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.

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”

Whose champagne is Majestic enough?

Which champagne should you be opening to toast The Queen’s 91st birthday? It seems only certain, particular fizzes get past the palace gates. In order to supply HM The Queen, you have to be a Royal Warrant Holder and currently there are nine houses that have that privilege. But there may be different corks popping at Highgrove and Clarence House, as out of the nine, only one — Laurent-Perrier — is officially ‘by appointment to HRH The Prince of Wales’.

What they are drinking over at Kensington Palace is Continue reading “Whose champagne is Majestic enough?”

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”

Prices remain low despite weakness of pound

At the time of writing the lowest price for champagne in UK supermarkets continues to be at around the £10 a bottle level with ‘exclusive labels’ at Lidl, Aldi and ASDA to the fore. Sainsbury’s and Tesco tend to favour a six bottle discount of 25% running at the same time as other offers and the former grocer has started just such a deal today (16 August) while the latter is expected to follow suit in the run-up to the Bank Holiday weekend.

It’s no surprise to hear that the vast majority of champagne in the UK take home trade is sold at a discount. In the total champagne category Continue reading “Prices remain low despite weakness of pound”

Five reasons to drink champagne (as if you need encouraging)

Found this report in the Daily Telegraph online which claims to have discovered five ‘health-benefits’ from drinking champagne. While readers of this blog will need no encouragement to open a bottle of fizz (and we all know champagne is good for the soul), I feel it deserves closer examination.

Apparently drinking champagne will ‘improve your memory’, or at least Continue reading “Five reasons to drink champagne (as if you need encouraging)”