I am excited about Leclerc-Briant’s re-entry into the U.S. The reason is that I have seldom been so impressed with the quality of a Champagne when tasting it for the first time. I had that opportunity in Aldo Sohm’s new wine bar in NYC a few weeks ago. Leclerc Briant is being poured by the glass at this wine bar as well as at Le Bernardin (where Sohm is Wine Director) and also at The Modern Restaurant in New York.
I met with Frédéric Zeimett, Director-General of Champagne Leclerc Briant, and we tasted four Leclerc Briant Champagnes, two of which are in the U.S. right now, and two blanc de blancs single-vineyard Champagnes that are coming to the U.S. in the near future.
Leclerc Briant, a small, excellent, négociant Champagne House first started exporting its Champagnes to the U.S. in the 1970s, but the time was not right for small producers in the United States at that point. The U.S. Champagne market was dominated by a few huge producers; it still is today, but at least small, lesser-known producers are making progress in the U.S. now, with a better-informed populace of wine consumers. Leclerc Briant first-re-appeared in the U.S. in a small way in California in 2011. Today, Leclerc Briant is on the East Coast again, in various markets, including the Metro New York area.
Leclerc Briant was founded by Lucien Leclerc in the village of Cumières in 1872. Descendant Bertrand Leclerc and his wife Jacqueline Briant decided in 1955 to change the status of their winery from that of a Grower Champagne to a true négociant House and moved their winery to Epernay, but kept their own family vineyards in
Cumières. It was Bertrand Leclerc who first began biodynamic farming at the family estate in Cumières in 1964. Today, Leclerc Briant is one of the few estates in Champagne whose vineyards are farmed using completely biodynamic methods. Champagne Leclerc-Briant’s entire Cumières estate was certified biodynamic in 2008. Along with Champagne Fleury in the Côtes de Bar, Leclerc Briant has been leading the way in biodynamic Champagne production.
After Pascal Leclerc Briant, the 5th generation of the family-owned business, passed away four years ago, a wine-loving Boston couple purchased Champagne Leclerc Briant in 2012 from Pascal’s four daughters, and placed Frédéric Zeimett in charge; Zeimett has been in the wine business for decades, including 23 years at Moët & Chandon, where he was the CFO. Zeimett has expanded the number of Leclerc Briant’s vineyards, buying choice vineyard lots in Le Mesnil and other prime locations.
Pascal’s eldest daughter, Ségolène Leclerc Briant, still works for Champagne Leclerc Briant, the 6th generation. She is the Brand Ambasador for Leclerc Briant; Ségolène also has made--with the assistance of Leclerc Briant’s winemaker Hervé Jestin--an original style of Rosé Champagne that I am looking forward to trying!
Leclerc Briant has remained small, producing 60,000 bottles of Champagne last year. Half of its production came from its own biodynamically farmed vineyards in Cumières and the other half of the grapes are purchased from farmers who use only biodynamic methods on their farms. Cumières’ vineyards are so well regarded that Champagne Louis Roederer purchased a block (30 hectares) of these vineyards from Leclerc Briant a few years ago for its own magnificent Champagnes.
Champagne Leclerc Briant places its Champagnes into three different ranges:
The Classic Range: NV Brut; NV Brut Réserve; NV Brut Rosé; Vintage Brut (now 2006)
The Single-Vineyard Range: NV Les Chèvres Pierreuses, Cumières; NV La Criosette Blanc de Blancs, Epernay; NV Cramant Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs; NV Les Crayères, Cumières
The Specialty Range: Made up of late-released older vintages, such as Collection Brut 1985; a zero dosage 1990 Rosé de Saignée (100 % Pinot Noir), and others.
Probably the only Leclerc Briant Champagnes we shall see in the U.S. will be from the first two ranges. The Specialty Range Champagnes are available in small quantities, and at this time there is no plan to export them.
Of the four Leclerc Briant Champagnes I tasted, the NV Brut Réserve is the most available, but the single-vineyard Les Chèvres Pierreuses is also in the U.S. The two single-vineyard Blanc de Blancs will be arriving in the U.S. after they are aged at the winery. Here are my comments on these four Champagnes:
Leclerc Briant Brut Réserve NV: 70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay. Based on the 2010 vintage (95%) with 5% reserve wines. Mainly from Cumières vineyards. Fresh, very firm, very dry (6 grams per liter residual sugar); very concentrated, lots of richness and weight. A Champagne of character, with a concentrated finish. Bottled in 2011, released April 2014. One of the most impressive NV Bruts I have tasted all year. A fantastic value. Pascal Leclerc Briant’s last vintage. Suggested Retail Price is $45, but available in various shops for $38-$40. 93
Leclerc Briant Les Chèvres Pierreuses 1er Cru, Single-Vineyard NV: 40% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Meunier. Based on the 2008 vintage (95%) with 5% reserve wines, 4.5 gr/l rs. The Les Chèvres Pierreuses vineyard is in Cumières. Bottled in 2009, released April 2014. Elegant, smooth, and supple. Very fresh flavors, with a rather delicate structure. A really complex, intricate Champagne that needs a few years to develop. Lovely, gets better with aeration! Only 3,000 bottles made. Suggested Retail Price is $65. 95
Leclerc Briant La Croisette Blanc de Blancs, Single-Vineyard NV: 100% Chardonnay. Based on the 2012 vintage. The La Croisette vineyard is in Epernay. This was a pre-release sample, which had no dosage. La Croisette has almondy aromas, and rich full-bodied flavors. Intricate at this point, with age it will gain complexity and depth. Price: To be determined. My preliminary rating for La Croisette is 94-95?
Leclerc Briant Cramant Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs: 100% Chardonnay. A pre-release sample, it is based on 2012 vintage. Cramant is one of the truly great wine-growing villages in the Côte des Blancs, which is arguably the most-renowned terroir for Chardonnay in the world. Even at this young stage, this Champagne was breathtaking. At present, the Cramant Blanc de Blancs has no dosage (nor do I think it needs any!). Herbal aromas, suggestive of rosemary. Very creamy, very rich flavors; very firm, stony character. It has tension, definition, and grip. Great concentration. Destined to be an outstanding Champagne. Price to be determined. 98
One other fact I learned about Champagne Leclerc Briant: The winery recently purchased the Royal Champagne, one of my favorite inns in Champagne. It is a Relais & Chateaux hotel-restaurant, just north of Epernay, located off the main road between Reims and Epernay. In addition to the main house, the property has wonderful cottages overlooking the vineyards of Champillon, and a fine restaurant with a superb wine list. And I am certain that a large choice of Leclerc Briant’s Champagnes will be available in the restaurant!