Champagne Laurent-Perrier – A Profile

Laurent-Perrier’s reputation as a tip top grande marque house has been in renaissance some years.  Right now they seem to be on something of a roll.  They have always occupied a slight niche amongst champagne lovers, who see the wines as quietly expressive of a discreet and elegant style with a good deal of finesse.  Perhaps the house is gaining kudos from the perceptible trend amongst champagne nuts for styles with fresher mineral and floral finesse rather than the traditional preference for early strong flavours of fruitiness and biscuit-toasty autolysis.  Not surprisingly, Chardonnay dominates most of the house’s cuvées and there is little Pinot Meunier.  Perhaps Charles, Prince of Wales and heir to the UK’s monarchy, knows a thing or two about ‘LP’ as fans call it.  The house has his personal royal warrant since 1998, although his insignia appears only on the Brut NV.

Laurent-Perrier is part of a much wider Groupe Laurent-Perrier encompassing quite a portfolio apart from the main brand itself: Salon, perhaps for connoisseurs the single most sought-after champagne, Delamotte the sister of Salon, Champagne de Castellane, Lemoine and Chateau Malakoff, bought in 2004 and the Epernay winery and cellars sold to Gosset in 2009 but the Malakoff brands and vineyards kept.  These Malakoff wines are Champagnes Oudinot, Jeanmaire and Beaumet.  The Laurent-Perrier label in 2010 made some 7m bottles per annum, the rest of the group some 3.5m, although production has been higher than this in 06/07.  Group turnover in 2009 topped over €180m.  While the group has sizeable vineyard holdings of 150ha making it one of the larger négoce estates, they supply only 10% of its grape needs, the vast majority being bought in.

The house was founded in 1812 by a family of barrel makers turned wine merchants based in Tours-sur-Marne, still the house’s quiet base today, the only big house away from Reims or the Epernay hinterland.  In 1871, the heir to the original firm was its chef de cave Eugène Laurent and his marriage in that year to Mathilde-Emilie Perrier created the brand name.  After his death in 1887 she became one of Champagne’s great ‘widows’ and the house was making 600 thousand bottles when war broke out in 1914.  The British market was the biggest customer and the style, in the UK at least, was for a dry champagne.  In London society since 1890 it was famous for its nil dosage bottlings, the British having shifted from the continental and American taste for syrup-sweet champagne drunk with desserts and after a meal, to dry champagnes drunk with main dishes.  After Mathilde’s died in 1925 the house languished and closed down in 1938.  A Lanson, Marie Louise de Nonancourt bought the moribund firm but it was not until after the war that true revival began in 1949.  The rest is history, or it should be said, the history of Bernard de Nonancourt.  This man’s outstanding role in building phoenix LP out of almost nothing to what it is today has only Taittinger for comparison in the annals of families performing Champagne miracles.

Bernard de Nonancourt was a French resistance hero in the ‘maquis’ during World War II.  In 1949 he eventually took charge of a wreck of a champagne house selling only 80 thousand bottles a year.  He managed to mix marriage and sales magic, selling 6000 cases to Caribbean and South American French embassies on his honeymoon alone, doubling the firm’s sales in one go.  He was Mr Dynamo, probably Champagne’s greatest single personal force since the last war.  The house was one of the first to adopt stainless steel fermentation tanks with  temperature control in the 1960s.  In 1960, the firm’s prestige cuvée Grand Siècle was launched, unusually almost always a blend of three years, and in 1968 the Brut Rosé market leader appeared based on the 1964 crop, made saignée and later to become the highest priced and most successful NV rosé.  In 1981 the Ultra Brut NV with nil dosage was launched.  Three major and trend-setting innovations is not a bad record for Bernard de Nonancourt.  But it was all done with galloping success and expansion of the firm and its group.  And with remarkable continuity, with chef de cave Alain Terrier seamlessly replaced by the talented Michel Fauconnet.  By the time of Bernard’s retirement in 2005, the firm had moved from being in 100th place to Champagne’s No4 house.  He died in November 2010.

As mentioned, Chardonnay dominates the grape blends in all the cuvées except the Brut Rosé which is always 100% Pinot Noir.  The LP Brut NV is 50% Chardonay, 35% Pinot Noir and 15% Pinot Meunier, spends about three years on the second lees and has some 12-14% of reserve wines.  It is the only wine with a Meunier fraction apart from the Demi-Sec.  The Ultra Brut is 55% Chardonnay, the vintage wines about 50% Chardonnay and the Grand Siècle some 55% Chardonnay.  All fermentation and storage of reserve wines is in stainless steel as you would expect from the style, although malolactic is completed throughout to temper the stark elegance and for stability.  The zero dosage Ultra Brut NV’s 1981 pedigree far pre-dated the present hipster trend for this style and might be seen as some kind of homage to the house’s famous ‘Grand Vin Sans Sucre’ sold in London from 1889.  It is made from selected riper fruit and now shows a perceptible fuller style where once it differed only from the LP Brut NV by its lack of dosage.

The Brut Rosé NV, unusual as both a saignée style (although occasionally with the addition of red still wine in poorer years) and a blanc de noirs, 100% Pinot Noir, has been a roaring success, established long before the rosé boom and has effortlessly priced itself above almost all NV rosé.  The squat ‘baby’ bottle made it distinctive and its frank fruitiness and hefty dosage (at one time some 15g/L) earnt it the reputation of a ‘girl’s best present’.  I’ve always felt this slightly unfair, even though when on a visit to LP HQ, its frank colour was described to me as ‘comme les cuisses d’une nymphe émue.’  The dosage has been reduced recently to about 12g/L, it has four years on the second lees and there is a dried peel and aromatic complexity that make it stand above average pink fizz.  Millions of men trying to impress certainly think so.  They might impress the discerning recipient even more if they went for the lesser known but prestige Cuvée Alexandra Rosé (80% Pinot Noir, 20% Chardonay), always a vintage wine and made by LP to celebrate Bernard de Nonancourt’s daughter Alexandra’s wedding in 1987.  The first vintage was 1982 and the wine is generally aged six years on the second lees.

Cuvée Grand Siècle was not the first prestige cuvée in 1960 but was the first to be ‘multi-vintage’, in fact a blend of three.  To my mind Champagne’s current most stylish bottle design and presentation, it’s first blend combined 1955, ’53 and ’52.  Some 19 versions have appeared in total up to now, but now every consecutive vintage is included.  It is assembled only from grands crus grapes from ten villages and aged five to seven years before release.

Question:  Will this house ever make a Blanc de Blancs?  I’d be first in the queue.

The house receives visitors only by prior appointment but the welcome is warm and informative. The trip out to Tours-sur-Marne from Reims or Epernay is well worth it.

The Wines

The entry level LP Brut NV has improved hugely in the last few years, with a slightly fuller flavor.  In 11/07 it showed relative paleness,  floral and red berry flavours with a slight fresh grassiness on palate –the Chardonnay obvious.  Elegant.  12g/L  In 01.12 Light nose, lovely texture and real depth of flavour.  Cream and green leafy flowers but with attractive roundness of texture too.
Vintage ’97 07.07 Mid-pale, lovely light weight, terrific minerality but a lacy texture with cream and mild hazelnut complexity. Lingering. Time to go.
Vintage ’99 02.09 50CH 50PN A lovely savoury lean note.  Brittle, crackling mousse.  Fresh.
Vintage ’00 02.10  Real bite but with biscuit development and opening, savoury and long.  Rather tight and wound up nevertheless and time to go.
Vintage ’02 In 02.11 Showed persistent mineral and cream.  Wild lily and herbs. 01.12  Real energy and length, light-stepping but so strapping.  Real power but lovely creamy balance too.
In 03.12 this was the same with citrus, nougat and moss tones, so refreshing.  LP on a roll.
Cuvée Rosé NV Market leading rosé at a consistently high price and it sells out. 100%PN  Saignée. 15g/L reducing to approximately 12g/L by 2012.  Tasted often.  Showing fresh red berries, often arrestingly aromatic,  light texture, a note of candied orange complexity.  At times has seemed skimpy and stretched, with light summer fruits, the emphasis on light.  Given the dosage of a few years ago, it’s been surprisingly unsyrupy, with a dryish impression.  But can taste ripe and sweetish often.   In 01.09 it was attractive, lean style, restrained. Slight varnish and confection, rather flat and suppressed.  In 11.09 it was a dryish impression; bitter cherry and exotic touch, maybe not profound but not crude or obvious or cloying either.  Rather good and refreshing.  At least it tastes like a light red sparkling wine, not a pink white.  In 01.12 A real fruiterer’s shop, spicy edge and cloves.  Seems a little sweet.
Ultra-Brut NV Nil dosage, with 1g/L in the base wine  55CH 45PN  The Chardonnay comes mainly from Le Mesnil and the early-ripening  Sézanne.  Tasted quite often.  In 11.09 it had a warm honey nose, and then crunch and dry bite follow. It is well done.  In 01.12 it was intense, mineral and long; taut but mouth-filling.
Alexandra Rosé ’98 Tasted 01/12 Ripeness and fruit but with intriguing light tannins in a vinous style.  A fresh pith and nutty complexity too.  A very special rosé.  About 6g/L  Made by short maceration of the 80% Pinot Noir and then by addition of 20% Chardonnay before six years ageing.
Grand Siècle La Cuvée’ 10.06  47PN  53CH   Pale gold; fresh lily nose with honey-butter behind.  Sea-breeze minerality.  On palate, elegant but quite austere; cut apple and crunchy and no hint yet of development.  Very precise but not too big-scale.  This needs a long time.  Quality shows in long finish of caramel and creamy-herb faint notes.  Admirable but not lovable yet.  This 96/97/00
Grand Siècle Grande Cuvée – two occasions in 01.08  The name was changed from ‘La’ to ‘Grande’ around 2000.   Overall an impression of great finesse – not deep coloured, a balanced combination of mineral and early biscuit notes and crystalline definition on the palate;  mousse unfolds well; long, almond and spice notes.  So refreshing and elegant.
Grand Siècle Grande Cuvée 11.09  Never very obvious.  So elegant and fresh.  No blowsy biscuit here but lily-fresh and mere hint of the bakery.  In 12.10 it showed lovely refined berry nose, dried peel, citrus; sense of density and volume but light-stepping.  Concentrated but subtle.  Top quality and refined, the epitome of the non-biscuit non-blowsy style this house does so well.  In 01.12 it showed its usual lily and powder puff notes; one of the best textures in Champagne and again, in the same month, all of this and great nervosity, with gentle power.

Domaine Laurent-Perrier
51150 Tours-sur-Marne
0033(3) 26 58 91 22
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