Leclerc Briant: a house rejuvenated

I was fan of Leclerc Briant wines back in the days when Pascal Leclerc Briant, the fifth generation of the family involved since the house was founded in 1852, ran the business. His father Bertrand was one of the first to move away from the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and Pascal followed the same path, going further when he began experimenting with biodynamic vine cultivation back in 1970 at a time when such methods were very rare in Champagne.

Leclerc Briant: Frédéric Zeimatt and Hervé Jestin

After ten years farming their Cumières vineyards biodynamically, following the 2000 harvest he decided to convert all the house’s vineyards to biodynamic farming. Before his untimely death in October 2010, the company based in Epernay owned around 30 hectares of vineyards, principally in the crus of Cumières, Hautvillers (both highly regarded premiers crus), Damery and Verneuil, all located to the west of Epernay on the northern side of the Marne Valley, making it the largest bio-dynamic producer of champagne in the appellation.

In 1994 Leclerc Briant was one of the first in Champagne to introduce a number of single vineyard wines under the Collection Les Authentiques label: Les Chèvres Pierreuses, Les Crayères and Le Clos des Champions, each was produced on a different terroir in Cumières and these were serious wines. But he never really achieved the recognition he deserved in his lifetime.

Sadly, after Pascal’s death, his four daughters who inherited the estate couldn’t agree on how it should be run and in the end the vineyards were all sold off. One interesting consequence of the splitting up and sale of the holdings Leclerc Briant built up, was it transformed Louis Roederer, which bought half the estate, into the most significant organic and bio-dynamic grape grower in the appellation overnight. Of the remaining 15 hectares, 13 were sold to Lanson-BCC, with BCC CEO Bruno Paillard keeping two for himself. Lanson is already producing an organically certified champagne (its Green Label launched in 2017) using about half this vineyard, but it isn’t known what Paillard is currently doing with his two hectares.

After the sale of the vineyards, in 2012 the Leclerc Briant brand, the winery and cellars in Epernay’s Rue de la Chaude Ruelle and the remaining stock was purchased by the American investor Mark Nunnelly and his wife Denise Dupré. This couple have become better known in Champagne recently as the owners of luxury hotel Royal Champagne in Champillon, which they purchased in 2014 and completely rebuilt and refurbished, re-opening last month (July 2018). Its restaurant and rooms command arguably the best views in all Champagne over steeply sloping vineyards towards Hautvillers.

At Leclerc Briant they made the wise choice at the outset of making Hervé Jestin, already an experienced bio-dynamic winemaker, the temporary manager of operations. Jestin, who has wide winemaking experience on the international stage including Russian sparkling giant Abrau-Durso and one of England’s finest fizzes, Hambledon Vineyard in Hampshire, had worked with Pascal Leclerc Briant in an advisory capacity for a few years, so he knew the wines. Soon after Frédéric Zeimatt was made general manger, bringing 20 years of experience at Moët & Chandon to the table.

Frédéric Zeimatt

As well as an early involvement in the renovation of Royal Champagne, Zeimatt has overseen the complete refurbishment of the Leclerc Briant cellars and offices on opposite sides of the road in Rue de la Chaude Ruelle — it was a building site last time I visited in November 2015 — and the opening of a new wine shop and five chic guest rooms in April 2017 on Epernay’s Avenue de Champagne.

The range I tasted back in 2015 with Hervé and Frédéric were cuvées based on the first commercial harvest of the new regime, 2012, not a bad vintage to start with. They were all made from biodynamically farmed fruit, vinified and aged in oak barrels and disgorged in June 2015. Of the Brut Réserve, a blend of 65% Meunier, 20% Pinot Noir and 15% Chardonnay, with a very low, Extra Brut, dosage of just 2gm/l, my notes say: while still youthful, deep intensity, buttery note and spicy. Noticeably saline.

‘La Croisette’ is produced from a tiny 0.6ha parcel of land just behind the winery

We also taste the all Chardonnay 2012 based ‘La Croisette’, produced from a tiny 0.6ha parcel of land just behind the winery in Epernay, which has been farmed biodynamically for 40 years with no chemical products put on it. A wine outside most people’s understanding of what Champagne is. Lively and fresh, with a marked savoury note bringing warmth and spice to the mid-palate, there’s also an exotic fruit element.

Leclerc Briant Brut Réserve

Today the Leclerc Briant wines are more widely available. In the UK, five of the current range, including the Brut Réserve (in bottle £43, and half bottle £26) and the all-Chardonnay ‘La Croisette’ £98), are being stocked by Borough Wines (https://boroughwines.co.uk/champagne-sparkling/champagne/ ) . And I understand from Frédéric Zeimatt, Berry Bros & Rudd are also going to be selling some of the wines soon, distributing them in the on-trade via Fields Morris & Verdin.
See also the ‘What I’ve been Tasting’ page.

Earliest harvest ever in Champagne but also a plentiful, ripe crop

While the official Champagne harvest dates announced last Saturday gave this Monday (20 August) as the start date for picking, not Tuesday as has been widely reported, in fact picking began in the Grand Cru of Ambonnay last Friday, 17 August, making it the earliest harvest in Champagne on record.

By the process known as derogation, producers can apply to the local INAO office to start picking earlier than the official start date for any village, if the grapes are already ripe. And at Champagne Andre Beaufort in Ambonnay, where they started picking Pinot Noir last Friday, “we already had 12deg° [potential alcohol] in some plots,” says Réol Beaufort. Commenting on the early start, he also told the local paper l’Union, “we have never seen that before, except in 2003 when we started on 19 August”.

While we have now seen five harvests since the Millennium begin in August, previously the earliest picking began on 18 August 2003, in the Côte des Bars village of Bligny. Prior to that you have to go back nearly two centuries to find the next earliest start and that was in 1822 when grape picking began on August 20. The other three harvests that began in August were 2007, 2011 and 2015.

In 2003 conditions were extreme with temperatures reaching 40degC in the day and remaining around 30degC at night over a three-week period. The heat and almost complete lack of rain also hit yields, already severely depleted by the ravages of frost in April 2003. As a result, the average yield per hectare in 2003 was only 8,256 kilos for the whole appellation, but much less in some places like the Côte des Bars region.

The situation in 2018 is very different. Helped by the record-breaking winter rainfall of 345mm between November 2017 and January 2018, the grapes are not raisin like and dehydrated, but healthy and the agronomic yield is well above maximum level set with recent reports suggesting it’s in the range between 16,000-19,000kgs/ha. Back in late July, the maximum yield the Comité set of 10,800kg/ha, was in line with their view that champagne consumption will remain stable in 2018 at around the current level of 307.25m bottles (total shipments in 2017, according to CIVC figures).

With the current area of productive vineyard at around 33,868 hectares (the provisional figure for the 2017 harvest) a yield of 10,800kg/ha will produce around 310m bottles. If we pushed this yield up to 15,000kgs/ha, that would add about another 120m bottles to the potential volume.

While the Champenois won’t be making this volume of champagne, given the apparently high quality of the 2018 crop what they will be doing is picking most of it, and replacing any poor quality juice currently held in the Réserve. This is great news for future quality and will be particularly welcome to those holding a lot of the 2017 harvest in reserve, given that harvest was adversely affected by botrytis.

Hervé Dantan, chef de cave at Lanson

Hervé Dantan, chef de cave at Lanson said earlier this week, “the level of sugar is high, over 10deg° and the acidity is moderate with a sugar acid balance very close to the 2002 harvest. We’ve had impeccable sanitary condition, a very beautiful evolution of maturity and good yields in most of Champagne.” While the summer has evoked memories of 2003, says Dantan, the very heavy winter rainfall replenished the moisture in the soil and although there was water stress in some parcels, all three varieties have good levels of maturity and the musts will be higher quality than in 2003 with a better level of phenolic ripeness.

The 2018 Champagne harvest has officially started

The Champagne harvest officially started today, Monday, 20 August. The secateurs were out in a number of villages, in the Côte des Bars region, including Buxeuil, Polisot and Polisy, where all three varieties may be harvested. The isolated cru of Montgueux, due east of the city of Troyes, renown for its super charged, ripe Chardonnay, that is set to start on Wednesday, will be cutting Meunier and Pinot Noir from tomorrow (21 August).

The secateurs will be out in Verzenay before the end of this week

Further north in the Marne department the dates for all varieties are largely set for later in the week. The premier cru of Cumières, that’s often one of the earliest crus to pick, begins on 24 August. Top Chardonnay villages like Avize, Chouilly, Cramant, Oger and Le Mesnil may all begin on 27 August. While in the Montagne de Reims, Bouzy and Ambonnay are on Thursday (23 August), Aÿ on Friday (24 August) and even on the usually cooler northern slopes of Verzy and Verzenay the picture is similar –24 and 23 August respectively.

Nearly all 318 crus can start picking before the end of the month, there’s only a handful that are expected to wait until 1 September, and that’s the latest start date in any single village, bar Grauves which begins on 2 September.

Robuchon dies after long illness

Very sad to hear the news (yesterday) that celebrated chef and restaurateur Joël Robuchon has died after a long battle with cancer. He’s the man whose restaurants have been awarded more Michelin stars than anyone else – they hold 23 round the world currently. I have been lucky enough to meet him, and eat his sublime food, twice in the past five years, on both occasions at Veuve Clicquot’s ‘Hotel du Marc’ in Reims.

Joël Robuchon at Clicquot’s Hotel du Marc in Reims
Joël Robuchon at Clicquot’s Hotel du Marc in Reims

The first occasion was in March 2013 where after an extraordinary lunch, I sat with him on the sofa and he modestly talked me through the recipe for arguably his most famous dish, pomme purée truffée (Robuchon lunch produces magical combinations ).

I saw him again in March this year when Veuve Clicquot ran a week-long celebration of rosé to mark the creation of what the house calls “the world’s first blended rosé champagne”. This happened in 1818 when Madame Clicquot broke with the established tradition of using a ‘Teinture de Fismes’ – a preparation of elderberries boiled in cream of tartar – to make pink champagne, instead choosing to blend some Bouzy red wine with her classic white champagne, so initiating the modern method of rosé champagne production.

After a morning masterclass at Clicquot’s Hotel du Marc in Reims, with head winemaker Dominique Demarville showing examples of the red wine blending options Clicquot has for non-vintage rosé, vintage rosé and La Grande Dame rosé, we sat down to a lunch specially prepared by Joël Robuchon and his team to match Clicquot wines, including the current La Grande Dame Vintage Rosé 2006.

Clicquot’s head winemaker Dominique Demarville with Joël Robuchon

This is a wine of great complexity which evolved gracefully, never disappointing, through a series of Robuchon dishes including an artichoke and foie gras salad, which looked wonderful (see picture) and, unlikely as it sounds, seemed the perfect match for this wine. A dish I will remember for a long time. The man at the stove knows what he is doing.

Artichoke and foie gras salad

Robuchon’s finishing masterstroke was to marry a simple, but not that simple, blanchette de veau with superb 1955 magnums of Bouzy Rouge which Demarville said came from one of the three best vintages of the 20th century, the other two being ‘47 and ’90. His creative genius will be sadly missed.

Canard-Duchêne celebrates 150th anniversary and launches new prestige Cuvée V

Alain Thiénot raises a glass of Cuvée Léonie to 15 years of work at Canard-Duchêne

Last month Canard-Duchêne hosted guests from around the world in Ludes to celebrate the house’s 150th anniversary. It has been 15 years since Alain Thiénot bought the house from LVMH, where it was run in a sub group in conjunction with Veuve Clicquot, which took precedence. As Thiénot himself noted in his short speech, he made the purchase from Clicquot on the advice of Yves Bénard, former CEO of Moët & Chandon and at that time [2003] President of the Union des Maisons de Champagne (UMC), who was among the leading figures from Champagne present at the gala dinner in Ludes.

Chef de Cave Laurent Fédou has worked with Alain Thiénot for 30 years

Bénard suggested it was a way of adding weight to his embryonic champagne empire, then based on the eponymous Alain Thiénot brand, first created in 1985 using his knowledge and contacts gained as a courtier. He knew something of the house already as he had worked for Victor Canard, grandson of the founder, in his time as a courtier. “In 2003, Canard was selling around 2.3m bottles,” Thiénot says, “today we are close to producing 4m bottles.” His first move was to install as winemaker Laurent Fédou, who has now been working for him for 30 years and is still the Canard chef de cave today.

The gala dinner, held in the gardens of the Canard-Duchêne estate in Ludes, was part of a week-long celebration masterminded by Cathryn Boudiak, international brand director of the house, who took over running the operation in 2017 following the departure of Alexis Petits-Gats. Guests were greeted with a glass of Cuvée Léonie (named after joint founder Léonie Duchêne) from magnum.

Cathryn Boudiak, international brand director of the house

This blend of mainly black fruit (50% Pinot Noir/30% Meunier) livened with a splash of well-sourced Chardonnay, has been transformed over the years by Fédou into a serious wine. Extra bottle age, the current blend is based on the 2014 harvest, a reserve wine element that has grown to around 40%, plus some judicious use of oak aged juice – just 3 or 4% aged, but not fermented in Argonne oak from the region – all play their part. Fresh, seductive and elegant it also shows a very attractive maturity and real depth.

After some high-wire entertainment, the dinner itself was created by Arnaud Lallement of L’Assiette Champenoise and served with the current, impressively rich 2008 Canard-Duchêne vintage (mellow, ripe and generous with Pinot Noir to the fore) plus the Blanc de Blancs and Blancs de Noirs form the Charles VII range, all in magnum.

Cuvée V, especially created to celebrate the 150th anniversary

Centre stage was taken mid-meal by the inaugural release of Cuvée V, especially created to celebrate the 150th anniversary and served with lobster. This new prestige cuvée, an ongoing addition to the Canard-Duchêne range, is from the 2010 vintage. It’s an assemblage of 56% Pinot Noir, 34% Chardonnay and 8% Pinot Meunier, that’s Extra Brut in style (4.5gm/l dosage).

Still quite tight and fresh with grand cru Chardonnay from Chouilly giving a linear core, there’s just a hint of tropical fruit, pineapple and mango which Fédou says will develop with age. The structure comes from Ambonnay and Aÿ Pinot Noir. It’s a wine only just starting to show its colours and has a long future ahead. An apt demonstration of the transformation in quality that Thiénot and Fédou have achieved with Canard-Duchêne champagne over the past 15 years.

Yields for 2018 harvest set at 10,800kgs/ha as Comité predicts growth over next few years

Champagne producers have just agreed to set the maximum yield level for the 2018 harvest at 10,800kilos per hectare. This is the same level as was agreed for the previous harvest in 2017, though that included 500kgs/ha to be released from the reserve, so it was effectively 10,300kgs/ha. After severe April frosts in 2017 and then major problems with rot just before picking began in late August the average yield for the 2017 reached 10,057 kg/ha, according to the provisional figure released by the Champagne Comité.

Picking grapes in Verzenay

So far, the 2018 growing season has been Continue reading “Yields for 2018 harvest set at 10,800kgs/ha as Comité predicts growth over next few years”

Revisiting an old favourite

Franck Bonville Grand Cru Blanc de Blanc Avize

Olivier Bonville winemaker at Franck Bonville In Avize

I’ve been to see Olivier Bonville, the winemaker at Franck Bonville in Avize several times over the course of many years. While I’ve always liked his wines, I hadn’t come across them recently. But a good friend produced a bottle of Avize Grand Cru Blancs de Blancs as a delightful prelude to Sunday lunch, the other day. I was so impressed Continue reading “Revisiting an old favourite”