For most of its life, Champagne has just been ‘Champagne’. Specifically, where the bottle in your hand actually comes from within the strictly-delimited (but enormous) region has been a little harder to uncover. Perhaps, when faced by the seemingly complex world of Burgundian crus and climats (let alone something like the German system of vineyard classification), Champagne producers felt it was easier just to go by brand. Or maybe the consumer’s lack of knowledge about Champagne’s sub-regions and villages meant producers were reluctant to put these on the label.
Whatever the reason, the tides are changing and independent vignerons are usually keen to let us know where their champagne is produced. To understand lieu-dit or ‘named places’, though, we ought to take a top-down view, from the largest classification to the smallest:
A wine made from any sources within the entire Champagne AOC appellation.
You don’t see subregions, such as the ‘Montagne de Reims’, or the ‘Côte des Bar’, on labels, although many Champagnes from smaller houses and independent producers do have heavy biases (or entire focuses) on one subregion.
Confusingly, the village printed on a label is just where the producer is based – not where the vineyards are. For instance a Blanc de Blancs from a producer clearly labelled as being from Bouzy, could still come from vineyards in the Sézanne.
- Grand Cru/Premier Cru
This tells you simply that the grapes come from villages rated Grand or Premier Cru. These can be blended; a ‘Grand Cru’ Champagne could take in grapes from seventeen villages rated Grand Cru across the Montagne de Reims, Côte des Blancs and Vallée de la Marne, or just from one parcel in one village. If it included one grape from a ‘Premier Cru’ village though it wouldn't be Grand Cru, though (hence why wines such as Dom Pérignon and Cristal are not Grand Cru). It’s also evidence that you can’t rely too heavily on these ratings for an indication of quality in the Champagne AOC.
- ‘Lieu-Dits’ or Single Vineyards
Every village will have a number – usually in the tens – of ‘lieu-dits’, or ‘named places’ within them. Aside from a few ‘monopolies’ – lieu-dits owned by one producer or clos (single walled vineyards) – lieu-dits are usually divided into a patchwork of small parcels worked by multiple vignerons.
The unit of ownership in vineyards is usually ‘parcels’, which can be as small as just a few ‘ares’ (an 'are' being just 100 square metres or 0.01 of a hectare). Single parcels may only produce a few barrels of wine, so true ‘parcellaire’ wines are likely to be made in the hundreds to low-thousands of bottles.
A rescue from anonymity
In a typical Champagne village 90% of what’s produced is going to end up blended with other wines. In fact it was only in 1935 that the region saw its first widely-recognised single-vineyard wine; Philipponnat’s Clos des Goisses in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. Burgundy, on the other hand, was not only recognising single vineyards by this time, but turning them into entire appellations (the famous Montrachet Grand Cru in Puligny was made an Appellation Controlée in 1937).
It’s not entirely the case that Champagne didn’t know where its great vineyards were; it’s just that the culture of blending extended even to the very top wines. We had to wait until 1979 for the first signs of a terroir-specific trend to emerge with the first vintage of Krug’s now legendary ‘Clos du Mesnil’ – a Blanc de Blancs made entirely from one walled vineyard (a ‘clos’) in the heart of the Grand Cru Village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger.
Clos de Mesnil: Tomas e, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
What’s in a name?
Every patch of vineyard has to have a name. Historically, this was necessary for France’s post-revolutionary land register and taxation system, although it serves a practical purpose too; as Champagne’s vineyards are not legally divided up in the same way as Burgundy’s, vignerons need some way of knowing where they are amongst the four hundred hectares of vines that might make up a village.
Over time, some plots have earned a reputation for producing consistently excellent wines – Les Chetillons or the aforementioned Clos de Mesnil for instance – however, having a lieu-dit on a label doesn’t necessarily mean that particular place is recognised for producing wines with special qualities.
Lieu-dits can be rather large; some lieu-dits even cut across village boundaries, such as Le Leon’, which enjoys ‘Grand Cru’ status in the village of Aÿ but extends into neighbouring Dizy (only a Premier Cru’), where there is even a ‘Clos Leon’ owned by Marc Hebrart. Do the vines know where the village boundary is and take the quality down a few notches? Hardly. In this case the lieu-dit is more important than the village.
Is a lieu-dit always a better wine?
Due to their very nature – small batch, with lengthy ageing and perhaps even adventurous barrel usage – lieu-dit wines tend to be some of the most expensive wines in a producer’s portfolio and whilst that doesn’t automatically make them the best, it does make them the most interesting, as their singular nature offers a window into a winemakers vision and terroir.
The fun really starts when producers start to bottle multiple lieu-dits. When the viticulture and winemaking is consistent, you can be assured that the differences you’re tasting are coming entirely from the vineyards themselves (see Domaine Vincey below). The wines may not be ‘better’ than blended wines, but the ethos is completely different. It’s the frontier of modern Champagne, and one that is being explored more and more as a new generation increasingly takes its cues from Burgundy.
Interested in exploring lieu-dits?
We have hand-picked some of the finest single vineyard expressions from across the region. Here are a few of our favourites…
- Domaine Vincey Chemin de Chalons, Auge & Le Grand Jardin – three Blanc de Blancs, all 100% oak vinified and aged on cork, but each from a different lieu-dit in Oger and Mesnil-sur-Oger. See how they compare.
- Rousseaux Batteux Louvois ‘Le Mont’ – A fabulous small batch Pinot Noir from an exceptional Grand Cru single-vineyard in the Montagne de Reims, displaying the elegance and finesse that are the hallmarks of the region.
- Pertois Lebrun Les Chetillons – an exquisite expression of Côte des Blancs Chardonnay from arguably the most famous lieu-dit in the whole of the appellation.
- Want to sample a selection? There’s no better value way than with our Single Vineyard Exploration case. 6 wines from across the region and a saving of 20%.