Champagne JM Sélèque, Pierry

Champagne J-M Sélèque label

Country & RegionFrance, Champagne, Pierry
ProducerJean-Marc Sélèque

Jean-Marc Sélèque is one of the brightest young stars in Champagne!
         –John Gilman, A View from the Cellar, issue 69, July 2017

Jean-Marc Sélèque (say-lek) returned to Pierry in 2008 after internships at Chandon’s facilities in Napa Valley and in Australia’s Yarra Valley with a vision of what he wanted to do, and didn’t want to do at Champagne JM Sélèque. The latter was reinforced by his experiences at those two large production operations, where vineyard practices resulted in all manner of “corrections” having to be made in the cellar. The positive ideas were simple, but labor intensive: in the vines, shallow plowing of rows by horse or tractor for weed control; reducing yields by careful pruning; organic and biodynamic applications to boost the health of soil and vine.

In the cellar, he moved to much slower and more gentle fermentations, something he considers key for flavor and texture. He did this by lowering the temperature and working more with wild yeast (a lot of his fermentations are wild, but he’s not orthodox about that). He instituted longer ageing on the lees for all the cuvées, both in barrel or tank and subsequently in bottle for the secondary fermentation (that bottling is now done at the end of July following the harvest, which is a long and relaxed period of time for young wine to come together). He did away with fining, and gradually did away with filtration (completely stopping in 2015 when his new cellar gave him the measure of control he needed). Finally, because his farming reforms resulted in better maturity in his grapes, he lowered the level of sugar in the final dosage. The dosage and other specifics are admirably detailed on Jean-Marc’s back labels.

Jean-Marc Seleque of Champagne J-M Sélèque

Fundamentally, these ideas evolved from friendships with fellow reform-minded growers, who insisted that the road to authenticity would only be found by working closely with one’s vines, rather than from his enological studies. Currently, Champagne is arguably the most dynamic wine region in France—a country where almost nothing viticulturally is standing still any more—and it would be accurate to view Jean-Marc at the vanguard of this shift toward more artisanal farming and production. What may be most impressive, however, is how he has implemented his ideas with such openness and quiet confidence. He has taken the counsel of a who’s who list of cutting edge growers in Champagne, befriended many of them, and he makes a habit of visiting their ilk in the Loire Valley and in Burgundy. Likewise, he routinely receives fellow growers to his domain.

The domain began in 1965, when Jean-Marc’s grandfather started planting vines with the aid of his father-in-law (then the president of the Pierry co-op). Subsequently Jean-Marc’s father joined the domain in 1974 after acquiring a degree in enology, and he did much to update the winery and augment its vineyard holdings.

When Jean-Marc came on board in 2008, he turned the domain toward the organic viticulture he envisioned. In 2010, he started working biodynamically, and now all of his parcels are farmed organically and receive some biodynamic preparations, a fact that he doesn’t make much fuss about because for him it’s not about the label so much as it is about making better wine. (He has not gone for certification because he doesn’t want to be straitjacketed into using copper sulfites when, under certain conditions, a synthetic fungicide might be more benign.) Separately, he stopped his father’s practice of selling some grapes to négociants, and he began to acquire more oak vessels for fermentation and ageing on the lees. Today the ratio of oak to steel in the cellar is roughly 60/40, with the steel tanks being used primarily for the younger, fruitier Solessence and Solessence Rosé. He is, however, moving more toward oak every vintage. He has been selling off his 228-liter barrels of late in favor of 350 and 600-liter barrels for fermentation and barrel aging.  For certain younger vineyard parcels, he uses 20-hectoliter foudres, plus he’s experimenting with amphora and cigar barrels of various sizes (so-called because of their elongated shape). He’s played with a concrete egg but that vessel hasn’t impressed him. About the egg, he writes: “Concrete egg is good if you need to recover from a pretty unbalanced shape of wine, such as a big or dry tannic wine (like cab franc) or high alcohol white wine. It basically makes the wine age faster, keeps the freshness but not the tension, brings more body but without shape, it makes the wine more drinkable but not with better texture. So I stopped using it for top juices; now I use it for the Tailles of Meunier or Pinot Noir. It’s perfect for that.”

These days, the grapes are decidedly in better health and are harvested with lower pHs and higher acidities (one result of healthier soils and deeper roots). As a result, beginning in 2011 Jean-Marc stopped the practice of introducing malolactic fermentation in barrel. Given the low pH, which greatly inhibits malo, this was easily done. Thus, increasingly, some wines have no ML, while some have a part, and some continue to have the ML completely realized.

The domain has 22 acres of vines which grow in 45 parcels and lie across 7 different villages. The average vine age is a notable 40 years of age (positively wizened by Champagne standards!). Most of the vines grow in the communes of Pierry and then Moussy, followed by Epernay, Mardeuil, Dizy, Vertus, and Boursault. Some 50% of the vines are Chardonnay; 40% are Pinot Meunier; and 10% are Pinot Noir. Total annual production is around 5,500 cases.

Champagne J-M Sélèque vineyards

Pierry, with Moussy, is in Les Côteaux Sud d’Epernay, a zone delimited in 1996 and located just south and southwest of Epernay. It’s a small, branching valley with thirteen villages tucked between the Marne Valley to the north and the Côtes des Blancs to the east. The Côtes des Blancs is known, of course, for Chardonnay; Aÿ, to the northeast in the Marne, is known for Pinot Noir; and Mardeuil, to the northwest in the Marne, is known for Pinot Meunier. The Côteaux Sud has all three varieties, with Chardonnay predominating, followed closely by Meunier, and then Pinot Noir. Expositions are to the south and southeast, promoting the possibility of good maturity in the grapes, but the valley hillsides fold and twist and give considerable diversity. Then there’s the soil: the chalk here is less dense than on the Côte des Blancs, and it usually has two to three feet of clay topsoil mixed with varying amounts of limestone, schist, flint and marl (although mid-slope in Pierry the topsoil is only 8-12 inches above the chalk). The result is Chardonnay that tends to be fuller, softer, and fruitier than that from the Côtes des Blancs, thanks to the clay (but still mineral, thanks to the chalk); Meunier that is ripe yet more elegant and more mineral than that from Mardeuil; and Pinot Noir that veers from fine to full, depending on the site. The vineyards in the Côteaux Sud represent 4% of the total in Champagne.

Pierry, by the way, historically was as noted as Dom Perignon’s village of Hautvillers was back in the Dom’s day. This was because of a younger contemporary Benedictine monk, one Brother Oudart, who farmed in Pierry and made his own contributions to the making of Champagne (it was he who standardized the key step of liqueur de tirage).

Today Jean-Marc divides his Champagnes into three ranges. First comes the Solessence range for the base level blends, with the lot number on the back referencing the base vintage. “Solessence” refers to the essence of soil, and there’s an extra-brut, a brut nature, and a rosé. Next comes the vintage-dated Soliste range: a range that since vintage 2015 is dedicated to unique terroirs within Jean-Marc’s commune of Pierry. Each wine comes from one site, one grape, and one vintage. The third tier is made of two proprietarily-named wines: Quintette and Partition. Quintette is Jean-Marc’s Blanc de Blancs, a Chardonnay from five mature sites. Up to 2014, this was effectively a vintage wine (see lot number), while starting with 2014 the wine has 20-30% reserve wine from a solera aging in foudre; thus the lot number will then refer to the base vintage. Partition is Jean-Marc’s one blended vintage wine.

Champagne J-M Sélèque vineyards

In 2015, just in time for the harvest, Jean-Marc moved to a brand new cellar on the outskirts of Pierry. The cellar was designed to allow him to transfer wine via gravity, and it has much more room than his previous digs, which in turn allowed him to buy more containers of various sizes, be they steel or wood or concrete, to do specific fermentations of small lots of grapes. And this cellar gave him the opportunity to invest in a new press designed specifically for sparkling wine production and considered by many to be the finest available. It’s a Coquard press, a pressoir automatique à plateau incliné, or PAI. It does the same job as the widely used and much respected traditional vertical press, but more efficiently and with far less exposure to oxygen. Thus in 2015 Jean-Marc was able to lower his additions of SO2 during the pressing and fermentations by a full 25% compared to 2014 (and this is a man who has always used the least possible amounts of SO2). Going forward, total SO2 in the Sélèque wines is 20-30 mg/l.

Above is Jean-Marc in the winter of 2018, at the base of his parcel of Les Charmes in Pierry.

Video of Growing Season 2017 chez Sélèque.

The Wines

Blend based on Chardonnay, then Meunier, followed by Pinot NoirSolessence represents nearly half of the total house production, coming in at some 3,000 cases. It also roughly mirrors the house plantations, orginating in all seven communes where Jean-Marc grows vines. The grapes for this wine come from the domain’s younger vines, which average 40 years of age (that, it must be said, would constitute the old vine selection for most Champagne properties!) Half the blend comes from a perpetual reserve, so-named because half of this older wine goes into the blending tank with the new harvest, and then half of that new blend is returned to the 20-hectoliter foudre to replenish the perpetual reserve. The new wine is raised primarily in steel with some in wood, and then time on the lees in bottle depends on the bottle size: three years for 375ml; two years for 750ml; four years for 1.5L; and five years for 3L. The lot number on the back label is the base vintage.

Solessence NatureBlend based on Chardonnay, then Meunier, followed by Pinot NoirThis is the same wine as Solessence NV but aged for three more years for a total of five years on its lees (for the 750mls), and it's bottled with zero dosage. Jean-Marc makes this for shellfish, seafood, and sushi. The aromatics are provocative, the body is broad and creamy, and the finish is decidedly dry. The lot number on the back is the vintage. Production averages 300 cases.

Solessence RoséThe Solessence blend with around 10% of the Meunier Infusion plus 5% of still Pinot Noir
An unusually complex rosé made with a blend of reds--Meunier from his parcel of Les Charmes macerated over two days and Pinot Noir still wine from Les Gayères--blended into the Solessence cuvée along with 40% reserve wine. The lot number is the base vintage. Production averages 550 cases.
QuintetteChardonnayJean-Marc’s only blanc de blancs*, from five mature plantations in the Marne Valley, the Côte des Blancs, and Pierry. Approximately half the wine is raised in steel with natural malolactic fermentation, and half is raised in older barrels without ML. The cold stabilization is completed naturally, and there is neither fining nor filtration. In July, after a long, gentle aging following the harvest, the wine is blended with 20-30% Chardonnay from a solera (unlike the perpetual cuvée, the solera is replenished strictly with the new harvest) and goes into bottle to rest on its lees until it is disgorged. The lot number on the back is the base vintage. Annual production averages 325 cases.

*Apart from a one-off production of 377 bottles of a Soliste Chardonnay from the Dizy Moque Bouteilles Vineyard done in 2013.
Soliste Pinot Noir VintagePinot NoirOne of three cuvées in the Soliste range, each a single variety and vintage coming from a distinct, mature parcel in the premier cru commune of Pierry. In this case, it's Pinot Noir from a parcel planted in 1975 from sélection massales in Les Gayères, a mid-slope site on the windy Pierry hillside noted for deep clay and flintstones on top of Campanian chalk. The parcel is plowed by a horse. Made in barrel, this blanc de noirs is aged in bottle under cork. Production averages 125 cases.
Soliste Meunier Vintage Pinot MeunierThis blanc de noirs comes from a Pierry premier cru hillside vineyard named Les Gouttes d’Or planted with sélection massales in 1951. The topsoil is an ochre clay with significant flint deposits on top of the Campanian chalk, elevations are in the lower-slope range of 100-110 meters, and the parcel is plowed by horse. This may be Jean-Marc's finest parcel of Meunier, growing in a site historically known for the varietal, making a wine with great elegance and precision.

This is raised in 300-350 liter barrels without malolactic fermentation, The cold stabilization is completed naturally, and there is neither fining nor filtration. The wine is aged under cork on its lees in bottle for a minimum of 36 months before disgorgement. Annual production averages 150 cases.
Soliste Infusion Meunier Vintage

Pinot MeunierA rosé of Pinot Meunier from a parcel of Les Charmiers located upslope of Pierry's hillside on a very windy ridge. These sélections massales vines were planted in 1964. The grapes were de-stemmed, macerated without crushing for 24 hours (like making tea, Jean-Marc says), then pressed. What goes into this bottle are those vats of the best juice from the pressing. Raised in barrel then put into bottle under cork to age on its lees for four years. This is a rosé for the table. Production is some 100 cases annually.

Blend dominated by Chardonnay, with Meunier and Pinot NoirMusic is central in the Sélèque family; Jean-Marc grew up playing guitar while his father continues to play piano. The treble clef on the Partition label is indeed inverted—to make the S of the family name. With each vintage, the score on the label changes to a different song to reflect something that happened that year. Millésime 2012, for example, has Jimi Hendrix's Changes, because Jean-Marc instituted a series of changes in how he worked that year.

Partition is Jean-Marc's creation. Seven barrels from seven vineyard sites, always the same sites each year. Les Frileux in Epernay gives Chardonnay; Moque-Bouteille in Dizy gives Chardonnay; La Justice in Vertus gives Chardonnay; Basses Ronces in Mardeuil gives Chardonnay; Les Porgeons, Les Gouttes d'Or, and Les Gayères in Pierry give, respectively, Chardonnay, Meunier, and Pinot Noir. The blend is dominated by Chardonnay, with Meunier and Pinot Noir (specifics for a given year are on the back label).

Ageing on the lees is for four to five years. Significantly, beginning with the 2010 vintage, this ageing is done in bottle with a cork closure rather than with the typical beer cap closure (Jacquesson also ages on cork). A cork allows more of an exchange of oxygen in the beginning before the secondary fermentation begins, but once that begins and the pressure builds up within a bottle, a cork becomes less permeable than a cap. The end result is a more textured and more complex wine.

Partition is bottled without fining or filtration. Production is 125 cases.
Partition 2nd ReadingBlend dominated by Chardonnay, with Meunier and Pinot NoirThis is the one late-disgorged wine that Jean-Marc does, and it began with the 2008 vintage of Partition. He held back a small amount of that wine, aged it for ten years under crown cap before disgorgement late in 2018. He released 240 bottles in 2019 as Partition 2ème Lecture.