Friday, February 20, 2009

Larmandier-Bernier’s Blended Vintage Champagne

I was looking back through some old notebooks today, doing research for some writing I’m working on, and happened to stumble upon some comments by Pierre Larmandier from several years ago, regarding the vintage champagne that he used to make. Pierre always has the most terrifically interesting things to say, and I often wish that I’d brought along a tape recorder to record all of the conversations we’ve ever had together.

Larmandier used to be in the Club Trésors de Champagne, back when it was called the Club des Viticulteurs—his mother joined the Club in 1974, making Larmandier-Bernier one of the earliest members of the organization. Around the beginning of the current decade, Pierre decided to leave the Club, and while it was not a decision that he took lightly, he felt that it was necessary for him to go his own way. The 1996 was the last of Larmandier-Bernier’s vintage champagnes to be labeled as Spécial Club, and although there were several vintages of wines in the distinctive Club bottles remaining in the cellar, these were released later with a plain white label.

The Club wine used to be made of equal parts Cramant, Chouilly and Vertus, which on the face of it, ought to complement each other quite well. Chouilly tends to be round and rich, especially the side closer to Cramant, while the Cramant parcels to the south and east of the village itself combine strength with finesse, and Larmandier has old vines here. Vertus is leaner, more linear, with a more pronounced acidity that gives it a lot of focus and structure.

However, Pierre told me that with his new methods of working—biodynamics, natural yeasts, et cetera—this proportion didn’t work anymore. “The wines fight each other,” he said. He cited natural yeasts as perhaps being a primary culprit in this, as he had stopped using cultured yeasts for the primary fermentation beginning in 1999. “Cultured yeasts make more homogenous wines,” he said. “They tend to be easier to blend.” His new wines, though, were now too strong in their respective individual characters to play well with each other.

The last of the blended vintage champagnes from Larmandier-Bernier was the 2000; since then, his two vintage wines (one of which isn’t even vintage-dated) are both highly terroir-specific. I used to like the Larmandier Spécial Club quite a bit, but I don’t miss it. I like the Vieille Vigne de Cramant and Terre de Vertus even better for their individuality of expression and uncompromising personalities.


Christian Miller said...

That's a strange and fascinating notion, that the vineyard character could evolve in such a way as to make the blend worse. But I'm still not sure what he means by "the wines fight each other." One thing I have observed in many blending sessions of a variety of wines, over the years: with 2 wines of good quality and distinct character, an 80-20 or 90-10 blend favoring either of the two wines is almost always better than a 50-50 or 60-40 blend. Relevant, or am I just rambling? But then this is besotted ramblings, no?

Peter Liem said...

I do think it's relevant! I don't see this as such a strange idea, as in my limited experience with doing blending tastings in various regions around the world, it seems common that wines of strong personalities can often seem to cancel each other out, making a blend actually feel less than the sum of its parts. Blending can enhance certain wines, obviously, but it can also detract from them as well. It's common to hear chefs de cave in Champagne comment that a certain wine wasn't included in a blend because "it had too strong a personality." It makes sense to me that as Larmandier's wines grew more intense in character, due to more conscientious viticulture, he had to adapt his methods in the winery to accomodate them.

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