I had limited knowledge about the Champagne region before visiting it last year, but I had imagined it to be a fairly stuffy, dated, and stoic region steeped in tradition and impervious to change. I was wrong. There is a spirit of innovation and experimentation that took me by surprise. In fact, a U.S.-based importer of French wines told me he thinks Champagne is the hot region right now, with a number of up-and-coming producers willing to push the envelope to make consumers look at Champagne as a wine as opposed to just “bubbles” saved for a special occasion.
U.S. consumers now have access to a broad range of Champagne that range from the laser-sharp acid-and-rocks Blanc de Blanc to the more traditional brioche-and-toast voluptuous cuvées. The rising popularity of grower Champagne — “Champagne made by the same people who grow the grapes” — has had a direct impact on the diversity of Champagne, and we are lucky in the Bay Area to have a great group of importers and retailers that make these wines readily available.
Last month, I was able to visit two well-regarded small producers: Laherte Frères and Agrapart et Fils. Both Laherte and Agrapart participate in an annual tasting called Terres et Vins de Champagne. Started in 2009, TetV is a showcase for a group of “generally young, hip and highly talented [producers], with strong leanings towards natural viticulture.” At the tasting, these producers present both their finished wine and their vins clair — the still base wine that has competed alcoholic fermentation, but has not gone through the secondary fermentation that produces the Champagne bubbles). By so doing, TetV is sending a clear signal that Champagne should be more than just a fun, fizzy New Year’s Eve quaffer, and that (at its best), Champagne is a wine with complexity and a sense of place.
Founded in 1889, Champagne Laherte Frères is located about 15 minutes south of Epernay in Chavot. Brothers Christian and Thierry Laherte own the winery, and Thierry’s son Aurélien (pictured above) is heavily involved in both the vineyard and cellar. As Aurélien guided us through the winery, I noticed a ledge with a series of empty bottles. Chateau Musar (Lebanon); Ganevat (Jura); Texier (Rhone). France is a fiercely regional country when it comes to wine, and the diversity of wines on display at Laherte was rather unique. Aurélien said that he has a group of winemaker friends in the region who like to try wines from all over, trying to learn through tasting. <<fist bump>>.
Laherte sources grapes from 10 hectares of vineyards — including some parcels of ungrafted rootstock — located south of Epernay, in the Côte des Blancs, and the Vallée de la Marne. Each vineyard is vinified separately, an act that reflects Laherte’s focus on terroir-driven wine.Laherte has two large presses (partial pic above) — a significant investment for a rather small producer, but one which they believe allows them to ensure that grapes are pressed as soon as they are brought in during harvest. They use a mix of bottle caps and natural cork closures during secondary fermentation.
There are a large number of cuvees in the Laherte portfolio, including a Brut Nature and two different rosés (one made by assemblage, another by saignee). My two favorites:
- Les Clos — a field blend from a parcel planted in 2003 that contains seven varieties: Fromenteau , Arbanne, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Meunier, and Petit Meslier (NOTE: I’ve also seen this wine labeled as “Les 7.”). Everything you would want – good fruit and acid balance and striking aromatics.
- Les Vignes d’Autrefois – 100% Pinot Meunier from 40+ year old vines, with a surprising amount of chalky / mineral notes.
One thing to note: some of Laherte’s wines are labeled as NM (Négociant-Manipulant) as opposed to the usual RM (Recolant-Manipulant) expected of small, grower-producers. It’s my understanding that the immediate family members of the Laherte family each owns vineyards which they then individually sell to the estate. Under Champagne’s strict bureaucratic rules, the estate is a Négoce, because they buy their grapes from “others.” Details, details.
Here are other pictures from my visit to Laherte Frères.
If you follow the blog regularly, you know I have a soft spot for Agrapart. It’s been a go-to producer for me, one which I’ve shared with friends, and a wine that I opened this past New Year’s Eve. So I was thrilled to have the chance to visit this Avize-based producer after having a memorable meal at Anselme Selosse’s Hotel Les Avises (a place you must stop by if you’re in the region). I’ve found Agrapart’s wines readily available in my favorite wine shops in San Francisco, so I was somewhat surprised at the small size of the cellar and winery. Shoot – they were hand disgorging all their wines up until three years ago! I tasted three different cuvees: Les 7 Crus (possibly the best sub-$40 Grower Champagne on the market); Terroirs; and Minéral 2005. All these wines were striking and energetic, but the Minéral really took the cake. Made from vineyards in Avize and Cramant, this is a serious wine with mineral (duh) and savory flavors. Lip smacking good.
More pictures from my Agrapart visit.
Story and photos © 2012 John Trinidad