24 Jan 2012

Two ends of the spectrum (Champagne, France – Day Five)

A common theme across all of my visits in Champagne (both in 2010 and 2012), is the importance of vineyards, and particularly growers. This was the major theme of my first visit of the day. Something even more important in Champagne that I have stumbled upon is the pioneering women of the region, many of whom not only kept houses operating after husbands or fathers perished, but dramatically improving quality. It is undeniable that the largest market for champagne in every market is female consumers, so I feel they are missing out on an opportunity to empower their consumers through communications and messaging about the pioneering spirit of women Champenois. This was a discussion point of my second visit of the day.

Unique cellars at Laurent-Perrier
Deep in the Cotes de Blancs is the village of Vertus, where I had the opportunity to visit Lamarndier-Bernier, a house that is part of the so-called “grower champagne revolution”. As the name implies, a grower champagne producer only uses fruit they grown themselves to produce their wines. Understandably these productions are very small, and thus don’t come anywhere near the large houses in terms of value and marketing clout. Thus they are relying primarily on quality and their alternative nature, and have banded together to create a stronger message. Totally controlling the vineyards allows them to determine every element of the process from soil to bottle, but at the same time they are in the difficult position of being subject to the vicissitudes of vintage on a microscopic scale. Both exhilarating and risky at the same time, this is extreme Champagne.

Larmandier-Bernier, a very different champagne producer
Larmandier-Bernier (imported by grower champagne experts Bibendum Australia) was founded from tragedy in 1982 when Pierre Larmandier’s father tragically passed away, and his mother allowed him to run the business as he saw fit. Having recently completed his studies in Montpellier, Pierre was motivated to transition all the vineyards to biodynamic practices. This is difficult in a less established and/or small scale region, but considering the scale of Champagne and the nature of large houses, this is virtually impossible. The weather conditions make biodynamic conversion difficult and costly, and neighbours considered them crazy. Biodynamic viticulture is one of the cornerstones of the brand however, and ultimately has paid dividends in terms of quality and establishing point of difference in a competitive category.

I get a little excited every time I see some
The winery and cellars are understated to say they least, but bling is not really the call of the day. I was excited to see two cement eggs, seemingly a hallmark of BD wineries… Winemaking is fairly non-interventionist, but there has been increasing fermentation in barrels of varying size, and there is even an Austrian oak foudre purchased a few years ago. Not surprisingly most of the wine is non-vintage, allowing flexibility around the complexity of vintage variation. Pierre has taken a very interesting and unique approach to reserve wines since 2005. Rather than selecting particular base wines to be set aside as reserve, and then selecting various reserve wines in each NV assemblage, he blends a reserve wine each year. This reserve wine includes a portion of the previous years reserve blend, reminiscent of a solera system. Using this system minimises storage space and means there is no chance of reserving wine that may never be used.

Some base wines are aged in large casks
The rose is one of the few saignee styles made in Champagne, and comes from 1er cru fruit. It is quite dark for a champagne rose, and aromatically has similar dark berry characters coupled with subtle cheesy game aromas. It floats nicely between freshness and complexity, making it a versatile aperitif or food wine. The Tradition 1er Cru is a blend of 10% pinot noir and 90% chardonnay, and with full malo has lovely creamy sweet yoghurt lees autolysis character. It has delicious fresh cumquat citrus fruit flavours, but also a nice slightly savoury baked filo pastry element. The Blanc de Blancs 1er Cru in comparison has more creaminess in the citrus fruit, and almost non-alcoholic apple cider sweetness.

A painting found in the cellars of Larmandier-Bernier
Most vintage champagne I had tried wasn’t younger than 2005, so it was refreshing (pun intended) to try a younger wine in the Terre de Vertus 2007 1er Cru Blanc de Blancs. With no dosage liqueur there was very chalky green apple fruitiness on the nose, with a hint of salted cashews underneath. On the palate there was much fuller texture and depth than the NV wines, the apple picking up some custard elements. This became more vanilla and caramel in the Vielle de Cramant Grand Cru 2006, introducing more pear and orange fruit to the mix. The Grand Cru also had serious complexity and length on it, hinting at its matchability with food. To finish Pierre had a 1997 Terre de Vertus that he had disgorged the previous day, and although the colour had barely changed the nose and palate was evolving into a much more tertiary area; hints of marmalade, mushrooms, roasted nuts and vintage cheddar.

The range of wines tasted at Larmandier-Bernier
After a brief lunch in Epernay I headed back to Laurent-Perrier in Tours-Sur-Marne for my rescheduled appointment. Laurent-Perrier was probably the largest house I visited on this trip, being third in total value behind Moet & Chandon and Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin. This made quite an interesting comparison for the day, from managing a handful of vineyards and cuvees, to vastly more. Several key elements unified these two houses. The first as already mentioned is they are both family-owed. This feeds into their second similarity, which is their commitment to quality. The third is their similar approach to making rose, in the saignee style, which Laurent-Perrier in particular is famous for.

Laurent-Perrier turns 200 this year, which is pretty amazing considering that Australia was settled by the British 24 years before this. The original founder, Alphonse Pierlot was a former cooper and bottler who purchased vineyards in Tours-Sur-Marne, the home of Laurent-Perrier. The successor to Alphonse was his cellarmaster, Eugene Laurent, who ran the house with his wife, Mathilde Emilie Perrier. When Eugene died in 1887 it was up to his widow to take over the operations of the house, and like many other houses in Champagne it was thanks to her that the quality and prestige of the house improved. Also like other houses, Laurent-Perrier suffered the difficulties of the early 20th Century and was forced to sell to the Lanson de Nonancourt family, and the surviving son of Mary-Louise Bernard took the house to where it is today, only passing away last year.

The map of Champagne at Laurent-Perrier
As already mentioned, the Laurent-Perrier group also owns other houses including Delamotte and Salon. The facilities therefore are well equipped to handle the processing of large amounts of fruit/juice across numerous brands. The cellarmaster Michael Faucconet (only the third since 1939) oversees the styles of all the different brands, a huge responsibility considering. The style is very much of purity and freshness, and has great focus with a concise range.

Cellars at Laurent-Perrier
The two wines that I appreciated the most from the tasting are both fashionable styles, but are wines that have been made at Laurent-Perrier long before they were trendy. The first is the Ultra Brut, a non-dosage extra dry style (that you may have noticed almost every house now makes), which in the case of Laurent-Perrier has been since 1981. It is very racy and zippy in its acidity, showing the purity and simplicity of good fruit handled well. The other wine that impressed me was of course the Cuvee Rose, which is a deliciously soft, round and textural champagne that is both unashamedly fruit driven yet savoury and food-friendly. Lucky for me I was given a bottle of this as a parting gift, one of the few that my wonderful hosts in Champagne farewelled me with to what was a memorable visit to this unique and misunderstood region.

A bottle of Laurent-Perrier Grand Siecle
Click here to see more photos from Day Five of Champagne, France.

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