itself. While some of the owners have changed, the long-term purchasing contracts remain in place.
As a wine, Salon is typically reticent and tightly wound in its youth, and even though it spends an average of 10 years in the cellars before release, it requires many more years after that to achieve its full potential. Tasting a vintage in maturity, such as the 1971, reveals the complexity and depth of flavour that Salon is capable of, underlined as always by the haunting, intensely saline signature of Le Mesnil’s chalky terroir. The 1971 vintage wasn’t the easiest for vine growers, as much of the season was challenging due to frost, hail and mildew. Yet a burst of hot, dry weather in September brought healthy ripening, enabling some excellent wines to be produced. This was the 25th vintage made at Salon and, as was the case with most vintage Champagnes in 1971, the quantities were below average due to the erratic climatic conditions. Old vintages of Salon have never been in plentiful supply but in recent times they have become even rarer: even the house itself owns comparatively few bottles and the cellar containing Salon’s entire library of pre-1990 Champagnes is smaller than an average bedroom. The opportunity to taste Salon is always an experience to be savoured and a bottle of the 1971 will offer a fascinating glimpse into the history of the region.