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.

Hunting the right pink to combat the miserable weather

The fact that I’m not generally a huge fan of rosé champagne is borne out by the lack of pink fizz in my own cellar. Given a choice the same money will mostly buy you a far more interesting bottle of vintage champagne, in my view. I’m particularly attracted to the more winey, Burgundy style Pinot Noir driven pinks that age attractively and work surprisingly well with food, particularly things like duck or pigeon.

In this camp I’d include Veuve Clicquot vintage rosés, particularly the Cave Privée range, examples of which I Continue reading “Hunting the right pink to combat the miserable weather”

In praise of half bottles’ faster maturing

Too few restaurants offer a decent selection of half bottles on their wine lists, though the trend towards listing a number of wines served in 25 and 50cl carafes, now seen in many more casual dining establishments, is to be applauded. Half bottles of champagne are particularly handy, especially if there’s two of you and you plan to have some wine too. Just a glass of good fizz is rarely enough.

While quite a few champagne houses now seem reluctant to produce half bottles, citing quality issues and the fact that they mature more quickly, I see that (speed of development) as an advantage in certain instances. A half bottle of Krug is a welcome Continue reading “In praise of half bottles’ faster maturing”

Pink Champagne for Valentine’s & Mothers’ Day

It’s not so long ago that pink champagne consumption moved up and down like a yoyo as it drifted in and out of fashion. After a couple of years of sales growth, consumer interest would fall away and this discouraged producers from taking the category seriously and making the necessary investment in pink production. Quality was distinctly variable. It’s hard to pin down the specific catalyst for change, but generally warmer summers in France’s most northerly vineyard certainly played an important part. You need ripe black fruit, Pinot Noir Continue reading “Pink Champagne for Valentine’s & Mothers’ Day”

Fifteen prestige cuvées from 2002

The prospect of tasting 15 prestige cuvée champagnes in one sitting later this week is a mouth-watering one.  Especially as they are all from the celebrated 2002 vintage, which will probably, with a little competition from 2008 & ’09, go down as the finest vintage of the past decade. But it’s interesting to speculate — before I have seen the actual list — who will be included in the line-up?

I imagine Dom Pérignon, Cristal and Krug will be there, the last named only released to a rapturous welcome early this year, while Cristal will potentially boast considerable bottle age, given it was first made available over seven years ago. I guess Dom Ruinart, fabulously rich and powerful in 2002 and Clicquot’s La Grande Dame will complete the Moët-Hennessy quartet in the line-up.

Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill and Salon are two further acclaimed ‘02 releases, and I’m pretty sure Taittinger’s Comte de Champagne will feature (see my piece on the recent Finest Bubble vertical tasting of Comte 1996-2006 which included the 2002). To these eight we can probably add Continue reading “Fifteen prestige cuvées from 2002”

My top ten pink champagnes (mostly not sold in supermarkets)

I used to be unenthusiastic about rosé champagne. I have an issue with the fact that it is generally priced at a similar level to vintage champagne, but rarely offers anything like the same emjoyable drinking experience. However I have to admit there are now many more Charles99VintNewLabelwithglass2013-01-22 13.43.06attractive pink champagnes on the market and for Valentine’s Day lots of people will be drawn into buying pink fizz. So what are the best options, outside the supermarket norm but not in the stratospheric price territory (over £200) occupied by the big brands’ rosés, the likes of Cristal, Dom Pérignon, Krug, Comtes de Champagne, Clicquot’s La Grande Dame and Laurent-Perrier’s Cuvée Alexandra?

I am particularly attracted to the more winey, Burgundy style Pinot Noir driven pinks that age really well and work surprisingly well with food, particularly game. In this camp I’d include Veuve Clicquot Cave Privée Rosé, ideally the 1989 vintage which is still available, if in fairly limited distribution. Ten years younger, but both delicious in their different ways are Charles Heidsieck’s 1999 Rosé and Bollinger La Grande Année 1999 Rosé, Closer in style to the Clicquot with powerful rich Pinot Noir from Les Riceys playing a significant role in the blend comes Nicolas Feuillatte’s Palmes d’Or Rosé. I have the 1999, 2004 and 2005 vintages and will probably open the ‘99 myself on the 14th.

More delicate in style, but slightly more expensive is the creamy textured Billecart-Salmon’s Cuvée Elisabeth Salmon 2002. Great value but certainly not inferior comes the delicately fruity, but distinctly classy Joseph Perrier 2004 Rosé. Bruno Paillard Premier Cru Rosé is another winner resonating breeding and, as the best pinks are, very moreish. And Gosset Grande Rosé, which I tried again only this afternoon, is a very desirable, seductive pink that rapidly disappears.

That only leaves two remaining slots to fill and for these I am going to go to the Côte des Bar region to the south-east of Troyes where Michel Drappier makes a charming Burgundy-like pink and bio-dynamic producer Fleury produces something substantial and savoury, that would easily and enjoyably be consumed with an Asian duck dish. Finally I am going to cheat and add an 11th pink that is widely distributed in the supermarkets, that from Veuve Clicquot. This is probably the pink fizz I have tried most often in the past 18 months and has been consistently among the most enjoyable.

Rising cost of grapes will affect Champagne prices

Although we are currently seeing heavily discounted champagne prices in UK supermarkets in the run-up to Christmas it seems clear that the major brands will all try to raise their selling prices early next year following widespread rises in the cost of grapes from the 2011 harvest. On average grape  prices have risen by at least 3% across the board but there are reports of  larger increases for grand cru grapes.

“We are hoping the increase won’t be higher than 2 to 3%, but this will depend on the Crus involved, says Bruno Paillard, chairman of BCC, Champagne’s  second largest group and owner of Lanson. “Some places in the Aube this year should see their price 5€ per kilo, while some grands crus grapes will cost more than 6€ per kilo.”

Alexandre Penet-Chardonnet, a small producer with vineyards in the Montagne de Reims grands crus of Verzy and Verzenay says the price is “around 5.85€ for grand cru Noir”. At Champagne Mailly, the grand cru co-operative, MD Preau puts the increase in prices for grand cru material at “around 5%”. While a press operator dealing with a number of the major houses based in the grand vallée de la Marne says: “It will be 5.85- 5.9€ per
kilo for basic grapes at my press house which is a 4.5% increase on 2010 prices  and he is seeing prices as high as 6.40€ per kilo for certified grand cru Pinot Noir”.