- Champagne Salon, 1996
A very special day took place in our household recently – so special it called for something particularly indulgent to celebrate! For a while now the Champagne House Salon has fascinated me and this was the perfect excuse to seek out a bottle…
What captivates me about Salon in addition to the fact they have only released 37 vintages in the last 100 years, is that the founder, Eugène-Aimé Salon, introduced blanc de blancs Champagne to the world. Blanc de blancs is made only from Chardonnay grapes rather than the traditional trinity of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Using only Chardonnay grapes gives blanc de blancs Champagne an indulgent richness and creaminess.
When we tasted the 1996 Salon we kept it simple and paired it with a ripe creamy French cheese and baguette. The youth of the wine (yes, at 17 years this is considered a young Salon!) was expressed with the fresh apple, citrus fruits and Manuka honey that dominated the palate with only hints of secondary characteristics – toasted almonds, brioche and mushrooms. What a beautiful wine – fresh and clean on the palate with its rich creamy mousse and fine bead (stream of bubbles) – it certainly didn’t disappoint!
Monsieur Salon produced his first blanc de blancs in 1905 for family and friends before releasing the first commercial vintage in 1921.  Salon only uses grapes from the village Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, south of Epernay in the Champagne region. The village sits on soil that has deep layers of chalk, which retain moisture and help protect the vines from the numerous challenges associated with the climate of the region. In all there are 20 vineyard sites in Le Mesnil that provide grapes to Salon with an average vine age of 35 years. 
Salon Champagne is made to age for many years and to ensure the wines age accordingly grapes of very high acidity are used. This in part comes from the grapes being grown in Le Mesnil, the soil and location, and also because the wines are not allowed to go through malolactic fermentation. Champagne has a cool Continental climate, that is to say there is a significant difference in temperature between the summer and winter months. For the vines it means they can sometimes struggle to ripen their grapes and are likely to produce grapes that are high in acid. Malolactic fermentation is a process by which malic acid in wine is converted to lactic acid by bacteria. Malic acid is the tart acid found, for example, in apples, while the creamier lactic acid can be found in dairy products. By ensuring malolactic fermentation does not occur, a wine with higher acidity can be achieved.
In very general terms when Champagne is produced a still wine is created and then put through a second fermentation, where a liqueur de tirage of wine, sugar, yeast and a clarifying agent is added to each bottle of the still wine. A crown cap seals the bottle before it is stacked horizontally. As the yeast converts the sugar in the wine to alcohol, CO2 is created as a by-product of this conversion. The CO2 dissolves into the wine creating the bubbles for which Champagne is famous.
When the fermentation has completed the dead yeast cells, or lees, form a sediment in the bottle. Prior to final bottling, the bottles are gently angled such that the neck of the bottle is on a downward slant, letting gravity move the sediment downwards towards the top of the bottle. The neck is then frozen and the crown cap seal removed. The pressure in the bottle causes the frozen sediment to pop out of the neck in a process called Disgorgement. The wine is topped up with a mixture of wine and cane sugar before the final seal, the cork, is quickly inserted capturing the bubbles inside.
Some of the aromas Champagne is famous for are brioche and yeast aromas. This is due to the wine being allowed to sit on lees for a period of time after the second fermentation has completed and before disgorgement. In the case of Salon, the wine sits on lees for at least 10 years, before being disgorged. During this time the dead yeast cells eventually break down and impart these bread and yeast flavours to the wine, creating layer upon layer of aromas and flavours.
Perhaps the only unfortunate thing about this wonderful experience is that now I have tasted a young Salon I am very curious as to how the 1996 might taste in five years time and then again when it is mature and showing age – a very dangerous fascination indeed!
Champagne Salon, 1996
Pale gold colour. Aromas of green apple, lemon, Manuka honey and brioche followed by a hint of sautéed mushrooms. On the palate high acid with a rich mousse and a lively fine bead. Flavours of golden delicious apple, honey, lemon and ruby grapefruit. Medium plus finish with hints of toasted almonds.
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Perrier-Jouët, Belle Époque, 2006
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Gillam, M. Champagne Profile: A Rare Jewel, pp 65 – 66. Gourmet Traveller Wine Magazine. Sydney: Bauer Media Group
Wine & Spirit Education Trust (2011). Wines and Spirits, Understanding Style and Quality. London: Wine & Spirit Education Trust.
Johnson, H. & Robinson, J. (2007). The World Atlas of Wine. Great Britain: Mitchell Beazley.
6 thoughts on “A Cause for Celebration – 1996 Salon Champagne”
Hi Simone, being a non drinker I know diddly about wine, but your descriptions made me hungry! I’m off to get myself some honey, fruit, mousse and mushrooms 🙂 Andrea
ps. Tom says Hi.
Glad you liked it – thanks for stopping by! 🙂
Nice work. Salon one of the best in 96 in my opinion but as you say, needs time still.
Thanks! Yes it was certainly special but I am very curious to try and taste it again in the years to come 🙂
It was a pleasure to read your article. I was very fortunate to get 4 bottles of 1996 on release. I have two left. What I can tell you about the wine is that in my view it was released too early. The general philosophy of Champagne Salon was not to release a vintage until the wine is ready for drinking. The 1996 was hard to drink when it was released because of the extraordinarily high levels of acidity. To be honest I wondered whether I had invested wisely. I tried a second bottle 4 years ago and the maturity and complexity was starting to appear with the different elements coming into balance. I plan to open the next one in 2014 which was when I thought it might start expressing itself fully. I was excited at the prospect and I am now looking forward to next year all the more, it seems that it could be as spectacular as I imagined it would be all those years ago.
That sounds wonderful – lucky you! Please be sure to come back next year and share with us how the 1996 is drinking!