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.

2017 Champagne harvest gets into full flow

The last pressing of Mesnil grapes at Krug

The Champagne harvest has begun in earnest with the official dates for many of the major Côte des Blancs crus opening last Friday (1 September) and in the Montagne de Reims, crus like Aÿ, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, Bouzy and Verzenay starting today for black grapes. The first official day for picking was on 26 August for the cru of Montgueux, the isolated vineyard set on a hill due west of Troyes in the Côte des Bar that produces some of Champagne’s richest Chardonnay. As is fairly normal, Continue reading “2017 Champagne harvest gets into full flow”

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?”

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”

Try something different or bag a top-flight bargain

Waitrose has by some way the widest selection of sparkling wines and champagnes among the main UK grocers and has introduced some further exciting lines recently, mostly only available through its on-line Waitrose Cellar operation which runs to 63 different champagnes. While the current 25% off promotion is running — until next Tuesday 8 November — this is a great opportunity to try some of these at a bargain price. In addition, there are some attractive deals on some prestigious names, rarely Continue reading “Try something different or bag a top-flight bargain”

Sunshine & heat also hit crop in Champagne as picking starts

Grapes on the north side of rows haven't suffered
Grapes on the north side of rows haven’t suffered

Last month we reported that the harvest in Champagne was likely to be well down on the maximum yield set of 9,700 kilos per hectare, with some regions like the Côte des Bar, particularly badly hit. As picking begins in half a dozen crus today (12 September) – two villages one in the Aube and one in the Marne départements actually started picking black grapes on Saturday (10 September) — it seems that the average expected level of yield is no more than 7,000kgs/ha. And there are major differences between different areas of the appellation. In parts of the Aube/Haute-Marne, devastated by frosts, average yields are unlikely to be higher 4,000 kg/ha, whereas in some crus of the Montagne de Reims and the Côte des Blancs yields could reach as high as 10,000 kg/ha. Continue reading “Sunshine & heat also hit crop in Champagne as picking starts”

Waitrose sells single bottles of champagne online

Waitrose is tapping into the online market for fizz with a new service that started on Thursday (21 April) that allows customers to buy single bottles of champagne with free delivery. It’s offering an impressive range of 47 different lines — 42 champagnes and five English sparklers — through this new service with prices starting at £26.99 a bottle for Duval-Leroy’s Fleur de Champagne, while the most expensive bottle currently is a Salmanazar (equivalent to 12 standard bottles) of Bollinger Special Cuvée Brut NV at £675.

There are no2015-05-15-20.22.23-e1461404396843 Own Label champagnes or Waitrose exclusive labels and most of the wines are from the major houses. Among the initial Continue reading “Waitrose sells single bottles of champagne online”