On the Trail

A Grand Marque Among the Vines

Gary Westby

Almost all of the big houses of Champagne are located in the cities of Epernay or Reims. One of the very few exceptions is Laurent-Perrier; they have their cellars and production facility smack in the middle of the Champagne vineyard in Tours-sur-Marne. It takes forty-five minutes to get there from Reims, but it is one village away from the Mountain of Reims and the Côtes de Blancs and located in the heart of the Grand Valley of the Marne. Being close to the vines gives the entire operation and the wines a very different feel, and I think that proximity is one of the reasons that they make such great Champagne.

Today in their cellars, with the vines growing right over my head, I tasted the range in the Grand Siecle room, just next to the small group of tanks that holds the reserves for the tête de cuvée of the same name. My friend Frederique, who has been working for LP for as long as I have been at K&L, had some great surprises for us; the best of which was a new wine that will replace the non-vintage brut: The Laurent Perrier La Cuvée. Several years ago, Laurent Perrier was fortunate enough to acquire a small Champagne group that owned vineyards and had some very good contracts in the Côtes de Blancs. This is the first product to be released that includes fruit from these marvelous sites and it is a revelation. They have increased the proportion of chardonnay in the blend to 55% (the balance is 30% pinot oir and 15% pinot meunier), and now only use the first and most delicate portion of the grape pressing, while increasing the aging minimum to over four years on the lees. The result is a Champagne with a near blanc de blancs character, singing with Puligny Montrachet-like lime and vibrant chalk. This will no doubt be one of the best non-vintage grand marques on the shelf when it arrives towards the end of the year.

We also tasted the Grand Siècle, which is still based on 2002, with large percentages of 1999 and 1997 from the tanks in the picture above. I believe this is the most underrated of all the tête de cuvees in Champagne. First of all, it is real and honest tête de cuvee, representing only a sliver of their production and allowing them to select the cream of the crop for this bottling. Some of the most famous tête de cuvees are actually the second highest production wine from their respective houses! It is entirely composed of grand cru fruit, and the reserve wines are kept in custom made seamless tanks completely isolated from oxygen. As one would expect from a Champagne that is aged this long from such excellent sources, it is very complex. This complexity is not a vinous, heavy complexity, however; in fact it is almost vanishingly subtle and elegant. I think it's necessary to spend time with the Grand Siècle to truly understand it. The wine is simply lovely with a fantastic bead of tiny bubbles to start and I always feel like a having second glass when I taste it. That is when I start to notice the complexity! That desire for more speaks volumes.

-Gary Westby