Options in Champagne – the growers’ wines of Laherte and Bérêche

IMG_4782winter vineyard

In the past Champagne has typically been the preserve of the large houses.  The grand maisons have bought grapes from thousands of small scale, part-time, growers, processed them, blended them and produced their millions of bottles to age and to sell. It might say Moët or Lanson on the label, but these big businesses have relied largely on the growers to supply them with raw materials.  But recent decades have seen the growth in importance of the family firms which grow their own grapes, turn them into still wine and then put the wine through the second fermentation, ageing in bottles, disgorging and finishing stages.  While the marketing advantages of the big houses are obvious, the small scale of the grower has its own strengths. These include complete control of every stage of the process; the ability to produce as many different wines as they like by experimenting with small quantities; and quality for price (no big marketing budgets to factor in).  You could summarise that as volume and consistency v. individuality and diversity.  In a market as big as Champagne there is definitely a place for both. 
Two small growers

Our March 2013 visit to Champagne included two small scale growers, Laherte Frères and Champagne Bérêche & Fils.  They are similar in scale, around 10 hectares of vineyard producing about 100,000 bottles a years. They are also the experimentation ground of two young wine makers, Aurélien Laherte and Raphaël Bérêche, both with oeneology degrees behind them and some experience whether in Champagne or elsewhere, who are working with older members of their respective families.  Both premises are definitely farms with messy, working wineries, rather than the temples of grand chic that characterise the big houses. 

Vineyards

On the face of it Bérêche should have the better vineyards being in Ludes, a Premier Cru village in the Montagne de Reims, but in fact they have vineyards in three different areas  and the simple identification of area with grape variety (eg Montagne de Reims = Pinot Noir) does not work.  Their vineyards in Ludes have the expected Pinot Noir but also provides Chardonnay from fine chalky soil with good exposure.  They also have a second Montagne de Reims site at Ormes where the soil is sandy with limestone and deep chalk, producing wines of crisp wines of good texture.  Then in the Vallé de la Marne at Mareuil-le-Port they have Pinot Meunier and some rich, full bodied Chardonnay. By contrast Laherte is based at Chavot, just south of Épernay which is between the Côtes des Blanc and the Vallé de la Marne. The vineyards are south of Épernay plus some in premier cru villages of the Côtes des Blancs and in Vallé del la Marne for Meunier. 

Both properties practice what might be called a pragmatically modified near organic viticulture.  They are aiming for low yields at around the 50-60 hectolitres per hectare mark (low for the area), with organic approaches always being the first option but both are prepared to use systemic intervention when necessary in Champagne’s cool, moist climate. Thus 2011 was an organic year, but 2012 was just too difficult not to intervene.  This won’t please the purists but it does mean that the volume of chemical intervention is much lower than it used to be.

A pressing question

In the winery, both firms have made investments in their presses, the quality of which has a big influence on the refinement of the final product. But the choices they have made are quite different.

reconditioned basket press at LaherteIMG_4851

At Laherte they have reconditioned a traditional basket press. In the picture, above left, you can clearly see the new wood in the lower part of the press.  This will do a great job – slowly, to avoid over harsh extraction and colour contamination of white juice – but it will be a lot of work.  Three and a half hours to press and then a half an hour of manual cleaning. On the right, you see the outside of Bérêche’s new ‘Ferrari’, a horizontal Coquard press.  While it gleams on the outside, inside it works in a remarkably simple way, pushing the fruit against the far end with a serrated mesh, through which the juice is slowly extracted.  It is just as slow – but the cleaning is fast and easy.  It is an expensive but hopefully reliable, long term investment.

Oak, stainless steel, enamel?

Both companies ferment in quite high proportions of old oak barrels of various sizes.  Bérêche’s choice here is to vinify half the fruit in enamelled vats (believing that this is less reductive than the standard stainless steel) and half in barriques.  Once off the coarse lees the wines are left in almost complete peace, being stirred just the once during their stay in barrels.  In winter, the cellar doors are kept open to keep the wines as cool as possible, precipitating the tartrates when the temperatures drop to zero and below, and avoiding malolactic fermentation.  Raphaël Bérêche specifically wants to avoid the toffee and lactic notes he associates with the 1980s.  Over at Laherte they are aiming for  a rather different style which emphasis on regular battonage and about 70% of the wine going through malolactic.  Comparing the two growers side by side you can begin to see how many options there are for subtle and not so subtle differences of style.

Foudre for the taille

Reserve wines

The next variable is the use of reserve wines, a key feature of Champagne whereby for non vintage wines (typically the biggest part of a house’s production), producers can add a proportion of wines from an earlier year.  This acts as a guarantor of quality and an insurance policy (thus 2012 had a small harvest which can be supplemented by earlier years) and can contribute to more rounded, complex, finished wines.  But even how you keep your reserve wine introduces more possibilities – straightforwardly in a tank, in barrels (which will be bring about some oxidation and will need topping up from time to time) or in a ‘perpetual reserve’, a version of a solera system where you add and withdraw some each year from a multi-vintage blend.  In this case, Laherte keep their reserve wines in a 30 year old foudre, a large wooden cask which is a perpetual reserve with wines from 2005-12.  Bérêche prefer to select a few barriques which will be the reserve for the following year, though they also make one wine by the rolling reserve method.

Blending

In the options game the next step is probably the most important if invisible to the final consumer.  Nearly all Champagne is fundamentally a blended wine, assembled from the wines available to the producer before they go into the second fermentation in bottle stage.  The blend can be made up from another series of options: the three main grape varieties vinified separately; separate cuvées from single vineyards; oaked or non-oaked cuvées; malo or not;  cuvée versus taille (the slightly coarser end of the pressing run), and so on.  At Laherte we had a highly instructive if cold hour in the cellar – at 4° centigrade! – tasting though a range of the current vin clair, the still wine which will become Champagne.  We tasted:

  • 50/50 blend of 2011 and 2012 Chardonnay ready to go into bottles in mid-April; rich, quite fat, Chardonnay, barrel fermented in 4-25 year old barrels; good freshness (no racking off, 70% no malo), long apple finish
  • 2012 Chardonnay from a rich clay parcel, no malo, has been stirred up six times; edgy, dense lemon on nose and palate; will become buttery after two years
  • 2012 Chardonnay from a chalky, sunny site; lemon, sherbet, fine and mineral
  • Pinot Noir from two sites (one with vinous red berried fruit, the other with more chalk notes);
  • the taille of Pinot Meunier (fermented this year because of the low harvest but given a bit of lift by being kept on Chardonnay lees for freshness – yet another option);
  • 2011 Pinot Meunier in barrel, having been fermented in tanks and having gone through malolactic fermentation, with elegant freshness and good length
  • 2012 Pinot Meunier from chalky soils, destined to be a vintage wine – a real intensity from vines planted in 1947 and now surrounded by Chardonnay. Aromatic, melon fruit, fine, could be mistaken for its neighbours
  • perpetual reserve, 2005-12: rich and long on the palate; according to Aurélien Laherte the fruit-minerality balance changes with each new blend
  • Pinot Meunier 2012 rosé which has been macerated on the skins for 19 hours, fermented in barrels with no malo.  Currently simple, fragrant red berried fruit. 
  • 2012 Pinot Meunier red wine, mostly for making rosé (where it will b e 13% of the blend) or for private consumption. Fine red berried fruit, slight herbaceous aroma, savoury with some grip

The skill of the Champagne maker is to take these and other lots and blend them into the most balanced and complex base, always bearing in mind that the wine is yet to go through further fermentation in the bottle and ageing on lees.  Before we go on to consider the wines, let’s summarise the options we have covered and a few yet to appear in the wine making.

Options


Laherte

Bérêche

vineyards in 10 villages

Ludes, Ormes, Mareuil-le-Port

organic where possible but pragmatic

organic where possible but pragmatic

basket press

horizontal press

ferment in 4-25 year old barrels

barrels for 50% of production; otherwise enamel tanks

indigenous yeasts

indigenous yeasts

70% no malolactic

malolactic avoided

regular battonage (in the evening on leaf days)

little battonage

Meunier champion

also makes 100% Meunier wine

perpetual reserve

traditional reserves for preceding years and one rolling reserve wine

both blended and macerated rosé

blended rosé

NV under cap in the second fermentation stage, vintages under cork

NV under cap, vintages under cork

2-6 years on lees in bottle

3-6 years on lees in bottle

low dosage

low dosage

In summary, there are many similarities here, all quality orientated but then some key differences especially over battonage or letting the wine simply rest on the lees (greater and lesser lees effect, richness v. freshness) and malolactic or non-malolactic (softer v. sharper acidity). Interestingly, the choices of each grower tend to even out the effects, rather than amplifying them, ie regular battonage plus malo, no battonage plus no malo. As we did not taste the wines side by side, it is difficult to comment on the actual effects.
The wines of Laherte

Blanc de Blanc Nature NV – Made from a blend of 2009 and 2010 still wines; barrel fermented with some barrels going through malo, 24 months in the bottles on the lees, no dosage. Surprisingly buttery, rich fruit which Aurélien put down to the maturity of the Chardonnay planted on chalk, nice mushroom note, dry finish, very good length.

Grand Brut Tradition NV – the same two vintages of 60% Pinot Meunier, 30% Chardonnay and 10% Pinot Noir.  50/50 oak and tank fermented, 70% gone through malo. Rectified concentrated must for the dosage (between 5 and 7g with the dosage dropping the longer the period sur lattes) and just 40g of sulphur, the sugar rounding out the fruit with underlying acidity, very good if not as distinctive as the Brut Nature.  

Les Empreints Brut Nature – from 2008 fruit, the blend always coming from Chavot but the precise blend varying from year to year, here 50% Pinot Noir, 50% Chardonnay, part of the which is Chardonnay Muscaté (and natural cross of Chardonnay and Muscat).  Three years on the lees in the bottle and another before release:  rich, floral and mineral nose, with good depth and length – would be a great accompaniment with cheese.  No malo and no dosage, hence the racy palate and cleansing finish.

Les Vignes d’Autresfois, Vielle Vignes, 2008 – from 60 year old Pinot Meunier vines on chalk with 4g of residual sugar, having been fermented in 20 year old barrels; three years on the lees plus one post-disgorgement: super rich cuvée with lemon and vanilla cream notes, juicy palate, tastes remarkably dry with salinity to the fore.  For Aurelien, it is terroir which shines through, not the variety.

Millesime 2005Rosé 

Les 7 Extra Brut – which used to be called Les Clos, being a parcel replanted by Thierry Laherte in an attempt to have a wine which reflects the seven traditional varieties of the region, four of which you rarely encounter:  10% Fromenteau (ie Pinot Gris), 8% Arbanne (said to be very neutral, metallic, energetic), 14% Pinot Noir, 18% Chardonnay, 17% Pinot Blanc, 18% Pinot Meunier and 15% Petit Meslier (said to be like Sauvignon Blanc).  Barrel fermented in 10 year old barrels, no malo, 4g residual sugar, but 40% of the wine is from the perpetual reserve 2005-09.  Really attractive freshness which is followed by fruit and rich palate; very impressive and complex.

Millésime Récolte 2005 – 85% Chardonnay, 15% Meunier, of which 30% is fermented in new oak; spends six years on the lees, dosage 5g.  Medium plus nose with noticeable new oak, pronounced palate, rich fruit with a strong mineral undertow, palate filling, fine and substantial. 

Rosé Ultradition – wine from 2009 and 2010, a blend of Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir with just 10% of Chardonnay to which about 10% red wine from Meunier is added; fermented in barrels, 40% reserve wines again, 8g of sugar in the dosage.  Pale salmon going in the direction of a shocking pink, pleasant floral aromas and red berried fruit, savoury touches, some apparent sweetness after the austerity of earlier wines. 

Les Beaudiers Extra Brut Rosé de Saignée, Vielles Vignes de Pinot Meunier – back to the 2008 vintage here with a second rosé this time made by the saignée method, fermented in five year old barrels, with a dosage of 4g only.  Presented as a wine for food this does not lead with fruit but with earthy, even iron, aromas.  A treasure of a local wine and style. 

 

The wines of Bérêche

Brut Reserve NV – the base wine here is 2010, 70% fermented in enamel tank and 30% in old oak with roughly a third of the three main varieties, 30% reserve wine, in bottles for two years on the lees and 8g of residual sugar.  Fine textured palate, subtle, some peachy and vinous notes and a touch of chalk, an excellent NV which makes up 70% of the production. 

Extra Brut Réserve NV – the base year here is 2009, three years on the lees, just 2g of added sugar. The savoury notes of Meunier show through here, though Raphaël stated that this wine is really not ready to drink yet and the Meunier shows through first.  Delicate mousse from long ageing on the lees, despite the low dosage, this has a good level of richness because of the warmer 2009 vintage. 

Les Beaux Regards, Chardonnay – from parcels in both the Montagne de Reims (Ludes: chalky) and the Marne (Mareuil: roundness), this is basically 2009, fermented in barrels, zero dosage; soft bubbles, fine lifted nose, then fine green apples and chalkiness, racy purity, remarkable length. 

IMG_4879Rosé

Vallée de la Marne Rive Gauche Extra Brut – 100% Pinot Meunier of course, fermented in old barrels, 2009 fruit; no malo, no battonage, 30 months in the bottle before disgorgement: malty, metallic and nutty notes, again not about fruit but would make a great accompaniment to rich pork dishes of which there are no shortage in northern France. 

Campania Remensis, Extra Brut Rosé – fruit from Ormes, 65% Pinot Noir, 24% Chardonnay, 10% Meunier, a blended rosé.  50% of the red grapes are fermented with stems which gives a bit of grippiness. Beautiful perfumed red fruit but with those underlying tannins, elegant. 

Le Cran 2006 – vintage wine from Ludes premier cru, 50% Chardonnay (planted 1969) and 50% Pinot Noir (planted 1973); fermented in two year old oak barrels, no malo, no battonage; six years under cork on the lees; low pH and just 35g sulphur dioxide, 3g residual sugar, though some vintages have been zero.  The star wine of this estate.  Mid gold in colour, complex layers of aroma and flavour with hints of pastry, almonds and tobacco over ripe melon and apple fruit. Excellent. 

Reflet d’Antan – a perpetual reserve of 20 years standing from which 2/3rds are taken each year, stored in demi-muids.  A third of each main variety, fermented in old wood and kept for 18 months on fine lees before then spending three years in bottles during and after secondary fermentation.  Dosage 5-6g.  Soft, peachy mousse; rich, yeasty and malty nose with some high-toned perfume aromas, underlying fruit; some oak and cork related tannins complete the structure of this remarkable wine. 

 

Wines tasted March 2013 at the wineries

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