There are moments in life when the way you’ve been thinking about something changes completely and you will never look at it the same way again.
I’ve never considered myself a major Champagne consumer. I’ve been familiar with drinking it at celebrations since my teen years, given it as gifts plenty of times, but I’ve never labored over the decision of tasting it. To be sadly honest, most of the time I was more concerned about the brand on the bottle than the taste inside. Most of the time a person learns the key handful of notable and acceptable Champagne brands and simply drinks those on rotation at key events.
Imagine for a moment, that the world of wine was reduced to a handful of producers. That discovery was gone and it was more about the rote duplication of the same taste year after year. What a sad world that would be. Wine is a multiverse: varietals, locations, styles, growing techniques and what it often comes down to is a story. The story of the vineyards, the wine, the grapes, the winemaker, the location— it all feels individual, personal and connected. You buy a wine to celebrate a winery’s history, you buy a Champagne mostly to celebrate your own.
What if you could change that? What if a champagne’s nose was more than bubbles that tickle your nose and the yeasty smell of baking bread? And what if you drank it from a true wine glass instead of a flute or a coupe?
I was honored to recently be granted an audience with Frederic Zeimett, the General Manager of the House of Champagne Leclerc Briant in Epernay. Zeimett, charming, impassioned, and very French, earned his Champagne bonafides through a decades-long stint at Moet & Chandon and later at Vranken Pommery and Maison Chapoutier. During those years he was acquainted with Pascal Leclerc, the 5th generation legacy at the House of Leclerc-Briant. “Pascal was a pioneer in biodynamics and organics,” said Zeimett, in our interview. “He started this in the 1960s and 1970s before any of this was trendy. People thought he was a bit of a crazy guy.”
When Pascal died in 2010, his heirs sold off much of the family vineyards. The house was acquired by American investors in 2012 and Zeimett joined with an eye toward keeping the legacy of Leclerc-Briant intact. With most of the vineyards gone, a substantial cellar of 150,000 bottles remaining, and a history dating back to 1872, there was a basic structure for rebuilding and revitalizing the brand.
Biodynamics has always been a bit of a sticky wicket in wine. Holistic and slightly mystical, it involves listening to the land in a radically intuitive way. We don’t exactly know why it works, it just does. Biodynamics has become an accepted if ever so slightly arcane process in winemaking but is far rarer in the world of Champagne. Zeimettt is a recent convert, a result of time spent in the Loire Valley.
“The making of Champagne has always been a chemical process,” explains Zeimett. The ascension of Champagne is exploded in the post war boom. A confluence of marketing savvy and production increases led to the now accepted process of drinking Champagne as a way of marking every celebratory occasion. What has been left behind is the process of winemaking as Champagnes have become mostly homogenous, blending grapes and villages to create a standardized taste. “We try to make wine first,” says Zeimett with a smile as he lifts a glass to his mouth.
In starting from scratch, Zeimett and his team needed grapes, they began by cultivating 8 hectares of vineyards in the Premier Cru villages of Hautvillers, Mareuil sur Ay, Bisseuil, and Rilly la Montagne. Another differentiator here is that many are a field blend. This means that instead of having rows of a particular varietal, vines of different types live in happy harmony and instead of being harvested at different times for different varietals, all are harvested at the same time. The field blend is more nature’s decision than man’s. The house also brings in approximately 15 hectares of acres from from suppliers who are certified either organic or biodynamic.
Some of the wines are vilified in barrels that are a few years old, lending a subtle buttery note of oak. Wines are left to age for at least 30 months before being disgorged and dosage is kept to a minimum.
The house offers three ranges, a Classic Range of wines that are blended, a Single Vineyard range that highlights a specific terroir, and a specialty range of select cuvees.
I tasted five Champagnes with Zeimett. The most revelatory were the newer wines the Brut Reserve and the La Croisette Selection Parcellaire Blanc de Blancs d’Epernay. The latter which retails for $125, is 100% Chardonnay and has a crisp fruit-forward nose of apple and pear with soft florals. It would easily pair with white meats, seafoods or hard cheeses. The non-vintage Brut Reserve, a blend of Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay, pale in color and sharply effervescent, has a clean and mineral finish. The three earlier Champagnes combine the heritage of Leclerc-Briant with a fresh finish. Particularly charming is the Brut Rose, a blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier that lacks the cloying pinkness of many Rosé wines. Instead it is salmon-hued and balanced with a note of spicy red fruits. The touch of Pinot Noir makes it a good match for seafood as well as lamb or duck. The Cuvee Divine was created using the solera process, a method of combining vintages for a more resonant flavor palate.
What’s next for Zeimett and Leclerc-Briant? He’s most excited about opening up the house for tastings and spoke eloquently about creating not a tasting room but tasting spots, places where people can come and be connected with the wines and the vineyards that birthed them. “I was hoping it would be my Christmas present, but perhaps Easter instead,” he said with a classic Gallic shrug. Good things, it seems, takes time and a bit of patience.
Leclerc-Briant is distributed through both Sherry-Lehman and Golden State. For more information please visit: http://leclercbriant.fr