On the Trail

champagne

The Next Generation: Delphine Brulez of Champagne Louise Brison

champagneKate Soto
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Delphine Brulez, winemaker at Champagne Louise Brison, hails from the Aube, a southwestern enclave in Champagne that has always had a touch of a rebellious streak. Closer in geography, soil, and spirit to Burgundy than to Reims, many winemakers here are leading the grower-producer revolution that is focusing on terroir—that is, single-vineyard, single-vintage, even single-varietal Champagne—in a region where blending has defined the style for centuries. The Aube is, at the very least, making us rethink what we know about Champagne.

It’s within this context that we find Champagne Louise Brison, a family winery in the town of Noé-les-Mallets making beautiful vintage-focused Champagnes. Delphine Brulez is the great-granddaughter of Louise Brison, who started the family vineyards with one hectare of grapes. Delphine’s father, Francis, began making wine in 1991, and his philosophy of showcasing terroir has defined the winery. Delphine says, “We have a special exposition, on a beautiful hill. We make only vintage Champagne. That’s the best way to have a real picture of terroir, and of the weather. If you want to have a real picture you have to take weather into consideration. We don’t do any year blends. We work like Burgundy. We are closer to Burgundy. We studied in Burgundy. It’s a big influence.”

The respect for the vintage has informed their decision to hold all their wines back for five years before release, plus an extra year for the Blanc de Blancs. Delphine says their wines need this time in bottle, and that the 2012 vintage is looking excellent for ageing: “The 2012 vintage was amazing, very fresh, great potential. For good aging you have to have acidity. It’s a natural preservative. You have to have complexity, structure, and flavor. You have those three parts in 2012, much like the 2002 vintage, which is still the best of the best since we began. When it reaches its full potential, you’ll get flavors like quince and honey. When it’s younger it’s a completely different flavor, more fruit forward. In a sunnier vintage like 2009 you get more apricot, and in a fresher vintage like 2012 you get more citrus flavors. The range of flavors is completely different. If you make a standard, blended Champagne you can’t see that because it’s sold at maybe two years old and the wine has no time to age, and if it’s blended they can manipulate the flavor.”

To this end, farming is crucial. If the yield is too high, the concentration won’t be right and it won’t be ageable. The average age of the vines is important, as fruit from only young vines won’t make an ageable wine, either. Plus young vines are vulnerable to storms, which have become more violent and unpredictable each year, especially in the last ten, due to climate change. This year, for instance, her vineyards were plagued by summer storms and hail, and she expects they’ll lose up to 75 percent of their crop. Luckily the third that is left will be very high quality, but it will nonetheless be a difficult year. Weather impacts a grower-producer in a very particular way. Large Champagne houses have reserves from which they can blend if one vintage is bad, or perhaps they can find other sources of fruit. But to Delphine it is so important to encapsulate what happens in each year. She says: “Each year has a right to exist, but not each is the year of the century.”

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They farm organically—not manipulating their land with chemical pesticides or fertilizers. “The goal is quality. It’s all about the next generation. Each year we think about what we can improve, for the future, for the environment,” Delphine says. “My dad has been working the same soil for over 30 years. When you use a lot of chemicals and then stop, the vines need maybe 10 years to recover. Like if you stop an antibiotic, it takes along time for your body to recover. Healthy soil has a lot of microorganisms. When you go organic, you have to be prepared. You must begin somewhere.” Currently, organic growers comprise only 1.3 percent in Champagne.

Delphine has two young sons who might be the next generation, though she’s making no demands. “My dad didn’t tell me I had to be the next generation. It just happened piece by piece, working the vines, growing up with it, and I caught the virus. We don’t work for us, we work for the next generation. We hope our children will be the next generation but I won’t force them. We have a very hard job. It can be difficult. But it’s so much more. Each day when I wake up I do something different. Go to the vines, go to the cellar. The variety is so important that the job is perfect for me. I studied the production side but we are just two with my father, so we have to do everything.”

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Whatever may happen with the next generation, Delphine is a strong leader in this one, bringing this generation’s ideas of sustainable farming and terroir-driven wines to the fore of the conversation. Delphine is part of a group called Les Fa’bulleuses, a winemaking collective comprising women who occupy leadership roles. She says, “The taboo of taking the family estate when you are a woman is not there anymore, but it’s still not easy. You have to have a strong temperament. We are all winemakers in different terroir in Champagne. We are in the same situation so we all work together. It’s nice to be together to share and solve problems together.” This group is part of a new generation who wants to make a real difference in Champagne, who wants to represent their terroir. “We have the quality. We know our terroir. It’s the future. We are small compared to big brands, but we sell something that is so real and important for us.”

- Kate Soto

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For the Love of the Vineyard: Champagne Pierre Paillard

champagneKate Soto

Quentin Paillard cares about his vines. His family has been growing grapes and making wine in the village of Bouzy since 1799—so it’s fair to say that he’s deeply rooted (pun intended!) in its soil. But upon speaking to him, it’s clear that their soil and their vines are truly the driving force behind the domaine. His passion for the work they do in the vineyards is palpable, and this is indeed the unique advantage of being a grower-producer among Champagne’s many negociants. Quentin and his brother, Antoine, farm their 11 grand cru hectares organically and biodynamically, although they are not certified and not seeking to be; they consider this work an investment in the immune system of the vines. All their wines are made from this devotedly grown estate fruit, with a heavy emphasis on preserving the character of the vintage, even in their nonvintage offerings. And there’s some alchemy that happens between soil and fruit and year that makes these Pinot-driven wines perennial staff favorites here at K&L.

The brothers took over the domaine in 2008. Their father is now retired, but the focus on quality they learned from him is still paramount. They are extremely particular about vine material, using only hand-selected massal cuttings from an old family vineyard (50-60 years old) or a special clone from Burgundy called Pinot Fin for more aromatic concentration. This is important because much of Champagne was replanted to high-yielding clones in the early eighties, many of which now need to be ripped out. As a product of the negociant system, many growers have historically had incentive to favor quantity. According to Quentin: “The economy in Champagne is such that 90 percent of land is owned by farmers selling to negociants, not making their own wine. Their main goal is to meet the allowance, and they overproduce to be safe in case of hail or rot.” But this is not always the best choice for the long-term health of the vineyard. I’d imagine that this longer, more holistic perspective is one earned when your family has been working with vines for eight generations, as Quentin’s has. And, as they aren’t selling their grapes, quality becomes the driver of all their decision making.

Part and parcel of that approach is plowing the soil and not using herbicides. “My father’s vineyards have never seen herbicides,” says Quentin. Plowing disrupts the root system and makes it dig deep for nutrients instead of fanning out horizontally. "The roots that stay in the top soil can’t pull minerals from the chalk below, so they will be more fatty, with less acidity. Same thing when you irrigate. When the roots are not going deep you cannot express the terroir. You have pure chalk under the clay in Bouzy. Sometimes Bouzy is seen as a place that can grow Pinot very rich, very ripe. But we can also get the bright acidity if the Pinot goes down to the chalk.”

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The Paillards use organic compost and tea preparations to preserve the health of the soil so that the grapes are not as dependent on the growers, but on their own immune system. The soil is naturally balanced, and nutrients go to the grapes. They prioritize picking ripe, and Quentin says this translates to the glass. “When you taste some entry level negociant wines, you can get that bready, yeasty quality with no vintage variation. And that’s because the fruit is underripe. So the fruit gets overshadowed by winemaking choices.” Picking the fruit at perfect ripeness, minimal intervention in cellar, using native yeasts—all of their actions are about stepping back and letting their material do its thing. Since 2014, they’ve only fermented in stainless steel and oak. “The way that we’re making wine is to make the best possible still wine that then becomes Champagne.”

I love Paillard’s grower-producer point of view. Blending is indeed an artform, but to be able to raise your fruit from ancestral vineyard material, nurture it to be its best, and preserve as much about the nature of the year’s produce as possible--it’s an expression of  terroir that can sometimes be elusive in Champagne. And it translates into an excellent glass of wine.

 An excellent introduction to this producer is their " Les Parcelles ," as it is a good representation of the estate, and of what Bouzy tastes like. It provides a snapshot of their vineyards, with two-thirds Pinot and one-third Chardonnay. Because they pick the fruit when it is ideally ripe, they don’t need to add sugar. Look on the label and you’ll find a Roman numeral that represents the vintage that comprises 80-90 percent of the wine. In Champagne, it is forbidden to only make vintage wines, yet Quentin loves the expression of a vintage, so prioritizes using wine from mostly one vintage per cuvee.

An excellent introduction to this producer is their "Les Parcelles," as it is a good representation of the estate, and of what Bouzy tastes like. It provides a snapshot of their vineyards, with two-thirds Pinot and one-third Chardonnay. Because they pick the fruit when it is ideally ripe, they don’t need to add sugar. Look on the label and you’ll find a Roman numeral that represents the vintage that comprises 80-90 percent of the wine. In Champagne, it is forbidden to only make vintage wines, yet Quentin loves the expression of a vintage, so prioritizes using wine from mostly one vintage per cuvee.

 

- Kate Soto

Lanson Serves Up Aces at our Hollywood Tasting Bar on Thursday

champagne, hollywoodKate Soto

Lanson might not be the biggest brand out there in Champagne, but they’re not trying to be, especially in the U.S. Though they’re one of the oldest Champagne houses in existence (founded in 1760), and they’ve been purveyors to the British Royal Court since Queen Victoria, they’re newly back on the U.S. market after a very long hiatus. And this fact, according to owner Enguerrand Baijot, has allowed them to enter the U.S. on their own terms, working face to face with independent retailers and distributors who are passionate about Champagne. So, you won’t find them on the shelves of chain stores, and that’s just how they like it. They consider themselves an alternative to the huge brands, “in terms of taste, style, profile, and price,” according to Baijot.

This careful, attention-to-detail approach is evident in their wine. Their characteristic crisp, fresh, clean style is achieved by blocking malolactic fermentation—a part of the winemaking process that converts tart acids to creamier acids and imparts a certain roundness in texture. These are sleek, linear sparklers—and have been since the beginning of the company. The wines are also Pinot Noir-driven, aged much longer than the minimum requirement, and comprise 50-60 percent premier and grand cru wines, even in their nonvintage labels. They say you can judge the quality of a Champagne house by its NV wines since it’s easier to make excellent vintage wines in excellent years than to make NV blends consistently outstanding each year. Baijot stands behind their NV Black Label and encourages newcomers to start there to get a sense of house style.

You may also start with their NV Brut rosé, as it’s the same initial blend as the Black Label, with a bit of red wine added for color and depth. It has more of a medium body but holds on tightly to that refreshing characteristic. Says Baijot: “Southern California is sunny all year long. There’s a magical thing that happens with sunshine—people think rosé. Rosé has tremendous food pairing possibilities especially with shellfish and sushi.” It’s a by-the-glass pour in all of the Nobu restaurants, so he recommends heading to Malibu and pairing the Lanson rosé with the awesome view.

For a different direction, there’s their NV White Label Sec. It’s drier than a demi-sec wine (and more rare), but sweeter than a brut. The extra soupçon of residual sugar provides a rounder, softer texture. Instead of the green apple notes you get in the Black Label, you’ll find baking spices, pastry, cinnamon, and honey notes. Baijot recommends pairing it with with spicy food such as Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai. Or try it with a soft cheese and foie gras instead of Sauternes. It’d be great with a summery dessert, and, since it’s not that sweet, it’d be a lovely counterpoint, especially on a hot day.

Though newer to U.S. drinkers, Lanson has been beloved by the British for a long time, thanks to their long-standing place at the Royal Palace. They have also been proudly (and exclusively) sponsoring Wimbledon since 1977. Baijot broke it down for this sports neophyte: “Wimbledon is magical. It’s the most magical tennis grand slam in the world, I’ve been to the U.S. Open and the French Open. But at Wimbledon, time has stopped. Everyone is so elegant, the players all wearing plain whites. You may even see the Queen in the royal box. It’s the kind of place that was probably just the same 100 years ago. And everyone drinks Champagne—only Lanson. It’s the only tournament in the world where you are allowed to drink courtside. Wimbledon is all about authenticity, tradition. And we are not a shiny, modern brand. We are all about taste, tradition, what’s inside the bottle. That dedication to quality and truth really appeals to Wimbledon and the people behind it. That’s the reason we’ve been together so long.”

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That sounds expensive, right? It could be, but to Baijot it is important that Champagne is an affordable luxury, so you can grab several of their bottlings for about $35 at K&L. His motto is “everyone should be able to get a bottle of Champagne whenever you want, not just special occasions.” He says, “Champagne is a perfect palate cleanser and prepares you for food, puts you in the right mindset. Start any meal with Champagne—lunch, brunch, dinner—and your experience is better… Enjoy a bit of water, a lot of Champagne!”

In 2011, Baijot moved to the U.S. so that he could hand-curate where he placed Lanson. He says: “I love it here! I love the challenge. It’s definitely a challenge. No one was waiting for us, we came back at a difficult time. We didn’t have the big money for marketing of other brands, but we are meeting people face to face and creating a good network of partners who believe in us. We are boutique, family owned, we don’t do business with chains in the U.S.—just with the independent retailers, with retailers who appreciate that behind every label there’s a story. We are very proud of our dedication to quality and making Champagne the same way since 1760. Always family owned, always been made the same way. We’re excited to be back on the shelf at K&L.”

Stay tuned for an upcoming collaboration between Lanson and K&L in the fall, when Lanson will be giving K&L customers the California exclusive for the launch of Clos Lanson 2007. This is only the second vintage release of wine from their historic one-hectare 18th c. vineyard—the last vineyard to remain in the city of Reims. Until then, join us in Hollywood as we pour through the Lanson lineup, including their 2002 Gold Label, on Thursday, June 21, 5:30 to 7PM. $5 in our tasting bar. There may be some Wimbledon swag if you play your cards right.

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- Kate Soto

Krug "Grande Cuvée" 166 Ème Édition Sets the Bar High

champagneKate Soto

We just received our first little allocation of the Krug "Grande Cuvée" 166 Ème Édition Brut Champagne, and I wasted no time in trying one. I had it my favorite way, at home with Cinnamon and her good cooking. In the spirit of Krug’s pairing initiative this year “Krug X Fish,” she prepared some lovely sole with capers and fresh local asparagus with eggs from colleagues’ chickens.

The 166th edition of Krug Grande Cuvée is made up of wines from 1998 to 2010, ten vintages in all were selected, and 140 lots. The Krug ID on my bottle was 117006, and it was disgorged in winter of 2017, so it was truly a fresh bottle, as Krug does not sell anything until at least six months after disgorgement. The 166 is composed of 45% Pinot Noir, 39% Chardonnay, and 16% Meunier. Only 58% of the blend is 2010; the rest are reserves, and counterintuitively, chef de cave Eric Lebel found high-acid Meunier to be key to bringing this wine the freshness it needed.

I think this is the most concentrated Grand Cuvée that I have drunk young. My suspicion is that little, and perhaps no vintage wine will be made at Krug in 2010, allowing them to use lots that would normally go into more expensive wines. This is the conundrum of multi-vintage blends. The market scrambles for lots like the 164—which had a majority of the great 2008 in it. But, we know that there will almost certainly be not only Krug vintage 2008, but also Clos du Mesnil and Clos Ambonnay, meaning those wines were not available for the Grande Cuvée. Many at Krug say that the best Grande Cuvée that they have drunk is the 157—which is mostly from the miserable 2001 vintage. They put all the best stuff in it—that is something to think about.

The wine was loaded with limey, Puligny-like drive and a ton of chalky minerality, and I would have guessed that it had even more than the 39% Chardonnay that they did use in it. It cut the fish like a razor blade, and had fantastic structure and chalky length. I think this is a great one to put down for a few years. It is brimming with power.

I don’t know how much of this we will get over the coming months, and I suspect it will only arrive in dribs and drabs. We received only one-third the amount of 165 as 164, and although I hope that is an aberration, I am worried that worldwide demand will see this Champagne become more and more tightly allocated. Get it while you can—Krug Grande Cuvée is truly one of the great wines of the world, and at home on the table with $1000+ bottles of Bordeaux and Burgundy.

A toast to you!

- Gary Westby

Champagne's Crazy Uncle

champagneKate Soto

Last week’s Champagne tasting in Hollywood was smack full of delicious wines, but two bottles in particular got my wine-geek wheels turning--because they were good, but also because they were downright interesting: NV Maxime Toubart “Pur Meunier” and NV Trudon “Monochrome,” both single-varietal Pinot Meunier bottlings. In fact, I realized I’d never given the grape much thought. It’s been a supporting player to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the Champagne triad for centuries (Jancis Robinson notes that it was first mentioned in 1690), but it’s quite rare to see it as a single-varietal Champagne. And two in one tasting? Well, it was enough to get me intrigued. Are we in the midst of a Pinot Meunier revolution? Or was our lineup a fluke?

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The Meunier Institut of the Marne Valley would certainly say it’s the former. Founded in 2015 by Eric Taillet of Eric Taillet Champagne, this collective of nine member wineries is all about the Meunier (even distancing themselves from the Pinot in the moniker), advocating for it to get the respect they say it deserves--in blends but also as a stand-alone wine. And, increasingly, it is. It’s been championed for a long time by the likes of Krug, who uses a large percentage in its tête de cuvée bottlings. But, according to wine writer Peter Liem, the last decade has seen a surge in Pinot Meunier pride, with more and more winemakers claiming it on their labels and making single-varietal wines. Among the grape’s supporters are Champagne Heucq Père et Fils, Egly-Ouriet, Jérôme Prévost, and Bérêche & Fils.

Accounting for more than a third of the plantings in Champagne (slightly more than Chardonnay), it’s been relied upon to add a youthful fruitiness to blends, as well as body and richness. A mutation of Pinot Noir, Meunier carries its own distinctive flavors and properties--fruity notes can range from red raspberries to blueberries, baked apples, or citrus, often alongside a smoky, earthy rusticity and high acidity. Jason Lett of Eyrie Vineyards has called it the crazy uncle of the Pinot family--he says it’s the grape that tells the off-color jokes to the kids at Thanksgiving. There’s a touch of a wild streak to it, which makes it pair up beautifully with mushrooms.

  Pinot Noir on the left and Pinot Meunier on the right. Meunier's clusters are a bit more oblong than Pinot Noir's and its leaves are more indented; Pinot Noir is known for triangular bunches and round leaves.

Pinot Noir on the left and Pinot Meunier on the right. Meunier's clusters are a bit more oblong than Pinot Noir's and its leaves are more indented; Pinot Noir is known for triangular bunches and round leaves.

But it has also built a reputation as something of a workhorse, as it is a much more dependable ripener than its Noir counterpart--it buds later and ripens earlier, so it is less prone to winter frosts and coulure. For this reason, it thrives in the cold Marne Valley, which also has a deeper layer of clay above its chalk bedrock, and this suits Meunier just fine.

There’s no doubt that this grape can make delicious, even distinctive wines. But can the wines age? That’s the question at the heart of the matter. Krug’s Brut Grande Cuvée definitely can, and Meunier makes up the majority of this wine each year. As for for other bottlings, signs point to yes, but the best way to be sure is taste, taste, taste. Nice work if you can find it. Might I suggest you start with these?

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Maxime Toubart “Pur Meunier” Brut Champagne $39.99
From the village of Le Breuil, with all vines facing south toward the Surmerlin River, which flows into the Marne. It’s a toasty golden color in the glass with notes of currant scone and rosemary biscuits on the nose. It’s broad and sumptuous on the palate. Not quiet or linear, this is a wine that likes to tell ambling stories. And they might be off-color.

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Trudon “Monochrome” Brut Champagne $39.99
From a grower-producer in Festigny, farther south in the Marne Valley. Trudon truly respects this varietal, calling it the king grape of the house. It spends three years on its lees. It’s expressive with a sunny, bright disposition, showing ripe red berry fruit and lively acidity.

 

NB: Meunier has a life of its own outside the confines of Champagne where perhaps only the enlightened few appreciate it. It can be found growing in England, Loire Valley, Germany, Sonoma, Oregon, Canada, Australia, and South Africa--it’s all over the map, climate-wise! It also moonlights as a still red, notably in Germany where it goes by Schwarzriesling, but also in the U.S. Teutonic in the Willamette Valley makes one from Borgo Pass Vineyard ($26.99). The winery notes: “The 2016 vintage is lively and bright with lots of berry fruit on the nose. It's a great sipping wine and can be paired nicely with chicken, turkey and salmon." Poe’s 2016 Meunier from “Van der Kamp Vineyard” lies at 1400 feet at the top of Sonoma Mountain ($34.99). Notes from the winery: “We find our red Pinot Meunier to be very floral with aromas of white and black peppercorn. On the palate, there is bright red fruit and loads of savory characteristics reminiscent of my favorite rustic, earthy Burgundies, with forest floor and mushroom components. The wine greatly benefits from air, and always tastes best after a few days of being open.”

 

Kate Soto