Behind the Bottle: Salon Champagne

Salon is a Champagne produced from the same vineyards, under an almost-unchanged vinification regime, for a century. Adam Lechmere charts the rise of an exclusive blanc de blancs that was once handed out for free

Words by Adam Lechmere

The story of Salon is an extraordinary one, even by Champagne standards. The inspiration of a remarkable character, the fur trader and Parisian bon viveur Eugène-Aimé Salon, it has weathered the vicissitudes of the 20th century, fortune, neglect and decline with barely a dent to its reputation.

Salon today – there is one wine, Salon Cuvee ‘S’ Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs, with its distinctive green label and serpentine capital – has been produced from the same vineyards, under an almost-unchanged vinification regime, for a century. Central to the legend of the house is the story of a young French soldier, Bernard de Nonancourt, who in 1945 blew open the cellar at the Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s Bavarian retreat, and found thousands of looted bottles of Salon 1928. He never forgot that moment, and decades later, as head of Laurent Perrier, he was able to buy Salon along with the next-door house, Champagne Delamotte.

In a world where Champagne is synonymous with excess, Salon (though it’s by no means cheap) seems to embody a more restrained way of going about things. It’s very much a purist’s Champagne: anyone can buy Dom Pérignon but having Salon in your cellar implies exclusivity and a certain sense of style.

Salon’s famous salinity comes from the chalk terroir of Le Mesnil

The origins of Salon

Eugène-Aimé Salon, a Champenois by birth, decided to make a Champagne that would bear his name. He enlisted his brother-in-law Marcel Guillaume, a chef de cave for a small producer, to help him find the best Chardonnay plots in the region. This was in the late 19th century, when the idea of making a single-varietal Champagne was an extraordinary one.

Salon hit on his hometown of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger as the finest land for the grape and set about making his wine, stipulating it must spend at least years on its lees – again, an alien concept in the region: the blended wines of the time couldn’t withstand long ageing, and in any case economic reality meant the wines needed to get to the market as soon as possible. In addition, received wisdom at the time had it that only Pinot Noir could age. Salon’s insight was that Chardonnay, given the right conditions, could develop structure and a superb texture.

His 1905 vintage was the first blanc de blancs ever produced. Indeed, the term ‘Blanc de Blancs’ didn’t become current for many years: a 1928 menu at Maxim’s in Paris lists ‘Salon & Cie, Mesnil Nature, Cuvée Pure de Raisins Blancs 1921, Vin de Grand Cru (Blanc de Blancs)’; a couple of years later, the Reims Trade Register mentions ‘Salon Mesnil Nature ‘Blanc de Blancs’ de cépages nobles de la Montagne Blanche 1929’.

Rarity, of course, does wonders for a wine’s desirability

There are very, very few of those early bottles left. Audrey Campos, Salon’s head of brand development, says. ‘The oldest vintage we have in Le Mesnil is one bottle of Salon 1921; then 1928 (two bottles); there are no bottles from the 1930s, then four bottles of 1943.’

According to Corney & Barrow, Salon’s UK agent, no-one quite knows what inspired the urbane M Salon, who must have cut an exotic figure amongst the vineyards – ‘gliding past horse and cart in his Hispano-Suiza J12’. It was certainly not money, as the first vintages were made in minuscule quantities. The bottles went to family and friends but in due course Salon was persuaded to take the venture onto the market. He bought his first vineyard in Le Mesnil, Le Jardin de Salon, as it still is, and Guillaume sourced fruit from another 19 parcels.

Didier Depond has been president of Champagne Salon and Champagne Delamotte since 1997

Champagne Salon’s reputation grew and it became a staple of the gilded life in Paris in the interwar years – it seems no party was complete without the unique Blanc de Blancs. Salon himself died in 1943 and 20 years later the house was sold to Champagne Besserat de Bellefon (which became part of Pernod Ricard) and then bought by Laurent Perrier in 1989, satisfyingly for its president Bernard de Nonancourt, who apparently never forgot finding that great cache of Salon in Hitler’s lair.

Salon has been blessed by good fortune; it suffered neglect that might have sunk another brand. Up to the late 1980s, for example, Pernod Ricard gave it away free to restaurants. Didier Depond, president of Champagne Salon and Champagne Delamotte since 1997, remembers, as a young salesman for Salon’s new owner Laurent Perrier, visiting the Hotel Raphael in Paris. ‘I offered the sommelier some bottles of Salon and he said, “Salon? I don’t pay for that”. If he bought 100 bottles of Besserat de Bellefon then he’d get six or 12 bottles of Salon for free.’ Pernod, Depond adds, had no idea what a jewel it had in its portfolio.

This salinity, this level of acidity in Le Mesnil is unique. It’s why everybody tells you their Chardonnay is from there

Today, Salon is one of the world’s most fêted wines. Vintages are released at no less than £1,500 a bottle and find their way quickly onto the secondary market, where rare vintages change hands for twice that and more. Rarity, of course, does wonders for a wine’s desirability. While other great houses produce millions of bottles, Salon makes no more than 60,000 per year and then only in great years. There have been 44 vintages released in the house’s 120-year history; the 2013 is the seventh vintage of the 21st century.


'In the cellar we have vintages for the next 15 years. For us, 20 years is tomorrow,' says Depond

What goes into making Salon?

The original plots identified by Guillaume are still providing the grapes – except for one, Clos de Mesnil, which was bought by Champagne Krug in 1971. The original one-hectare Jardin de Salon remains unchanged (it was last replanted in 2002). No barrels are used. ‘Alain [Terrier, former oenologist who left in 2004 to be replaced by Michel Fauconnet] and I never liked barrels. They are an enemy to freshness.’ Depond attributes Salon’s legendary precision and leanness to stainless steel: ‘We’ve used steel tanks since the beginning of the 1980s, which is why the wines are so clean and precise.’ Salon’s equally famous salinity, of course, comes from the chalk terroir of Le Mesnil. ‘This salinity, this level of acidity in Le Mesnil is unique. It’s why everybody tells you their Chardonnay is from there,’ Depond says, and adds with a smile, ‘But I know how many hectares there are.’ The wine undergoes no malolactic fermentation and is aged for an average of ten years on lees, as decreed by M Salon; dosage is between five and seven grams per litre.

How did the design come about?

The first label, the 1905, was designed by Salon himself. It’s deceptively restrained and unadorned but you can clearly see the nascent serifs on the ‘S’. This label endured for more than half a century, until the 1971 vintage, when the new bottle shape was introduced. The label too was radically redesigned, the famous serifs stretched and enhanced to be more art deco than anything designed in the 1920s. Collectors should note that vintages 1971 and 1973 were put into both the original and the new bottle shape. As the years progressed the design has become minimal; the deep green background appeared in 1982, while ‘A Salon’ became simply ‘Salon’.

Fifteen years ago, the Chardonnay would be brought in at the middle or end of September; now it's the end of August

Salon today

As Depond told Club Oenologique, very little has changed – although harvests are getting earlier and earlier as the climate changes. Depond notes that ten or 15 years ago, the Chardonnay would be brought in at the middle or end of September; now it is the end of August. This has no effect on the style, he insists: ‘The quality of the grapes is exactly the same.’

But a warmer climate brings its own problems, notably the change in vegetation. Depond has noticed more Mediterranean vegetation (‘slowly, slowly’) appearing, and with that a variety of different insects, new types of ladybird for example, which bring new vine diseases. ‘So we have to be very careful’.

Will Salon be producing vintages more and more regularly as the century progresses (as do other Champagne houses – notably Dom Pérignon, which declared 10 between 2000 and 2013)? ‘I don’t expect more frequent vintages in the next 20 years,’ Depond says. ‘In the cellar today we have the vintages for the next 15 years. For us, 20 years is tomorrow.’