Thursday, October 28, 2010

Laherte Frères et Les Vignes d'Autrefois

Of the dozen or so trade events I managed to attend during the heart of the fall portfolio tasting season in New York, and of the scores of excellent wines I tasted (and the hundreds of not-so-excellent ones), there was one producer whose lineup truly stood out for me, precise and delicious from end to end. That producer is the Champagne house of Laherte Frères, whose wines were featured at the Selection Pas Mal portfolio tasting back in September.

From Laherte's Brut "Tradition," which showed broad, creamy texture and some sponti aromatic characteristics, to their Brut Rosé, a true rosé de répas made from a blend of 60% Pinot Meunier and 30% Pinot Noir with the 10% addition of red wine made from Meunier, and on to the Brut Blanc de Blancs, which displayed serious acidity and structure allied with a deep sense of aromatic grace and elegance, the wines were truly lovely. There were two other wines shown that day that also stood out. As luck would have it, I happened to have a bottle of each at home. And when the occasion called for it earlier this week, I decided it was time for a revisit.

Champagne Extra-Brut "Les Vignes d'Autrefois" (Pinot Meunier), Laherte Frères 2005
$50. 12% alcohol. DIAM. Importer: Triage Wines, Seattle, WA.
The Pas Mal crew poured both the 2004 — the first vintage ever for this wine — and the 2005 at their tasting and my notes remind me that I preferred the '04 on that day. Under more favorable circumstances, though, meaning at the table, with food, with friends, and in a relaxed setting, the 2005 was a thing of beauty. Lush, deep, vibrating with energy and purity of fruit, the wine paired fantastically with our first couple of courses, leading the bottle's contents to disappear all too soon. Made purely with Pinot Meunier from vines planted in 1947 and 1964 in clay and limestone rich soils in the villages of Chavot and Mancy in the Vallée de la Marne, the base wines for "Les Vignes d'Autrefois" are fermented entirely in barrel and do not undergo malolactic fermentation. Needless to say, I was very pleased with the results.

A reasonable memory of high school French should be enough to remind you that "Les Vignes d'Autrefois" means "vines of the past" or "vines from another time." While first and formeost I expect that is the Laherte family's more poetic way of saying "vieilles vignes," I can't help but wonder if it's not also a nod to the fact that Pinot Meunier has become an all but forgotten stepchild, at least in commercial terms, when it comes to the three primary varieties grown in the Champagne region. In any event, I borrowed upon the name for the title of today's post as I think it holds equal relevance to the second wine we drank.

Champagne Extra-Brut "Les Clos," Laherte Frères NV
$60. 12.5% alcohol. DIAM. Importer: Triage Wines, Seattle, WA.
My immediate experience with "Les Clos" on this night was converse to that which I'd had with the "Autrefois." At the Pas Mal tasting, it was the standout of a shining lineup; suffice it to say that, in addition to some more technical details, my notes read something along the lines of, "Fantastic wine... I'm drinking this one." Sandwiched between the forward beauty of the '05 "Les Vignes d'Autrefois" and much anticipated bottles of 1964 Barbaresco and Barolo from Oddero, it was, I fear, not given its proper chance to shine. Such is the danger when opening multiple great wines in one sitting. Nonetheless, I'm confident in saying that the wine was showing great promise and interest — not as immediate in its appeal as "Autrefois" but more mineral, arguably more detailed, and definitely less open-knit. I look forward to trying it again, in a light that will let it fully shine.

"Les Clos," by the way, is another newish wine from Laherte. It's not a vintage-dated wine but to my knowledge there have been only two or, at most, three bottlings of the wine since its first inception. "Les Clos" takes its name from a single, one-hectare vineyard in the town of Chavot, where Laherte Frères is based. The vineyard was planted in only 2003 to all seven of the Champagne varieties: the big three — Chardonnay (18%), Pinot Noir (14%) and Pinot Meunier (18%) — along with the four "heritage" varieties of Champagne, "les vignes d'autrefois," if you will — Fromenteau (10%), Arbanne (8%), Petit Meslier (15%), and Pinot Blanc (17%). All seven varieties are co-harvested and co-fermented.

It gets more complicated than that, though. First, as Peter Liem points out at his worth-every-penny, subscription-only site,, "Note... that this is the composition of the vineyard—the wine itself doesn’t necessarily correspond to these percentages, since the yields of the varieties are not consistently the same." Second, and bearing the same idea in mind when it comes to ratios, "Les Clos" is a solera method Champagne, a "perpetual blend" to borrow again from Peter's words. The wine will be an example of constant evolution over the years, one meant first and foremost to express terroir, as each new vintage is added to the first (2005) and all subsequent years, in the old Burgundy barrels in which "Les Clos" is aged. (For a little more information on Champagne made in the solera method, you may wish to (re)visit my post on Anselme Selosse's "Substance".) In addition to multiple bottlings, Laherte has actually released two different stylistic versions of "Les Clos," one as a zero-dosage Brut Nature and this, the Extra-Brut, which sees a modest four gram/liter dosage.

Finally, here's a little Laherte family history before I bring things to a Clos[e]. (Sorry, just had to do it.) Founded in 1889, Laherte Frères was ushered into the modern era as well as into the business of estate bottling by Michel Laherte, followed by his sons, Thierry and Christian Laherte (thus, Laherte "Frères"). While Thierry and Christian continue as heads of the estate, it is Thierry's son, Aurélien Laherte, who is now responsible for both viticulture and vinification. Representing the seventh-generation of vine growers at Laherte, Aurélien, now only 27, has brought the estate another step forward. All of the family's vineyards — 75 distinct parcels, totaling ten hectares and spread across ten different villages — are now cultivated organically, with about half of those farmed using biodynamic practices. Along with his friend and peer Raphaël Bérèche, Aurélien is also one of the founding members and organizers of Terres et Vins de Champagne.

There's little question in my mind, even less after drinking these beauties, that Aurélien is in the top rank of young Champenois vignerons producing wines worthy of both contemplation and pure, unadulterated enjoyment. You can follow Aurélien and the rest of the Laherte family in action through the seasons at their blog, Nouvelles de Chavot.

And truly finally, just in case the doubling-up of importer information (Pas Mal at the tasting, Triage at dinner) seemed confusing or contradictory, allow me to clarify. The Champagnes of Laherte Frères are imported and distributed by Selection Pas Mal in the NY/NJ market (shipped for them by USA Wine Imports) and by Triage Wines in the Pacific Northwest.


Wicker Parker said...

What a terrific discovery, and a great write-up, too. Thanks, David.

David McDuff said...

Hey WP,
Thanks for the kind words. From the looks of the supply chain, combined with IL's step backwards when it comes to interstate shipping, it may be difficult for you to source Laherte's wines in Chicago. If you can manage it, though, go for it. I'm pretty confident you'd dig the wines.

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