Success in the Champagne is dependent on different factors. The Grands Marques have the luxury of being able to source their still wines from the entire region and have as such a large supply source, enabling them to create consistent and balanced champagnes over the years. Vignerons who are lucky enough to own land in villages with Grand Cru status can have it easier than others as the labelling alone will often allow them to command a premium price. Lastly, vignerons who may not be blessed with parcels in well-known villages have two options; either they live comfortably by simply selling their still wines to the big coops or to the Grands Marques, or they can take another path and try something different, creating their own identity.
Laherte Frères is such a domain. They own about nine hectares of land spread over ten communes and covering an astonishing seventy different parcels. Some of it is Premier Cru, but most of it is AOC Champagne. About half of the land is already cultivated biodynamically (wines marked with a little moon and the sun on the label) while the rest is currently being converted. The domain was founded in the nineteenth century and the seventh generation, starting with Aurélien, is being prepared to take over, although the rest of the family is still very much involved in the domain. The family holdings are mainly located around Epernay, Chavot (where the winery is located), Moussy and Vaudancourt. In addition, they own parcels in the Côte des Blancs and the Marne Valley.
Every sommelier course covering Champagne will tell you that there is only one terroir that matters, chalk. While it is often said that the most famous champagnes, primarily those in the Côte des Blancs, do grow on chalk and marl, terroir can be as diverse as in any other region on in the country. The Marne Valley for instance may have ample supply of chalk deep down; the topsoil consists mainly of clay and sand. Old vines will penetrate these layers to get their roots in the chalk, but the effects of these top layers are still present in the wine, creating rounder, more rich and direct wines. Going south to the Côte des Blancs, top layers are much thinner, creating mineral wines that are based on acidity. For a terroir geek though, the Côte Sud d’Epernay is one of the most interesting parts of the region. It is smack in the middle of the two main soil types, creating a mosaic of microterroirs. If your purpose as a vigneron is to create terroir wines, the possibilities here are incredible.
Laherte Frères is doing exactly that. Ignoring the logistical challenges of managing seventy different parcels, they try to vinify each parcel separately as they believe that this offers them the most liberty in order to create a terroir-representative blend. Their entry-level wine, the Ultradition is the perfect example. Representing the three common varieties and wines sourced from parcels in all of their main terroirs, it is a very open champagne, fresh on the nose with hints of citrus at first, apple and riper fruit in the back. Pinot meunier makes up about 60% of the cuvee which shows especially well in the mouth, offering a quite fleshy sensation which is immediately covered by a strong acidity that makes it a perfect starter, packing quite the punch without becoming too overbearing.
My absolute favourite is the Blanc de Blancs Brut Nature. As the name implies, it’s made up of 100% chardonnay, all sourced from parcels near Chavot. This tells you that you are exposed to a complex terroir characterized by chalky subsoils and lignite, fossilized stones resembling peat, dating back to the Sparnacien geological era. The acidity may start of a bit high and unexpected but carries on razorsharp towards the finish. The still wines were raised on oak for about half a year, which helps to keep the acidity in check by adding lightly toasted aromas. This is really a terrific wine, pure, open and with a striking minerality that lingers on and on. The lightness and clean impression would make it a perfect match with seafood (a classic combination) but I also think it would go great with asparagus.
The Prestige Millesime 2006 is the most traditional champagne. 85% chardonnay and 15% pinot meunier, around half of it with an élevage in new oak. This shows in the wine as it is a lot richer in style, grilled notes, almonds and a spiciness that comes on a bit too strong in the finish but that will hopefully balance out with a couple of years in the cellar. 2006 is in general not known as the greatest vintage of the past decade (hint – if people say a wine will go great with food, don’t cellar it) but my experience is quite the contrary. Yes, most of them are open and readily approachable, but the Prestige for instance has good acidity that can serve as the backbone for aging, so I would not hesitate tucking a couple of bottles away.
A step up brings us to Les Vignes d’Autrefois 2010. 100% Pinot meunier, around 60 years old and located mainly near Chavot in parcels consisting of clay and loam in the topsoils, covering chalk and marl. The other parcels are a bit further south around Mancy where the terroir resembles the chalk and lignite subsoils from the Sparnacien that we already saw in the Brut Nature. Grapefruit on the nose with a hint of earthiness, floral aromas that suddenly pop up if you let the bubbles die out. Incredibly light in the mouth, on the palate you don’t even feel the wine for a moment until it comes back together in the finish creating a long and velvety sensation. The complexity it offers is amazing and it would be fascinating to try it with different foods. If you work with subtle flavours in a dish, the lightness of the palate would not be overbearing, but the richness of the finish would enhance the overall sensation. It is an incredible wine that will also benefit from a couple of years in the cellar.
In 2003 the family decided to experiment with all varieties permitted in Champagne. You may be forgiven if you only known chardonnay, pinot meunier and pinot noir as the other four varieties represent the 0.1% of the region. A selection of the three usual varieties together with arbanne, petit meslier, pinot blanc and fromenteau (pinot gris) was planted on a specially selected parcel near Chavot. The first vintage released was 2005, called Le Clos at the time and the reserve wines have been kept in a solera, meaning that the most recent release of Les 7 (referring to the seven varieties used), the new name of the cuvee, is made up of six different vintages (2005 to 2011). This wine was not tasted at the domain due to the small quantities produced, but a couple of weeks later back in Belgium over the course of two days.
Very delicate at first with some of the finest beads I have ever seen, extremely persistent. Even on the second day the wine is still full of life, displaying the same freshness as when it had just been uncorked. It is a bit closed on the nose at first, after with it slowly opens up to more mineral tones supported by agrum and a hint of vanilla. It is really difficult to pinpoint exactly what kind of flavours you find, as they seem change continuously. The palate is delicate but more present and structured than you would expect from the nose. Autolytic sensations (the effect of keeping the wine sur lie for two years, which is surprising here as you would normally need old vines or a longer aging period) but what I immediately got in the finish was the spiciness that you normally associate with pinot gris. You have all of these different sensations but at the same time you can clearly see why this is champagne, the crisp minerality and the richness of the palate are dead giveaways.
Laherte Frères was the highlight of our most recent visit as it really showed us that you don’t need to be huge or based in one of the Premier or Grand Cru villages to make astonishing wines. We were most impressed by the identity shown through the wines. Even though each one was distinct and unique, they all seemed to carry the same signature: delicate, mineral and exemplary expressions of terroir. I am normally not a fan of champagne and food combinations but throughout tasting these I could simply come up with tons of different dishes that would match up perfectly with the sheer deliciousness of these wines. I would urge you to try them out yourselves if you can find them.
Other wines tasted include Rosé Ultradition, Rosé de Saignée Les Beaudiers and Les Grappes Dorées
Credit for the photos goes to Xavier Coulmier, many thanks.