06 Dec Leclerc Briant Begins its Australian Story
These days, few champagne brands dare to traverse the great divide between France and Australia to compete in one of its toughest markets, dominated by comparatively few houses (only 100 houses out a of a potential 382). When they do, it’s even more remarkable when they are small, relatively unheard of and biodynamic.
Let me introduce you to Leclerc Briant.
I’ve long been aware of the brand; a keen observer of its game of Monopoly playing out along the banks of the River Marne. Following the untimely – and surprising – death of its patriarch and company director, Pascal Leclerc, the family sold off a number of its coveted biodynamic parcels to Louis Roederer and Lanson BCC, mostly around Cumières and Verneuil which border the river. Winemaking facilities were also sold off, leaving nothing but the brand itself. It’s an all too common tale as Champagne elders bequeath generationally owned and managed land to those they leave behind. Family politics, or just a lack of interest, is often par for the course – as they say – leading small family-run houses through a period of reflection and consolidation.
But, in this case, it’s not all bad news.
The legacy of Leclerc Briant’s vineyards lives on in Roederer’s biodynamically engineered champagnes as well as Lanson’s organic Green Label. And in 2012, the brand, and some small vineyard holdings, was resurrected by an American couple who wisely appointed famed oenologist from Duval-Leroy, Hervé Jestin, to the role of chef de caves. To the top, they installed CEO, Frederic Zeimett, whose history traverses numerous senior management roles within Champagne. The couple have since gone about acquiring organic and biodynamic vineyards with great speed and rigour, now laying claim to 10 hectares of biodynamically certified vineyards whilst supplementing with a further 10 hectares purchased from growers, all of which are organically certified.
When I caught up with Leclerc Briant’s Australian importers, David and Justine Lyons from French Vine, they seemed unperturbed by its recent history. The decision to bring Leclerc Briant to Australia 12 months ago was a convincing one for a couple that had spent five years learning about wine in France.
“We recognised the potential for artisanal French wine in Australia,” says Justine. “David and I always wanted to feature a biodynamic champagne in our portfolio so we met with the team at Leclerc Briant, understood the story of the house and their plans for the future. We were converted, and by the time we had actually tasted the champagne, we were completely sold,” she says.
Leclerc Briant’s Directeur Commercial, Pierre Bettinger, agrees that Australia has untapped potential.
“We see a trend for better quality wine and food; people who consumer wine are now more concerned with what they eat and drink,” he says. “There is a ‘farm to the table’ trend for food and the same applies to wine – toward smaller, better focused wineries and even organic and biodynamic wine.”
Originally founded in 1872 as ‘Leclerc Estate’, the house’s sustainable journey can be traced back to the 1960s to its modern-day founder, Bertrand Leclerc (a fourth generation member of the Leclerc family), who decided to farm organically because the chemicals he was spraying in his vineyard brought about prolonged episodes of sickness.
“He also believed it wasn’t good practice for his employees as well as the people drinking his wines,” says Bettinger. “He effectively became one of the first in Champagne to try the organic approach, as well as one of the first willing to value his terroir and make single-vineyard champagnes. Today we call him a visionary, back then they were calling him the crazy hippy on the hills of Epernay!”
Whether he knew it at the time or not, Bertrard was sewing the seeds for what would become the defining character of the house with long-term ramifications for the region. In 1989, the house became one of the first to begin a dedicated conversion to biodynamics under the stewardship of Bertard’s son, Pascal Leclerc, establishing them as one of the forefathers of the region’s modern-day biodynamic trend especially for their single parcel champagnes from Les Crayères, Les Chèvres Pierreuses and Clos des Champions.
Leclerc Briant’s biodynamic profile sets the tone for a minerally imbued wine style which has been largely adopted by its new cellar master, albeit with some adjustments.
“Our champagnes are gastronomic, made to be enjoyed by themselves but they also pair easily with food,” says Bettinger. “They have a lot of tension, energy, are very clean and crisp in style with small bubbles and low sugar,” he says.
Today, the house’s upward trajectory can be felt in its modern-day story of American entrepreneurialism driving traditional practices, indicating some major changes are afoot. To this, Bettinger says that the house continues to forge ahead.
“The house relies on the two values that have shaped its past – respect and singularity – whilst giving them a distinctly modern twist,” he says.
The launch of a short film, a new hotel in Epernay and some tweaks in winemaking are just some of the things flagged along the path of progress. Already, Hervé Jestin has made some changes, enhancing the house’s mineral profile to produce greater clarity and focus. At a recent trade tasting I attended, the contrast was stark. Leclerc Briant’s Brut Reserve NV and Rosé NV were much cleaner, had more tension and salinity. By contrast, the last champagne produced by Pascale Leclerc – the Millésime 2007 – was more expressive of fruit and umami flavours as well as being heavier in profile.
Today’s Leclerc Briant champagnes are excellent wines that have been snapped into focus by the touch of a more modern hand. And for Australia, they represent potential within a section of the market that remains small; quality-driven, diverse and considerably good value for money.
French Vine imports Leclerc Briant’s entry-level Brut Reserve NV (RRP $90), Rosé NV (RRP $105) and Vintages (RRP $120) as well as the rare and prestige Blanc de Meuniers (RRP $250) and single parcel La Croisette (RRP $250).
My tasting notes follow.
Leclerc Briant Brut Reserve NV
A blend of 65% pinot noir, 20% meunier and 15% chardonnay. Vinified and aged in oak. Bottles receive three years on lees and given a dosage of 2g/L.
Offers a youthful and fresh nose of honeysuckle and lime, followed by honeyed fruit notes and a wet clay minerality. The palate is lively and fruity yet approachable and creamy in texture. Nice lingering, chalky finish.
Leclerc Briant Brut Rose NV
A blend of 75% pinot noir and 25% meunier. Includes 10% red wine from Cumières. Bottles receive over four years on lees and given a dosage of 6g/L.
A highly aromatic nose of fruit and savoury appeal. Notes of strawberry hull, rose petals, peach and white pepper prevail. On the palate, it’s lively and creamy, mingling with a distinct clay-chalk minerality and excellent salinity. Good finish that is dry and fresh.
Leclerc Briant Millésime 2007
A blend of 70% pinot noir and 30% meunier. Bottles are given a dosage of 6g/L.
Quite a different style to the others, and the last produced under the stewardship of Pascale Leclerc. It offers a umami tsunamic of beef stock and vegemite undertones coupled with a rich fruitiness. Not as tight and precise as the house’s more recent champagnes but still displaying excellent acidity and saline minerality.