Pascal Agrapart is to Avize what Pierre Péters is to Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. Here, Avize is the charming personification of summer to Mesnil's rigor of winter, although we're still on the chalky slopes that define the Côtes des Blancs. In the epicenter of Chardonnay royalty, Agrapart's Avize champagnes show amplitude and breadth juxtaposed with Mesnil's boney austerity.
But make no mistake, Pascal's extra brut and brut nature wines are defined by their taut and energetic personalities, pairing magically with Avize's more generous demeanor. The greatest thing I can say about Pascal's wines is that they beg to be drunk. They provide never-ending fascination and wild development in the glass. The world has caught on, as available quantities are now painfully limited.
Agrapart farms 10 hectares covering 60 different parcels, all located in Grand Cru villages, but Avize is the source of his tête de cuvées. The wines commonly go through full malolactic, and elévage takes place in older oak barrels and stainless steel.
The Bérêche brothers illustrate just how profound a non-vintage bottling can be. Their Brut Réserve is one of the first bottles I turn to when choosing cellar selections. Tasting their entire range on a visit in 2018 was truly a masterclass. Raphaël is as adventurous as any vigneron I've met, with a joyous demeanor exuding enthusiasm at every turn in the cave. On the other hand, he and Vincent, who focuses on the vineyard, take an exacting approach to every detail.
Bérêche's nine hectares are farmed by ten full-time workers, an extremely unusual ratio, but Raphael knows quality will be dictated by the number of minutes each vine is cared for through the growing season. The Bérêche estate also stands out for a vast array of terroir at their disposal: Starting at their home base with the chalky soils of 1er Cru Ludes, ideal for Chardonnay, all the way to the western Valée de la Marne and their heavier clay soils, where Pinot Noir and Meunier excel.
The non-vintage Brut Resérve is equal parts Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. The parcels of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Premier Cru village Ludes in Montagne de Reims bring that nervosity from chalky soils, and the broader and richer tones come from Pinot Meunier and additional Chardonnay parcels from Mareuil le Port in the western Vallée de la Marne.
35% of the Brut Réserve comes from a perpetual blend of reserve wine. This reserve portion brings a sense of grandeur perfectly suited to mesh with the more taut structure from the single vintage (Currently the 2017-base). Fermentation occurs in 60% neutral French oak barrels and 40% small vats, with aging in 600-liter neutral barrels.
Perhaps no grower-producer in the Blanc de Blancs Champagne category nails the non-dosage form better than Larmandier-Bernier of Vertus. Ripe, forward fruit and full malolactic fermentation in oak help carry off this tight-rope balancing act. Larmandier-Bernier's early adoption of biodynamic viticulture has put these prime parcels in a position to turn out the very best, razor-precise examples of Chardonnay.
Terre de Vertus is a special selection of Larmandier-Bernier's top two mid-slope vineyards, Les Barilles and Les Faucherets. Aging four years on the lees also helps soften this cuvée's contours and allows its pulverized rock core to come through with beautiful harmony and balance. Larmandier-Bernier's cellar approach adds buffering texture and breadth to these inherently mineral-infused, laser-focused Champagnes.
What is the most exciting element of grower-champagne today? Finding thoughtful vignerons and introducing them to the best-suited palates. On a trip to Verzy in October 2019, Adrien Renoir, just 29 years old, was someone I knew I should meet. My first impression of his champagnes left me with a thirst to learn more (and drink more). The most unmistakable quality in these wines is their balance and shimmering sense of composure. It's apparent Adrien has already found a way to fine-tune the wines from these Grand Cru vines in Montagne de Reims to highlight their elegance.
Over the last several years, I've been so impressed by what I've seen from this younger generation in Champagne as they have immediately made their mark. Like Adrien Dhondt of Dhondt-Grellet, Renoir is an ideal example of the under-the-radar stars in the progressive grower-champagne scene.
Last holiday season, our staff had a smorgasbord tasting of champagnes from the Kogod cellar. I wasn’t able to attend, but Max was kind enough to hand-deliver some of the highlights to my doorstep, including David L'eclapart and Marguet. He also insisted that I needed to try Olivier Horiot, a micro-producer in the village of Les Riceys.
5 Sens (or five senses) is our favorite in the lineup and has the most breadth, as it's a blend of Arbane, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Noir. Les Riceys is a commune of three villages situated in the southernmost part of Champagne. The Kimmeridgian soil here is the same you'll find in Chablis and Sancerre, except these slopes primarily grow Pinot Noir. The village is also known for its Rosé des Riceys, a long-held tradition that’s now kept alive by a mere 15 to 20 producers.
Olivier is the third generation to pursue viticulture. His father and grandfather sold all their fruit to the local cave coopérative until Olivier began winemaking in 1999. The Horiots farm seven hectares—all farmed biodynamically—but keep just two hectares for themselves. Olivier jokingly calls it the Champagne equilibrium. “This balance [allows us] to have more fun with the stuff we vinify independently,” he explained to Louis/Dressner, “to craft them more to our taste.”