Tucked between the Côte de Blancs and the Vallée de la Marne, Aurélian Laherte has almost single-handedly put the tiny Côteaux Sud d’Epernay on the map with his truly singular and brilliant work focusing on Pinot Meunier.
This 1889-founded domaine has followed an organic and biodynamic path since Aurelian took the reins in 2005. He opts for old Burgundy barrels, partially or fully blocks malolactic fermentation, and keeps dosage between very low to zero, giving wines with body and texture but a precise and saline-driven mineral backbone––a combo that really appeals to me.
Laherte's Ultradition Extra Brut has been a house champagne for us for many years. Now, the secret is out, and we’re limited to as few as 12 bottles a year. At $53, the value cannot be overstated. There's also the micro-production cuvées from single parcels that are off the charts.
There's no producer in the Jura that executes brilliance across such a diverse range of wines and styles like that of Stéphane Tissot. And, "BBF" is the sparkling white from the Jura that you've always wanted to find in your glass. As a category, Cremant du Jura can be delicious and pleasing but rarely would take your mind to Champagne. BBF delivers here.
The name is a play on the use of 228-liter barrels for elévage, Blanc de Blancs élevé en Fût. Where this benchmark Cremant du Jura diverges from champagne is in its faint nutty aromas, baking spices, and ripe tropical notes. However, the structure is as serious as much of what you are to find from the Aube, with even more salinity and razor-fine cut reminiscent of the Côte de Blancs.
Tissot took control of his family's domaine in 1990 and worked very quickly to drastically reduce yields and convert the vineyards to organic and biodynamic viticulture. Today, Stéphane is seen as one of the world's most respected and prominent voices on the subject.
Tissot's Chardonnays each have that unmistakable reductive, flinty note that's often referred to as Noble Reduction. If you're a fan of the wines of Jean-Marc Roulot and Coche-Dury in Meursault, this distinctive smokey and matchstick trait, at its best, adds mesmerizing personality to Chardonnay.
The Grand Cru village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger is the source of the most quintessential chalky and dead-serious blanc de blancs champagnes of all. Here, the name Pierre Péters exists in rare company with the likes of Jacques Selosse, Krug, and Salon. Chardonnay excels in Mesnil's porous, chalky slopes and there's no producer that covers the entire range like Pierre Péters.
Cuvée de Réserve is a reference point for the Côtes de Blancs. It’s 100% Chardonnay sourced from 63 parcels (all in Grand Cru villages) supplemented by the perpetual reserve. The reserve wine was started in 1997 and contains wine from 1988, 1990, 1993, 1995, 1996, etc. Vintages like 1999 and 2003 were excluded, for instance, because they brought an undesired weight. About 65% of this Chardonnay completes malolactic fermentation, though it can rise to 80% in cooler years. In ripe years, such as 2003 and 2009, the partial blocking of malo maintains tension and structure.
Mesnil's unique broken chalky soil allows vines to travel deep, picking up nutrients and mineral expressions from this bedrock and supplying the wines with that unmistakable chalk-inflected, saline note that stands apart, even from the neighboring villages in the Côte de Blancs. There's also a noble bitterness and citrus pith note matched with the salinity that's the foundation for this house’s style. With age, nutty and slight caramel notes can arise. If I had to choose one village to visit in bottle decades later, it would be Mesnil because of this wild combo.
The estate historically sold all of its grapes to large champagne houses until 1919 when Camille Péters bottled his first wine. Camille's son, Pierre, only 12 years old at the time, took an interest and showed the wines at exhibitions in Paris. It was under Pierre’s tenure, starting in 1944, that they acquired new vineyards, attention to detail grew, and the estate rose to fame. Today, Pierre’s grandson, Rodolphe, continues to raise the bar. The estate now covers 18 hectares in Le Mesnil as well as Cramant and Avize.
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.