Champagne Leclerc-Briant – A Profile

I must say straight away that this is not the profile of this Epernay Champagne house, founded in 1872, which I expected to write, following a visit in February 2010.  Nor would there normally be such a delay from visiting to publication. But in this case, there have been special and tragic circumstances. 

The 2010 visit was a particularly happy occasion.  Pascal Leclerc-Briant, director if the estate, was in ebullient good form. And I met him with a group of my very switched-on Champagne watchers and friends:  Stephen Charters MW, Professor of Champagne Management at Reims Management School, Peter Liem, a US journalist resident in Champagne and the foremost international commentator on Champagne and its wines (http://www.champagneguide.net/) and Andrew Hudson, associate of Scala School of Wine, London.  He was very keen to show us the pride and joy of this biodynamic estate, a contiguous 6ha single plot in Cumières (see picture above) as well as discuss Champagne Leclerc-Briant and taste its wines.  The estate’s other vines were in Epernay and the villages of Damery, Dizy, Hautvillers and Verneuil. 

Ten months later Pascal died quite unexpectedly during the night of the 6th October 2010, at the far too young an age of 60.  Champagne has lost one its most dedicated innovators and engaging personalities.  I thought it best to wait one year before publication, both out of respect to his memory and his substantial contribution to Champagne.  There is too, the need to allow the dust of the succession to settle.  His four daughters have taken over and are fully committed to building the future of this house: Ségolène, the eldest who has taken the helm, then Astrid, Sonia and Diane.  

In 1999, Pascal Leclerc-Briant, who had taken over and fully supported his father Bertrand’s organic practices begun in 1947, took the pioneering decision to gradually convert the whole of this estate to biodynamics. His father had been impressed too in the 1960s with natural cures for a serious illness he suffered.  Pascal studied biodynamics and took advice particularly from the famous biodynamic Vouvray estate Domaine Huët under Noël Pinguet in the Loire.  Biodynamics (called ‘biodynamie’ in French, a little confusing since organic is a similar term in French: ‘agriculture biologique’ or ‘bio’ for short) is a serious extension of organics and always involves as far as possible, organic farming’s rejection of chemical treatments, but goes further.

Just because most biodynamic producers are also organic, should not hide the fact that biodynamics is different in major ways from organics.  Quite apart from eliminating or reducing chemical treatments to certifiable levels, biodynamics tries to harness cosmic forces, derived from the configuration of the planets and moon. to strengthen the fertility of the soil and the immune mechanisms of plant life in their resistance to diseases.

The Leclerc-Briants trialled half a hectare in 1990 and doubled this in 1991 and gradually expanded the land under this regimen.  Between 2000-02, the whole estate was converted to this method and official Ecocert (organic) Demeter (biodynamic) ‘in conversion’ status was granted.  In 2008, the first Leclerc-Briant finished champagnes certified ‘organic wine’ (in French ‘agriculture biologique’ or ‘AB’) were marketed.  The aim of Ségolène and her sisters is to gain full Demeter certification for all the estate and wines, as well as Ecocert, as soon as possible. It is estimated that by the end of 2011, 90% of production will be organic and biodynamic methods used throughout the estate. 

At the time of his death in October 2010, Pascal Leclerc-Briant oversaw the biggest single champagne estate (30ha) employing biodynamics and certainly, one of only two biodynamic champagne ‘houses’ as opposed to a grower.  The other is Fleury Père et fils in Courteron (Aube).  Although officially, as a ‘house’, a ‘négociant manipulant’ (NM), Leclerc-Briant did not buy any grapes in, so de facto behaved as a grower, making wine only from their own harvest.  An important stipulation of course for any biodynamic producer is that if they are a ‘house’, all grapes bought in must also be of biodynamic origin.  This effectively rules out biodynamics as an option for all the largest houses.

A second major blow came in January 2011, when Ségolène and her sisters were forced to sell off over 50% of the vineyards, some 13ha to Lanson BCC, the second biggest champagne grouping and including 2ha to Louis Roederer and a further 2 ha; a total of 17ha, reducing the Leclerc-Briant estate to 13ha.  The land lost was mostly from Verneuil but included parcels in Cumières, although not the prized core of the vineyard Les Chèvres Pierreuses.  The reduction of production volume will be over 150,000 bottles per annum.  The sale was forced by the wish of Pascal’s sister to liquidate her side of the estate after a history of dissension with her brother before his death.  Clearly there is going to be an intense strategic rethink about the future plans of the house but the new leadership seems committed to continue with biodynamics.  If maintaining supply means changing the policy to buy in grapes, the house will be hard put to stay purely biodynamic.

Pascal’s legacy will be of course the wines he produced and these cuvées are discussed later.  Although he continued the organic strategy of his father, it is his determined pursuit of biodynamics that marks out his work.  But this was a means to a more profound end: a belief that great champagne should be an expression of its terroir in as precise a way as possible.  In 1992 he produced three single-vineyard champagnes when such a thing was strikingly rare and original.  The series was ‘Les Authentiques’ and the lieux-dits, mainly but not exclusively Pinot Noir, were all from Cumières:  Les Chèvres Pierreuses, Les Crayères and Le Clos des Champions, all premiers crus. Of these, the latter has been discontinued and replaced by another single-vineyard cuvée La Croisette, a blanc de blancs from near Epernay.

He was also enterprising and something of a showman. He opened a small museum of champagne artefacts, held the world record for a ‘champagne fountain’ using 14404 flutes in Los Angeles in 1984, dabbled in inventing a new way to open champagne and even had his more athletic visitors abseiling down into the impressive 30m deep cellars in Epernay. There is a staircase too in case you are planning a visit.

Over the years Pascal deliberately bought, sold and swopped plots in Cumières so as to build up the large 6ha vineyard of Les Chèvres Pierreuses.  Biodynamic treatments are much easier on bigger workable plots, with less ‘interference’ from neighbouring conventional treatments drifting onto the vines.  If you have many things to do in the vineyard and have to do them more often, as biodynamics requires, it is far easier if you can concentrate the work on larger parcels of vines.  He told us that under biodynamics yield has dropped but the grapes are riper.  Cumières of course is noted for being often ‘first to pick’ out of all Champagne.  Climate change as well as fuller ripening has advanced the harvest date at the house from the 25th September to the 15th in 40 years.  Vine age is high; half the vineyard is over 30 years old.  He was full of plans to keep bees in the vineyards and plough with horses. The green alleys in the vineyards were to be expected when we looked at Les Chèvres Pierreuses, a further brake on yield, but the healthy crumbly tilth of soil that has not been compressed or turned grey-brown with herbicide, like so much of Champagne’s landscape, was a delight to see.

The cellar at first seems rather more conventional in approach with a traditional as well as pneumatic press.  But only the cuvée is used, only natural yeasts (very unusual in Champagne but of course in line with the criteria of holistic and natural winemaking) and the cellars being 30m at their deepest are unusually cool, excellent for lees-aging. Remouage (riddling) is manual.  SO2 levels at bottling are 40-50mg/L – low for the region and to an extent a function of the house’s policy of full malolactic which favours, eventually, lower doses of SO2.  Lees-ageing averages 3-4 years, longer for the top cuvees. 

We have not made a clear judgement on the quality of this house.  Partly because we have not yet assessed enough of the whole range.  But most importantly because the future direction and work of the house needs a little more time to emerge.  We hope with a passion that the commitment to make high quality champagne which expresses powerfully where it came from, will continue.

Wines Tasted (February 2010)

 Cuvee de Reserve Brut NV  70PN 30CH This was a blend of 04/05 & 06. Aged since 02/07  Disgorged 11/09.  Bio. 8g/L  About 50% of the total production.  A lean citrusy nose, but opens to be quite floral, lily and grass.  A slight soap perfume element.  Quite earthy, followed by sherbet and lime, elegant and fresh.  An intriguing honeysuckle and bitter note on finish and some very slight reduction.

 Monocrus

Les Chèvres Pierreuses  (Cumieres LD)   40PN 40CH 20 PM  Cultivés en bio-dynamie. Blend of 05/06  Rather a flat, slightly closed nose, earthy and mushroom aromas but bright and crunchy in texture.  Smoky.  Earthy fruit on palate.

 La Croisette (Epernay) Blanc de Blancs 100CH  A blend of 05/06.  A lovely intense tarragon and chives and citrus nose, very expressive and pronounced, quite startling aromatics.  Ripe but precise.  Notes of honey, grilled nuts, ham and rillettes. Quite a pot pourri.   This wine was tasted again in London Dec 2010.  Showed bottle age aromas and slightly funky.  Nougat and dried peel – much more developed after 10 months.  Meaty, earthy and very open.  Lacking some finesse.

 Vintage Wines

Cuvee Divine 04  50PN  50PM – the flagship wine. Min 5 years on lees.  Very sponge cake and floral/ grassy nose; green fruits.  Quite vigorous mousse and then a white chocolate and cream note.  A chalky end, mineral and slightly phenolic.  Very characterful and alive. 

 Cuvées not tasted

Cuvee Extra Blanc de Noirs 70PN 30PM

Les Crayeres (Cumieres LD) – 38PN 37PM 25CH 

La Ravinne (Veneuil)  100PM

Cuvee Riche Demi-Sec  70PN 30PM

Cuvee Rubis de Noirs 03 – Rosé de saignée 100PN     

Champagne Leclerc-Briant
67 rue Claude Ruelle
BP 108- 51204 Epernay
0033 3 26 54 45 33
http://www.leclercbriant.com/
See www.wine-searcher.com for stockists
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2 Responses to Champagne Leclerc-Briant – A Profile

  1. Tim Hall says:

    Nick, thanks for your question and sorry to be a little late replying, through other work. You are right, a grower, RM, (or as I prefer to call them, ‘single estate’ or ‘domaine’ champagne) must use only their own grapes and are allowed to buy in a small concession of 5% extra volume from other growers. Leclerc-Briant were originally a small house (NM) but have, since the 1990s, behaved de facto as an RM by not buying grapes. In theory they could relinquish the NM status and revert to RM but there may be tax, the unknown future policy option or other legal niceties that make them technically retain the NM status. There may well be stringent requirements to comply with if you apply to become an NM and it may therefore not be something you give up very lightly. Most buyers of Leclerc-Briant will not be bothered or know about this issue and champagne geeks will know about the particular policy of this producer. I doubt many would not buy or try thse wines simply because they discover they are not technically an RM. Who knows, in a world where RM has become a PC issue for some?

  2. NIck Caruth says:

    Question on the classification of RM vs. NM. My understanding was that to qualify as a RM – one had to use 95%+ of their own grapes. If Leclerc-Briant did so (100% as you state) then it would have been able to qualify as an RM? Is there some other reason to classify as an NM?


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