Creating ‘Champagne with muscle’ at Clos des Goisses

Charles Philipponnat speaks about the historic Champagne house's 'Burgundian' approach with Clos des Goisses and shares what's in store in the latest trio of releases from Philipponnat's prized plot

Words by Sophia Longhi In partnership with Justerini & Brooks

philipponnat clos de goisses champagne on table in vineyard

It’s not often these days that you hear a wine producer say they’re not looking for elegance. With the whole wine world seemingly seeking out this prized jewel above all else, it almost stops you in your tracks to hear Charles Philipponnat say that about his family’s sparklers. ‘It sounds like it would be hard to say. When you make Champagne, it’s like committing suicide [when you say that]. But we don’t want elegance in Clos des Goisses. We want power and balance; we want something with muscle,’ he says.

I’m meeting Charles Philipponnat, who represents the 15th generation of the historic family Champagne house, over Zoom to discuss the grande marque’s latest launches – part of an annual cycle of vintage releases, and with cuvées from Clos des Goisses among them.

Charles Philipponnat, part of the 15th generation of the Champagne dynasty

Philipponnat’s famed Clos des Goisses vineyard in Mareuil-sur-Ay is one of the warmest terroirs in the region – and a Champagne icon. Situated on a fully south-facing slope, which varies from 35 to 45 degrees, Clos des Goisses gets sunshine all day without an inch of shade, resulting in ripe grapes in any kind of vintage. But, because the slope is pure chalk, the ripeness is matched with a distinctive mineral character. ‘It’s the special kind of balance that we get from very ripe grapes on very, very calcareous soil,’ says Philipponnat. ‘It’s both fruity and fresh at the same time, and it retains sufficient acidity. Because the terroir gives us that, that’s where we push it.’

The Champagne house might be renowned for its focus on Pinot Noir, but when Charles Philipponnat’s great uncle Pierre bought Clos de Goisses from the Bouché family back in 1935, it was a Chardonnay vineyard. After being reconstituted in the 1950s, more Pinot Noir was planted. ‘Pinot Noir is the grape of Mareuil-sur-Ay and Ay,’ says Philipponnat. ‘Pinot Noir is the varietal that needs the most heat in Champagne and that’s what it gets in Clos des Goisses, so that’s why the balance shifted. It’s less affected by spring frosts because it’s so steep. The cold air tends to trickle down, therefore it’s very positive for Pinot Noir.’

close de goisses plot at philippponnat with horse on land

Clos des Goisses is credited as the first single-vineyard Champagne in history, bottled by Charles Philipponnat’s great uncle in 1935. From 1988, Philipponnat began making a vintage of Clos des Goisses every year.

‘The concept of a single vineyard and single vintage is Burgundian,’ says Philipponnat, ‘and the result, with the objective of good ripeness and strong, generous fruit, is Burgundian as well. Our Champagne is a wine. When I say Clos des Goisses is Burgundian, that’s what I mean.’

We’ve always felt that since Clos des Goisses belongs to the Burgundian philosophy, it deserves to be released every year

For the last six years, Philipponnat has released the new vintages of Clos des Goisses on a set date each year, and on 21 September 2023 three new cuvées will be revealed: Clos des Goisses Extra-Brut 2014; L.V. Clos des Goisses Extra-Brut 1998 and Les Cintres Extra-Brut 2012.

‘Since we make Clos des Goisses every year, this is a yearly rendezvous, just like you would have with the Bordeaux châteaux,’ says Philipponnat. ‘Most Champagne houses can’t do that or they don’t want to do that because they don’t want to declare a vintage every year, but we’ve always felt that since Clos des Goisses was such an exceptional vineyard, and since Clos de Goisses belongs to the Burgundian philosophy, it deserves to be released every year.’

riddling the champagne in the cellar at philipponnat

So what can we expect from the latest vintage? According to Philipponnat, 2014 was a ‘good, cool vintage’. ‘Funnily enough,’ he says, ‘in spite of global warming, we had two cool vintages in a row in 2013 and 2014.’ However, the vintages have their differences. ‘2014 is not completely similar to 2013. It’s similar in terms of acidity – that good, crisp, fresh acidity – yet 2013 was a small yield vintage with lots of concentration and a strong, dense body. 2014 is leaner because the yield was higher – it’s more classical, in a way.’

The 2014 Clos des Goisses is a blend of 71% Pinot Noir and 29% Chardonnay. In September we can look forward to a ‘fruit-driven’ wine that displays ‘taut minerality and pleasant salinity.’

More good news: because the yield was higher, there should be more of it to go around compared to other recent vintages. Philipponnat explains that weather conditions in 2010 and 2011, spring frosts in 2012 (nevertheless ‘an excellent vintage, probably the best in the last 20 years’) and bad flowering in 2013 meant they had to be selective. 2014 was almost twice as big in terms of volume. ‘But twice as big is still not much; twice as big is 20,000 bottles instead of 10,000 bottles,’ he adds.

bottle of philipponnat before disgorgement in cellar

A commitment to making a vintage every year is to surrender to what the vintage provides, and the result is a wide variation in quantity from year to year. ‘In some vintages we’ve made as little as 3,000 bottles – 7,000 bottles in 2021 – and up to 25-30,000 bottles when the vintage is favourable,’ says Philipponnat.

Philipponnat is a house adept to working with what they have. ‘Our work as winemakers is not to transform the natural character of the grape but to enhance it,’ says Philipponnat. Malolactic fermentation is avoided in order to conserve the acidity in Clos de Goisses. ‘Since we have a lot of fruit, we are very careful not to have an oxidative style. Clos des Goisses can even be a little reductive in the beginning – we prefer that over oxidative because this will preserve the fruit in the long run.’

For those wishing to uncover a deeper understanding of the ageing journey of Clos des Goisses, they can do so with the 1998 L.V. Clos des Goisses, the most recently disgorged example from the Long Vieillissement (long ageing) programme, which began six years ago with Clos des Goisses 1992. These wines have aged for 25 years on the lees.

Finally, the 2012 Les Cintres is expected to create a stir, as not only is it a much-lauded Champagne vintage, but the single-plot cuvée comes from what is considered to be the heart of Clos des Goisses. ‘It is right in the middle, in the highest and steepest part. Pure Pinot, even lower yield, fully south-facing… it is one of the most singular elements in the Clos des Goisses blend,’ Philipponnat’s export director Thomas Jorez tells me over follow-up email. ‘Some years [like 2012], when the Cintres element has a natural balance and when we have the possibility to isolate a share from the Goisses blend, we do a single bottling.’

With confident wines like these, the rest of the wine world can keep its elegance. Philipponnat is a house of richness and generosity. Even after 500 years in Champagne, it still has so much more to give. ‘I hope we will be here for 500 more,’ says Philipponnat.

The wines of Philipponnat are distributed in the UK by Justerini & Brooks