Walled-in quality: a journey into Champagne's clos


17 gennaio 2024

Parcels of land set aside for special vineyards and surrounded by walls, trees or impenetrable hedges - clos are a well-known and highly valued part of France's rich oenological tradition as they bring out the best essence of a specific terroir. For these reasons, clos are said to embody the best expression of a single vineyard.

What is a clos

History

The term clos originated with the rise of the ancient Cistercian abbeys, when the monks started surrounding their small vineyards with high stone walls. The purpose of these walls was to isolate and protect specific vineyards possessing unique characteristics. They also affected the microclimate of the plot and preserved the quality of the grapes. 

After the French Revolution, the term clos began to refer to any parcel surrounded not just by walls, but generally by any kind of enclosure, including hedges, thick trees, or moats. With the creation of the agricultural land registry in the 1800s, the term came to only refer to vineyards, and today indicates a fenced-in plot planted with grapevines and benefiting from unique geological and climatic conditions. However, it is not a general term, and its use is strictly regulated. 

Laws and regulations

A 1921 decree regulates the use of the term clos on labels. It requires authorization issued by INAO (Institut national de l'origine et de la qualité) once a vineyard has been confirmed to possess the right characteristics or is historically listed as a clos in the parcel register. 

The term clos can therefore only be used on the label of wines that benefit from a protected designation of origin and (a) are obtained from grapes picked exclusively from vineyards that are actually surrounded by a wall or hedge; or (b) whose designation includes this term. A regulation dated 4 May 2012 also adds that (c) the term "clos" is "reserved for wines covered by a protected designation of origin, obtained from grapes picked from plots owned by a company with protected designation of origin status and produced by that company." 

Characteristics 

The clos may be described as the highest level of champagne quality, as it's a single vineyard with a microclimate that is not just special but literally unique, different even from the surrounding climate. 

Whereas a cru is made from grapes from a specific terroir, a clos is even more distinctive because the walls - in addition to protecting the plants - create a characteristic climate. Additionally, clos is the opposite of assemblage, although we can speak of assemblage if the vineyard is divided into several plots.

We'll discuss the differences with crus in more detail in a dedicated chapter. Below is a list of champagne clos with a description of their individual qualities and specificities. 

Best-known and historical clos

Clos des Goisses

One of the best known and largest clos currently extending over a total of 5.8 hectares divided into 14 parcels. It's located on the eastern outskirts of the village of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, in the Grande Vallée de la Marne region. It has south-facing exposure. 

According to some sources it's the oldest known clos, believed to have been planted by the Romans. What we do know is that the first 2.4 hectares were purchased in 1935 by Pierre Philipponnat from the previous owner, Maison Burtin, which in turn bought it from the Bouchés, the historic owners of 'Les Goisses’. 

The extremely lengthy acquisition was only completed in 2019 by Charles Philipponnat, Pierre's great-grandson, with the last plot of land, bringing the clos from 5.5 to 5.8 hectares. Today Maison Philipponnat vinifies the grapes from the clos separately producing two eponymous cuvées - white and rosé - from a blend of pinot noir and chardonnay. 

The terroir is a chalky hillside with a very steep 45-degree slope and an altitude ranging from about 80 to 120 meters. The vineyard occupies an entire coteau about 800 meters long and just over 100 meters wide. It’s named after its remarkable steepness - 'goisses' is the feminine form of 'gois', which in the Chempenois dialect means ‘difficult to work’. It's planted for almost 2/3 with pinot noir and the rest with chardonnay.

Not all parcels are always used to make the eponymous champagne. For this reason, production is about 26,000 bottles a year compared to a potential of almost 55,000, including Clos des Goisses Rosé (about 3,000 bottles produced since 1999) and Sélection Parcellaire Les Cintres (just over 2,000 bottles). 

Inside the Clos des Goisses the average temperature is 1.5° C higher than in the adjacent vineyards, making the microclimate markedly different. 

Clos Cazals

Named after the eponymous company and located in Oger (Côte des Blancs), this clos is planted with old chardonnay vines and produces two cuvées: Clos Cazals and La Chapelle du Clos. With an extension of 3.7 hectares, it's the third largest clos. It has been the property of the Cazals family since 1950, when it was purchased by Olivier Cazals. The vineyard was originally planted in 1957 by Claude Cazals, partly replanted in 2001 and is now divided into three plots. Until the 1995 harvest, the grapes were used in blends to make other champagnes. Claude's daughter, Delphine, then decided to select the best and oldest plants to create ‘Le Clos Cazals’, produced in less than 4,000 individually numbered bottles. 

It was a great success, and in 2007 Cazals created La Chapelle du Clos, a sort of selection from the youngest of the three plots (1.3 hectares). It was initially sold as non-vintage largely from the 2006 harvest and later, starting in 2009, as vintage.

Clos du Mesnil

One of the most famous vineyards in Champagne as well as one of the oldest, planted in the 17th century on a property owned by the Benedictine monks of the abbey of Saint-Étienne de Châlons. As an inscription on the enclosing wall itself reads, "En l'an 1698, cet muraille a été construict par Claude Jannin et Pierre Debee metoenn entre eux et en la mesme année la vigne a été plancté."

Located in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger (Côte des Blancs), it produces a single very expensive 100% chardonnay cuvée for Krug. Acquired in 1971 as part of the acquisition of ‘S.A. Champagne Julien Tarin’, it comprises 6 hectares of vineyards in Le-Mesnil. The Krugs decided to replant it and later began to use the grapes in their Grande Cuvée blend. Production of a single-vineyard, single-variety champagne began in 1979. 

The vineyard faces south-east with a slight slope and is divided into six different plots; the oldest is 48 years old and is still one of the 'original' plots replanted by the Krugs after purchasing the clos, while the youngest was replanted in 2006. It produces a total of fifteen wines. However, not all of them are always included in the Clos du Mesnil blend. As a result, production ranges from over 15,000 bottles in good years to just over half that number in others.

Clos d’Ambonnay

Located in the Montagne de Reims region at an altitude of 110 meters, it was also purchased by Krug in 1994 and today produces a pinot noir that is even more expensive than Clos du Mesnil. The plot is just 0.68 hectares - one-third of the size of the Clos du Mesnil - located in Ambonnay, one of the Champagnes region's most famous villages for pinot noir grapes. 

Following the discovery of the Clos du Mesnil, Rémi and Henri Krug decided to properly celebrate the Maison's finest grape variety, just as the Clos du Mesnil celebrates the chardonnay of Mesnil-sur-Oger. 

In order to achieve the purest expression of the Ambonnay terroir, they began searching for the right plot of land until they came upon the Clos d’Ambonnay, located on the edge of the village and surrounded by walls since 1766. 

The family bought the Clos d'Ambonnay in 1994. The vineyard was then carefully pruned and worked to achieve its full potential. In 1995 the Maison created the first Krug Clos d'Ambonnay, presented in 2007. 

Clos Pompadour 

Perhaps the least known among Champagne’s clos but by far the largest with its impressive 25 hectares. It's located at the top of the 'Butte de Saint-Nicaise, in the Cravères area. It's actually a selection of vineyards, including ‘Moulin de la Housse’, also known as ‘Rue des Crayères’, 7.15 hectares; the 'Clos Pompadour' proper, also known as 'Général Giraud', 8.10 hectares; and, lastly, ‘Cendres Graveleuses', 9.50 hectares. Each of the three vineyards is in turn divided into parcels. 

80% of the clos - 17 parcels - is plated with chardonnay, the rest being divided between pinot noir (12%) and meunier (8%); the latter is located in the lower part, more exposed to frosts. 

The Clos Pompadour as a whole is a historic vineyard, established in 1870 by Henry Vasnier and first harvested in 1896. After many eventful years, it was eventually replanted in the 1960s. 

Clos du Moulin

Located in Chigny-les-Roses, on the north side of the Grande Montagne de Reims region, the clos is owned by the Cattier family. The first harvest dates back to 1952, but the vineyard is actually much older as it belonged to an officer of Louis XV in the eighteenth century, and is therefore one of Champagne's historic clos. 

The surrounding wall was destroyed in World War I and II, but the name clos has remained.

Other Champagne clos

Clos Lanson 

Walled in during the eighteenth century, it's best known for being located inside the city of Reims. Parcel no. 55 in the Courlancy district, overlooking the cathedral, is planted with Chardonnay, which is therefore exposed to the city's warmer microclimate.

Clos Bollinger 

Located in Aÿ, it's divided into two plots: les Chaudes Terres and le Clos Saint-Jacques. A very rare example of ungrafted vines in Champagne, it produces a 100% pinot noir cuvée called Vieilles Vignes Françaises.

Clos des Trois Clochers 

Located in Villers-Allerand, in the Montagne de Reims region, it was planted with 100% chardonnay by the Maison Leclerc-Briant in 2014. As well as being the youngest clos, it’s also unusual as it's surrounded by hedges. The first vintage was produced in 2018.

Clos Barnaut 

A Grand Cru plot of pinot noir in Bouzy, in the Grande Montagne de Reims region.

It's unique in that it produces a still wine, probably the only rosé coteaux-champenois on the market. It's produced by Philippe and Laurette Secondé, owners of the Barnaut domaine.

Clos de l'Abbaye 

Located in Vertus (Côte des Blancs) and owned by the Maison Doyard, it's a flat, narrow, long plot planted with Chardonnay in 1957.

Clos l'Abbé 

Located in Epernay, it’s entirely planted with chardonnay produced by Hubert Soreau.

Clos Adoré or A. Doré 

Located in Ludes, in the northern part of Montagne de Reims, it was planted with chardonnay by the Maison Doré-Monmarthe in 1978.

Clos des Belvals 

Recently created by the Maison Person in Vertus (Côte des Blancs), it's planted with 100% chardonnay.

Clos des Bergeronneau 

Located in Ville-Dommange, in the Petite Montagne de Reims region, it consists of old pinot meunier vines.

Clos Bourmault 

Located in Avize (Côte des Blancs), it's produced by Christian Bourmault.

Clos des Bouveries 

Created by the Maison Duval-Leroy and located in Vertus (Côte des Blancs), it's planted with chardonnay.

Clos de Bouzy 

Planted with pinot noir and owned by André Clouet in Bouzy, it's located in Montagne de Reims, right next to the Clos Barnaut.

Clos du Château de Bligny 

Owned by the eponymous Bligny domaine in Barsuraubois (Aube). Facing south at an altitude ranging between 250 and 310 meters, it's located on a steep slope planted with 6 grape varieties - chardonnay, pinot noir, meunier, petit meslier, arbane, pinot blanc.

Clos des Chaulins 

Located in Pargny-lès-Reims in Petite Montagne de Reims, it's owned by Champagne Médot. Surrounded by walls, trees and hedges since 1927, it's planted with 55% pinot noir, 35% pinot meunier and 10% chardonnay, but does not produce a separate cuvée.

Clos de Cumières 

Located in the eponymous village in Grande Vallée de la Marne, it's owned by the Maison Leclerc-Briant. Pinot noir and chardonnay planted in 1964.

Clos du Faubourg Notre-Dame

Located in Vertus (Côte des Blancs), it only comprises 0.15 Ha of chardonnay planted in a flat area facing the headquarters of the Maison Veuve Fourny, which owns it.

Clos-Veuve-Fourny-vineyard-in-Vertus-Champagne_1.jpg

Clos Jacquin

Entirely planted with chardonnay, it's located at the top of the slope in Avize (Côte des Blancs) and produced by Pierre Callot et Fils.

Clos Mandois 

Owned by the eponymous Maison, it's located in Pierry (Coteaux Sud d'Épernay). This clos is planted with 100% pinot meunier. It faces south-east, at an altitude of 90-100 meters.

Clos des Monnaies 

Located in Damery (Vallée de la Marne rive droite), it's surrounded by an unmarked wall and divided between the Maisons Goutorbe-Bouillot (30%) and Eric Lemaire (70%). Mostly planted with pinot meunier.

Petit Clos 

Thus called because of its very small size. It's located in Bouzy, Grande Montagne de Reims. It produces one or two barrique of pinot noir a year for the Maison Georges Vesselle.

Clos Rocher

Located in Balnot-sur-Laignes (Barséquanais, Aube), it was recently planted with pinot noir for the Maison Grémillet's production.

Clos Sainte-Sophie 

Located in Montueux (Aube), it's grown to chardonnay by Jacques Lassaigne. Another rare example of hedged-in clos.

Clos Virgile 

Located in Beaumont-sur-Vesle in the northern part of Grande Montagne de Reims, it's grown for two-thirds to chardonnay and the remainder to pinot noir by the Maison Paul-Sadi.

Clos Saint-Hilaire by Billecart-Salmon

A single parcel of land surrounded by walls and characterised by its own, original micro-climate that has always been managed in an eco-sustainable manner gives birth to a wine that is the sublimation of champagne: beyond mono-cru and lieux-dits, beyond (and perhaps against) blending. Clos St Hilaire is the quintessence of Billecart, pure champenoise culture.

This celebrated clos owned by Billecart-Salmon merits a separate chapter. For almost thirty years, this vineyard has only been used to produce red wine for Billecart's rosé. However, in 1995 the Billecart-Salmon family, the long-time owners of the clos, decided to change everything and started producing a white pinot noir using barriques barrels, with no filtering or fining. Thus, with the 1995 vintage, the first vintage of Le Clos Saint-Hilaire saw the light of day, which was then repeated in 1996, 1998, 1999, 2002, 2003, 2005, and 2006.1.

The clos: genesis and history

Until 1964, the plot was a green space, adjacent to the Billecart family home in Mareuil-sur-Ay, left by François Roland-Billecart's grandmother (and Jean-Roland Billecart's mother) to her children and grandchildren to enjoy: it housed a vineyard, vegetable garden, a flower nursery, fruit trees, and, posteriorly, a tennis court. It was Jean Roland-Billecart, the fifth generation and François's father, who decided to convert it to another use: he identified the best part of it to make it a specialized vineyard, planting pinot noir; later, it was François himself, who succeeded him in 1992 in running the estate, who walled it off by making it a clos.

Jean was an innovator and revolutionized the quality of the Maison's wines. In 1958 he succeeded his father Charles at the reins of the winery, and inspired by the production methods of the master brewers of the north, he introduced slow fermentation at a low temperature and cold debourbage in steel cuves into champagnization: two techniques that are still the hallmark of the Maison today. It was also Jean who created the Rosé for which Billecart is still famous today with the brilliant intuition of also using vins de réserve of pinot noir vinified in red to blend the cuvée: the very vineyards of the future clos, with their happy southeastern exposure, would produce the red wines needed to create the house's rosé champagne.

In the early 1990s, it was the turn of François Roland-Billecart, the sixth generation of the Mareuil-sur-Ay family, to devote himself to the plot. The vines were now 30 years old, producing a quality that had been improving over the years. The distinctive and unique characteristics of the terroir had played an important role in this. François, also wanted to make the most of those wines that he felt deserved to express themselves independently. So after 1994 and three decades of meticulous vineyard care, 1995 was an extraordinary vintage: this became the first vintage of this unique cuvée. A pure pinot noir vinified in white and 100% in wood to which François gave the name Clos Saint-Hilaire, in honor of the patron saint of the village of Mareuil-sur-Ay. François made it a model of its kind and was one of the few to meet all the requirements of the law governing the use of the term clos on the label, including, in particular, the presence of a pressoir (press) in situ.

The Clos today

The clos is currently 0.94 hectares in size, facing southeast; it rests on a subsoil of pure craie (chalk), overlain by a layer of clay. Plants are pruned to permanent cordon to naturally limit yields. Since 2022 it has been officially certified organic, and in 2023 it underwent a radical aesthetic and qualitative renovation that transformed it into a kind of natural oasis, a habitat for numerous native species of fauna with 40 trees, hedges and bushes (shelter and home for birds, hedgehogs and insects), several water points that include a small pond for frogs and 4 beehives obtained from old champagne barrels - reconditioned by the Tonnellerie de Champagne - and cared for by beekeepers from Reims. Finally, a laboratory has been installed in the adjoining greenhouse where they experiment with the agricultural practices of biodynamics and permaculture to create herbal teas made from plants and herbs to treat vine diseases and naturally strengthen their immune systems.
Works of art by local Champagne artists and sculptures grace the clos now enclosed by 2.5-meter-high walls that-now as then-affect its microclimate by limiting its maximum temperatures and the entry of outside moisture.

But let's get down on the ground...

The method and innovations 

In charge of the agricultural side is Denis Blée who, similarly to the chef de cave, is the so-called "maitre de vigne" that is, the person responsible for the viticultural management of Billecart's vineyards. In this walled parcel Denis Blée is dedicated to precision viticulture, based on daily observation of the development of the vines and their environment. All processing is subject to strict standards. A weather station transmits real-time data on factors such as air and soil temperature, rainfall and leaf moisture levels. All of this information flows into a highly detailed, plot-specific database that allows meaningful comparisons to be made between growing conditions in different years and the results obtained. Every aspect of management and cultivation at Clos St-Hilaire is clearly organic. Because no herbicides or pesticides from synthetic chemicals are used, the vines are protected only with traditional cover crop treatments, including copper and sulfur against fungal cryptogams (powdery mildew and downy mildew) and horsetail decoctions.

The plant part... 

Denis Blée has also transformed training methods, first of all moving from the classic spurred cordon pruning to the much more restrictive "permanent cordon" pruning, which aims to achieve annual growth in stem diameter. This increases the lymph flow within and, somewhat like an old fruit tree, the vine produces fewer grapes, but the clusters it brings to maturity have more flavor and substance, since it is the stem that brings these qualities." 

He also experimented with grassing for the first time. By stabilizing the soil, the grass prevents erosion, and the roots help break up the soil and oxygenate it. This restores the natural life cycle of the soil and with it that of the soil microorganisms that live in symbiosis with the roots of the vines.

... and the animal part : traction

Agricultural maintenance also involves what is known as "ecological mowing": every year, immediately after the grape harvest, four sheep are let loose in the vineyard and remain there until the first cold weather. There they graze the grass and fertilize the soil, stimulating microbial life with their droppings.

In addition, the tillage of the clos soils is carried out by draft horses in a way that promotes drainage, avoiding compaction and improving biodiversity as the roots of the plants go deeper so that the minerals and trace elements extracted from the soil and subsoil contribute to the formation of smaller and more concentrated clusters that are better able to express the typical characteristics of this truly unique place. It is not only a way to improve quality: it also represents the revival of traditional methods of working the vineyards, passed down from generation to generation, and brings work on the land back to the relationship between the farmer and his horse.

The result

Ultimately, the yield of this unusual plot rarely exceeds 6,000 kilos (4,500 bottles), compared to 12,000 for a standard plot - clearly reflecting the Maison's determination to bring out all of the expressive force of this unique terroir.

Their selective approach is not limited to the vineyard and is carried over to the cellar. The Maison doesn't release all vintages but only the very best, which undergo several selection steps.

The reason behind this extremely rigorous selection process is that there is no blending, and the wine is only produced from the vines of a single plot.

This is what brings amazing complexity into the glass and makes Le Clos Saint-Hilaire a distinctive, powerful, full-bodied wine with excellent aging potential. It's a champagne meant to be savored and pondered on. 

Velier has been working for more than 50 years with three generations of the family owning the Maison, and today imports and sells about thirty bottles of Billecart-Salmon Clos Saint-Hilaire every year. 

Photo of the Clos Saint-Hilaire: © Leif Carlsson

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