On the Trail

In Champagne with Louise Brison

Gary Westby

The French village of Noé-les-Mallets is the most remote place I have visited in Champagne. The roads leading to it make you feel like you're in the middle of nowhere. Even though it's Champagne country, there are no other crops or vineyards along the way; it's nothing but wind farms. As I made the drive this past month, alone in the rental car with my thoughts, it felt like I was going to fall off the edge of the earth. "Where is the GPS girl taking me?" I was thinking nervously. Then all of a sudden you hang a right and you drop down into a valley of vines and the village itself—so small it doesn’t even have a baker. It’s a quaint little hamlet about ten kilometers northeast of Burgundy, but it feels like it’s a hundred kilometers from anything recognizable. It was there in the midst of the unknown that I met up with Delphine Brulez, the winemaker and owner of Louise Brison; a small grower we first did business with ten years ago. 

At that time, however, most people didn’t really understand the idea of grower/producer Champagne. Why would they want to purchase wine from a tiny, unknown, organic producer in the Aube without a brand name or recognizable label? We loved the wines even back then, but we didn’t think there was much we could do to help sell them. Much has changed since then, however. Here at K&L we've spent the last decade increasing the awareness of the grower/producer genre with names like Franck Bonville and Launois, while the market overall has recently become much more interested in organically-farmed Champagne. Louise Brison has only been making Champagne since 1991, but they've been growing grapes for generations. The family came from nothing. The grandmother was the first family member to buy vines and they’ve slowly ramped up the production ever since.

While the winemaking facility at Brison is new, Delphine is known for her old school approach when it comes to production. She uses only the old-fashioned Coquard basket press in the winery, a more labor intensive process because it requires more hand work than a pneumatic press, but one that results in a more delicate pressing and a higher quality of wine. She also barrel ferments all of her wines, rather than use that standard stainless steel tank—another throwback to old school winemaking. Krug is the only other producer I know of who barrel ferments its entire production. It’s much more difficult to ferment in wood than in stainless steel because of the sterilization involved and the smaller batches, but barrel fermenting allows for tracking of the parcels as each pressing will go into its own unique group of barrels. They can also experiment with using various types of wood on each parcel to see which styles work best. Barrel fermented Champagnes are also inoculated against future oxidation with the small amount of oxygen that’s introduced early on, resulting in a longer-lived Champagne.

Speaking of long-lived Champagnes, Delphine and I tasted Louise Brison vintages dating back to the original 1991 harvest and they were still remarkably fresh, even in the more challenging years. Delphine has a master’s degree in enology and is the only proprietor we work with who owns an estate and has such qualifications. She studied in Dijon as their property is only ten kilometers from Burgundy, which is fitting because Brison a much more Burgundian approach to winemaking than they have any relation to the large Champagne marketing houses of Reims. It’s for that reason that they make a vintage wine every year regardless of the quality.  Perhaps the most old school thing happening at Brison, however, is the organic farming. People often call farming with chemicals "conventional farming" which causes me to bristle a bit because it’s a relatively new phenomenon in our human history. Farming on Kimmeridgian Clay soil, very much like Chablis, some of the Brison wines even have that classic oyster shell minerality. They’re very careful with the amount of sulfur they use as well, which is another Burgundian trait. 

Everything they do, they do the most expensive and labor-intensive way possible because they’re very concerned about the quality of the wine. They’re still at a point where they’re selling about two-thirds of their grapes, so only the top third of their production goes into the Louise Brison wines. In the entire fifteen hectares they have one other crop on their property: black truffles! Now that's a Champagne pairing I'm looking forward to next time. For a look at our complete selection of Brison wines currently, click here.

-Gary Westby