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.